Remembering Donn Bernstein: ‘He loved everybody and everybody loved him’
When Rick Welts first met him nearly 50 years ago, Donn Bernstein was hauling a beer keg into Welts’ fraternity house. At the time, Bernstein was the University of Washington sports information director, and Welts and his Delta Chi brothers quaffed while listening to Bernstein brag about Huskies sports. “That might result in probation today,” laughed Welts, now the Golden State Warriors president and chief operating officer.
It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship between Welts and Bernstein, rekindled when both worked in New York City: Welts at the NBA after a decade with the Seattle SuperSonics, and Bernstein for ABC as its head of college sports communications and PR. It was an altogether different time in the media business. ABC owned exclusive rights to college football on network TV. Cable TV was largely irrelevant, and ABC Sports was so profitable that excesses like renting Yankee Stadium for company softball weren’t enough — they’d also rent helicopters to fly there from midtown Manhattan.
Bernstein died last month at 83, after a career that included eight years as the first SID at UC Santa Barbara, a few more at the University of Washington, the 15-year ABC gig and another 25 years at PR agency Cohn & Wolfe, before retiring in 2016.
On a rainy evening in early November, friends and colleagues gathered at McSorley’s Old Ale House in Greenwich Village for a farewell. There wasn’t nearly enough room for all the well-wishers, but that was the thing about Bernie. He amassed friendships like some collect pennies; they were never thrown away. So many at McSorley’s claimed Bernstein as a best friend. Can there be a more convincing testimony regarding a man’s time on earth?
Bernstein was a man without children, but he had a family tree that never stopped growing.
“Bernie was a very gifted writer and a total professional, but he also had this pied piper personality,’’ said longtime friend George Hill, statistician for Al Michaels since 1977. Bernstein helped Hill get his first network job, which was with ABC, at the 1976 Olympics. “People were just attracted to him, and he took in people like stray dogs,’’ Hill added.
Roger Huyssen was a UCSB freshman in 1964 when he met Bernstein. “He made friends with everyone and once he knew you, he made sure he knew your wife, your mom, and he’d inevitably end up trying to find jobs for some of your kids,” he said.
Veteran TV producer Russ Friedman remembered Bernstein buying lunch during his first day at ABC Sports in 1979, along with approving expense reports for him that included meals with Bear Bryant, John Elway and Notre Dame President Fr. Theodore Hesburgh — all in the same week.
“He was like Yogi Berra: he loved everybody and everybody loved him,” Friedman said.
Many recalled Bernstein as being both the shuttle diplomat between the sometimes disputatious ABC production and sales departments, and as someone who could solve problems using other means. An argument over which college football game would be the best one to televise into the New York market was settled when Bernstein went to the street and polled a trio of taxi drivers. Their preference dictated what the New York market saw.
These days, when PR types are often more corporate, and certainly more timid than their bosses, Bernstein harked back to the days of “publicists,’’ who were allowed, and even encouraged, to have big personalities. Bernie, once a sportswriter for the Berkeley Daily Gazette and the San Francisco Examiner, had a booming voice, a towering physique, and a peripatetic nature. He never asked you to have lunch; you were going out with him for a “bowl of soup,’’ even if it was mid-July. Depending on the time of day, a “thimbleful of whiskey’’ might also be on the bill.
“Now it’s unusual for someone in PR to be so direct and tell it like it is,’’ said Rosa Gatti, now retired after 33 years in PR at ESPN. “He was just this gruff, lovable, comic-book character.”
“Bernie didn’t give a shit about money; what he cared most about was relationships and people,’’ said Huyssen, who helped care for Bernstein during his final days.
This was a man who knew so many across sports, from Vince Lombardi, whose Green Bay Packers trained at UCSB in the days before the first Super Bowl, to Disney Chairman Bob Iger, from his days at ABC. Still, Bernstein had friends from every station of life.
“He treated everybody the same,” said Huyssen. “When I went to his apartment to get his medical records, the doorman and all the maintenance guys were waiting outside to ask how he was doing.’’
As a reporter, one quickly learned that if you didn’t know someone, Bernie probably did. Six degrees of separation? Nah. With Bernstein, it was more like 0.6.
“This is a business where relationships are everything,” Welts said, “but I defy anyone to build a network of relationships close to the one Bernie had in sports.”
Terry Lefton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.