Philip Collyer, WGBH director, closed captioning innovator

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Emma Stickgold
Globe Correspondent / February 10, 2008

After helping Robert Frost carry his belongings from WGBH's headquarters, the popular poet gave Philip W. Collyer, then a production assistant, a tip.

"Frost handed him a $5 bill, and he turned it back to Frost and said, 'Thank you very much Mr. Frost, but WGBH paid me already,' " said Henry Becton Jr., vice chairman of WGBH's board of trustees.

Mr. Collyer went on to become a director and producer for WGBH in a career that spanned a half-century.

The South Dennis native, who helped pioneer closed captioning for television programming and ran the station's annual auction, died Jan. 27 at Southeast Rehabilitation & Skilled Care Center in Easton from complications of leukemia. He was 68 and was a longtime Brockton resident.

Mr. Collyer "believed passionately in the mission of public media and about making education and culture available to everyone through public broadcasting," Becton said.

Julia Child's program "The French Chief" was the first US television program to include captioning for deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers. Mr. Collyer had pulled funds together to develop captioning, fusing together the technology of running subtitles and courtroom stenography to create the text appearing on the screen.

"In 1972, he was handed this captioning project, and he completely took it on as something that had never been done before," said Larry Goldberg, director of media access at WGBH. "It's beyond innovation - it's creating something out of whole cloth with no guidelines."

As the first director of The Caption Center at WGBH, Mr. Collyer created the Captioned ABC Evening News, which was broadcast on WGBH five hours after it ran on ABC. That fast turnaround - all in the span of a few hours - was unheard of at the time, colleagues said.

When President Nixon's second inaugural speech was to be aired in 1973, Mr. Collyer fought hard to get it on air with captions on WGBH. The station had not bought the rights to air it, but he was able to work his connections to get a Spanish-language feed, and it ran with English-language captions.

In the hallways of WGBH, he was also known as the embodiment of the annual live auction, launched in 1966, to raise money for the station.

"He was a great organizer of large production teams; he was the maestro of the Channel 2 auction," Becton said.

Throughout the process, "He was able to create these masterful strategies where everyone felt they could participate," said Edye Baker, a longtime friend and the former auction manager.

As executive producer of the auction, as well as the Rare and Fine Wine Auction, "He never lost his cool, never lost his temper," Goldberg said. "In some of the most pressure-cooker situations, he was cool under fire."

He was often called upon to put out fires - at least one time, literally. During one live auction, a viewer saw smoke on the set and called the Fire Department, which came charging onto the scene. It turned out to be a smoldering curtain, but Mr. Collyer created the "firehouse quickie" segment of the live auction to commemorate the excitement that ensued.

The logistics of coordinating the auction could be nightmarish, colleagues said, but he was able to bring together volunteers, give them a laugh or two, and keep them coming back each year.

"I think he inspired confidence, so people trusted him," Becton said. "He had a common touch - he could relate to people from all backgrounds."

And, in part because of his signature plaid shirts, "You could always find Phil on the floor of the auction when you needed to," Baker said.

Mr. Collyer knew he wanted to go into public broadcasting from an early age. While a student at Yarmouth High School, he wrote a paper on the then-new notion of educational television. "I recall writing at the end of my paper that 'Someday I hope to work for WGBH,' " he recalled in a WGBH oral history program in 1998. "I was fortunate enough to have that come true."

As a junior at Boston University, he started volunteering at WGBH television. He worked in the station's mail room during his summers before becoming a graduate student at WGBH's BU Scholar Program.

He met his wife of 44 years, Marie (Amshy), while directing an art series "Images" when she was volunteering on the production crew.

He became a full-time WGBH crew member in 1962 and was on the production staff of programs such as "Prospects of Mankind with Eleanor Roosevelt" and "College Sport of the Week," which station officials believe to be one of the first television broadcasts of college sports.

When the Beatles sang "All you Need is Love" as part of the famous "Our World" international-satellite broadcast, Mr. Collyer directed the US feed.

His ability to get people laughing at WGBH was legendary, colleagues said. He was often the one to write a poem or parody to send off an employer to a new job or thank the crew of volunteers at the annual auction.

"He was somewhat of a timeless person - he didn't really seem to get any older," Goldberg said.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Collyer leaves a son Philip of Norton; three daughters, Kathie Cornelius of East Taunton, Laurie Keating of Plymouth and Wendy Potts of Norton; a sister Diane Stephens of Fitchburg; a brother David of Florida; eight grandsons and a granddaughter.

Services have been held. Burial will be in Melrose Cemetery.

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