Obituaries

obituary

Charles Austin, groundbreaking television reporter, dead at 73

Mr. Austin.
Tom Herde/Globe Staff/file1995
Mr. Austin.

Charles Austin reported on major moments of Boston and world history during more than 30 years as a WBZ-TV reporter, but arguably the most compelling story he shared with viewers was the example of his own life.

Aneurysms, a stroke, prostate cancer — nothing could mute Mr. Austin’s voice. A trailblazing African-American in Boston’s broadcast media, he was honored for his reporting, for his work promoting health awareness, and for being a mentor to those who followed in his footsteps.

Mr. Austin was 73 when he died Tuesday morning, WBZ announced.

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He received an Emmy in 1970 for a documentary studying violence in Africa, and a Gilda Radner Award in 1997 for his inspirational role as a cancer survivor. Mr. Austin, whose daughter Danielle was born with Down syndrome, also was inducted into the Massachusetts Special Olympics Hall of Fame.

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Challenges such as the ones he faced could not be faced alone, he said. “I am not Superman. I’m a normal man of doubt, but strong of faith, and yes, it’s been tested with Danielle, aneurysm, stroke, and now cancer,” Mr. Austin told the Globe in 1995.

“I could never have made it without faith. My mother instilled in me that you cannot survive any other way,” he added. If cancer were to run its course quickly, “I’m not going to say, ‘Oh, gee, I’m going to die.’ No, I’m ready. That’s what faith is, trusting in things unseen.”

Possessing a wide range of talents, Mr. Austin was at ease in front of the camera and on a stage. He was singing with the Grace Chapel choir in Lexington in 1992 when he joined the cast of “Black Nativity,” the musical based on a Langston Hughes play that the legendary Elma Lewis produced under the auspices of the National Center of Afro-American Artists.

“Singing gospel is a form of prayer,” he told the Globe at the time. “It’s like someone once said, ‘He who sings, prays twice.’ ”

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Mr. Austin often said the three most memorable events he covered were the Charles Stuart murder case, the 1980s famine in Africa, and the story of Jamie Fiske, a young Bridgewater girl who needed a liver transplant. He accompanied her family to and from Minnesota for the surgery.

His journeys to Ethiopia and Sudan to cover the famine were unforgettable. “I have never ever seen that much pain in humanity in my life. Ever. Anywhere,” he said in a 2011 interview posted on the South Coast Today website.

In 1989, Charles Stuart killed his wife, Carol DiMaiti Stuart. Before jumping to his death from the Tobin Bridge, Stuart initially lied and said a black man had killed Carol. “In the Stuart case, the racial flag flew and all the usual motivations were forgotten,” Mr. Austin told the Globe in 1999. “We chased a black guy for a crime he never committed, based on stereotyping and the hoax that Chuck Stuart served up. The coverage just reeked of unconscious racism.”

The Boston Police Detectives Benevolent Society, the union representing Boston police detectives, once named Mr. Austin the top crime reporter in the city. And the Massachusetts State Police tweeted Tuesday, “Charles was a great reporter serving the Commonwealth after serving his country in the US Army.”

The youngest of four, Charles K. Austin was raised by his mother, Marion, a dietitian and single mother who in her later years was a well-known humanitarian, opening orphanages and a school in Haiti.

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When Mr. Austin graduated from high school in Ayer, a guidance counselor tried to steer him toward mechanics, saying: “It’s a field your people do well in.” But teachers who had heard him sing pointed him toward New England Conservatory, where he earned an acceptance by auditioning with a bass solo from Brahms’s Requiem.

He also began singing with folk groups and left school to perform in New York City and on the road, opening for the likes of Nina Simone. While gigging and working in St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands in the mid-1960s, he met Linda, his future wife, who was on vacation.

“It’s a simple story,” she recalled in 1995. “He spoke to me. I saw him the next day. We talked, and I knew almost immediately this was a person I could not imagine living without.”

Decades later, her mother gave her a letter that Linda wrote after meeting Mr. Austin. “My children and Charlie and I read it and we cried,” Linda told the Globe in 1995. “I had written that I had met this person who was important to me and, by the way, that we were not the same skin color, that he was a Negro. It was a letter of love. I said that when I heard Charlie sing, his voice went to heaven and that we could not live without each other. I described how we looked at our hands together, black and white, on a restaurant table, and wondered what was ahead.”

As an interracial couple, they often faced racism — from North Carolina, where he was stationed while in the Army, to Greater Boston. “In our hometown, Lexington, there were times Charlie was stopped by police for absolutely no reason whatsoever except that he was a black man,” she told the Globe in 1995.

Mr. Austin told the Globe that his first aneurysm occurred when he was 22 and Linda was pregnant. He looked to God for help: “I can’t speak, can’t see. I’m paralyzed, expecting to die. So, I made a covenant — get me out of this and I’ll trust. I don’t want to die.”

After convalescing, he went to WBZ looking for a job. The station first hired him as a film processor. “My first week on the job was the week of April 4th, 1968. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated,” Mr. Austin told South Coast Today, adding that from then until he retired in November 2000, he was a “film processor, film editor, booth announcer, weekend sports anchor, general assignment news reporter.”

In 2011, Mr. Austin was inducted into the Massachusetts Broadcasters Hall of Fame. He also received a Silver Circle award from the New England chapter of the National Academy of Television and Sciences for his contributions to the medium and those entering careers in the field.

Looking back on his career and his many years as a crime reporter not long before he retired, Mr. Austin told the Globe that “the good news is that the journalism is now more responsible in that we try harder to show the impact [of crime] on an entire neighborhood. The bad news is that we still tend to look for the sensational.”

WBZ said Mr. Austin’s survivors include his wife, Linda, and their daughters, Amy, Lisa, and Danielle, along with several grandchildren. Complete information about survivors and a service were not immediately available.

Having cancer, Mr. Austin said in 1995, “makes me want to see every sunrise and every sunset of every day I have. I don’t know how many there are, but I want to live them fully.”

Illness ultimately was another one of life’s hurdles to overcome, he added, and “after death? I think we go to eternity, if you believe in Christ, where there is no suffering, no pain, no sorrow, where everybody’s equal and anyone with illness will be healed and you’ll be at peace.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bmarquard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BryanMarquard.