December 11, 2014

Remembering Montana’s Chet Huntley

by Susan R. Near, Development & Marketing Officer, Montana Historical Society
Norma Ashby (nee Beatty) presenting Chet with a Montana
Territorial Centennial medallion in his NBC Office, New York, 1964.
  [MHS Photo Archives # 942-937]
Native Montanan Chester Robert “Chet” Huntley (December 10, 1911-March 20, 1974) was a national television newscaster best known for co-anchoring NBC’s evening news program with David Brinkley. “The Huntley-Brinkley Report,” which ran for 14 years beginning in 1956, had an estimated nightly audience of 20 million people at its peak. Huntley received numerous prestigious awards, including the Alfred I. DuPont award, two Peabody Awards, two Overseas Press Club awards, and he was named the International Radio and Television Society’s “Broadcaster of the Year” in 1970. In Huntley’s memoir, The Generous Years: Remembrances of a Frontier Boyhood, published in 1968, he credited family and his Montana roots as his influences. 

Huntley as a young thespian, c. 1935
[Photo: Museum of the Rockies Collection]

Chet was born in Cardwell, Montana to Percy and Blanche Tatham Huntley–the only son and oldest of four children. His father was a telegraph operator for the Northern Pacific Railway. The family moved often throughout his childhood, living in Cardwell, Saco, Willow Creek, Logan, Big Timber, Norris, Whitehall and Three Forks. Chet graduated from Whitehall High School and attended Montana State College in Bozeman. He also attended Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle before graduating with a degree in Speech and Drama from the University of Washington in 1934.

Huntley landed his first broadcasting job at Seattle’s KBCB radio where he was writer, announcer, and sales representative making $10 a month. News broadcaster and commentator positions for radio stations in Spokane, Portland and Los Angeles followed. He worked for CBS Radio from 1939-1951, then ABC Radio from 1951-1955 and joined the NBC Radio Network in 1955. Critics considered Chet Huntley to have one of the greatest broadcast voices ever heard.

Huntley and Brinkley at the NBC "Convention Central", 1960
[Photo: Museum of the Rockies Collection]
NBC tapped Huntley to anchor a half-hour news program in early 1956 originally called “Outlook,” later known as “Chet Huntley Reporting”. The show aired for 7 years and covered issues like segregation, civil rights and immigration. Later that year, NBC looked to replace their news anchor for coverage of the national political conventions; both Huntley and journalist David Brinkley were in the running; however, there was disagreement on who should take that role. Eventually the decision was made that both would share the assignment. Their on-air chemistry—Huntley’s straightforward presentation countered by Brinkley’s acerbic wit—was immediately apparent and popular with viewers. Their partnered success led them to co-anchor the NBC nightly news program debuting in October 1956.  It was the very first dual anchor national evening newscast, with Chet Huntley from New York and David Brinkley from Washington, DC. “The Huntley-Brinkley Report” was a ratings success and garnered several team awards, including eight Emmys and two George Peabody Awards. Chet Huntley’s last broadcast on “The Huntley-Brinkley Report” was July 31, 1970. 

Huntley was interviewed in 1961 by Newsweek magazine and was quoted describing himself as a “solemn, frozen, horse face that some people seem to like. He thinks awfully lucky to be where he is and sometimes feels it’s all transitory, fleeting. He’s aware of all the incredible things he does not know. He can’t stand ignoramuses or stuffed shirts.” 

“Maybe where there’s clarity of air, there's clarity of thought." - Chet Huntley
Huntley at Big Sky, Montana, 1973
[Photo: Museum of the Rockies Collection]

Chet Huntley returned to Montana where, in retirement, he conceived and spearheaded the development of Big Sky Resort – an 11,000
acre year-round ski resort and recreation complex on the West Fork of the Gallatin River. He worked with large corporations to fund the Big Sky development, which included an Arnold Palmer designed golf course, tennis courts, indoor swimming pools, a dude ranch, condominiums and the famous Big Sky ski runs. Chet Huntley died of lung cancer in March 1974 at his home in Big Sky, just days before the official opening of the resort. 

Enjoy listening to "Chet Huntley's Montana," a short tribute to the many quaint and unusual places in the Big Sky State. This fine example of Huntley's unique voice was recorded in 1959 for the 10th anniversary of the Montana Broadcasters Association. In 1993, Chet Huntley was inducted into the Montana Broadcaster Association’s Hall of Fame.
Chet Huntley, 1960
[Photo: Museum of the Rockies Collection]