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Chet Curtis, longtime Boston TV news anchor, dies at 74

Chet Curtis on the set at NECN in 2011.

Bill Greene/Globe Staff/File

Chet Curtis on the set at NECN in 2011.

Such was their stature during the golden age of local television news that mail sent to their WCVB-TV offices was often addressed simply to “Chet and Nat, Boston, MA.” For nearly three decades, beginning in the 1970s, Chet Curtis and Natalie Jacobson, married partners and boldfaced-name celebrities, formed a ratings-winning anchor team for whom viewers developed a strikingly familial affection.

Mr. Curtis, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, died Wednesday night, according to his family. He was 74 years old.

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The on-air chemistry and domestic union – they were among the first married co-anchors paired together in a major television news market – made Mr. Curtis and Ms. Jacobson media royalty in Boston. Even after the couple’s marriage came apart in 1999, followed by their on-air partnership, and Mr. Curtis moved to New England Cable News, where he anchored newscasts and hosted a nightly business show, he remained a revered figure in the broadcast news profession and a mentor to many journalists.

Mr. Curtis first teamed up with Jacobson in 1972, when they co-anchored Channel 5’s midday newscast. In 1982, after working separately in different anchor configurations at the ABC network affiliate, they were reunited to lead the station’s 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscasts, later taking over its 5 p.m. newscast as well. Earlier that same year, Mr. Curtis had helped launch “Chronicle,” Channel 5’s long-running news-feature program.

In a fiercely competitive market driven by its on-air personalities, Channel 5 built a ratings powerhouse around its anchor duo, aided by a reporting team that included Martha Raddatz Bradlee, Clark Booth, David Ropeik, Ron Gollobin, Kirby Perkins, Susan Wornick, Jack Harper, and Chuck Kraemer.

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But the unmistakable, and highly marketable, stars were Mr. Curtis and Jacobson. He was known as the “mayor” of the newsroom; she was the “madonna” of local broadcast news. They commanded six-figure salaries and rock-star status. Station management aggressively promoted them as Boston’s First Couple, at one point making “5 Is Family” its branding slogan. During holiday-themed promotional spots, Channel 5’s news team and their families appeared together warbling Christmas carols.

“Back then, it was like going to work for Google,” recalled former Channel 5 news director Charles Kravetz, now general manager at radio station WBUR-FM. “Viewership was growing exponentially, and Chet was an absolutely iconic figure in those years. He was low-key, with a wonderful sense of humor and journalistic ethics. A real reporter, too, who always put the self-important nature of TV news in perspective.”

Jack Hynes was an anchorman at Channel 5 who worked with Mr. Curtis for several decades. On Thursday, Hynes called his former colleague an anchorman people could believe in. Mr. Curtis, Hynes said, was a journalist, not a news presenter.

“It takes two things to be a good anchor. You have to be credible and likeable and Chet had both in spades,” said Hynes. “He had a thing that transmits from the studio to the living room and people locked onto that. If he said the moon was blue, people would think maybe the moon is blue.”

WCVB-TV

Chet Curtis and Natalie Jacobson at WCVB-TV in 1976.

Hynes said he would talk to Mr. Curtis every April 15. They both shared the same birthday.

“We would always say we cheated the calendar again,’’ Hynes recalled.

To WGBH-TV and radio host Emily Rooney, a former news director at WCVB, the respect Mr. Curtis commanded among camera operators and studio crew “speaks volumes” about his professionalism. Beyond his personal likability, Rooney wrote in an e-mail, “There is no single human being in the world, Peter Jennings included, who was better at the ad lib than Chet.”

Mr. Curtis “could talk tall ships and sloops, the Queen and her royal entourage, the Pope and Synod II — there was no issue too trite or complex for Chet,” she observed. “If he had to fill 8 hours of airtime for a major snowstorm — his rich detail left you wanting more, even if he was really repeating the same thing in different words.”

Writing in 2000, Globe media critic Mark Jurkowitz delivered the opinion that Mr. Curtis and Jacobson’s on-air partnership had made them “symbols of stability and class” in local news, turning Channel 5 into one of the country’s “most highly regarded local news stations.”

In doing so, the couple had virtually become household members in the eyes (and hearts) of many loyal viewers. In 1975, when the two were married – each for the second time – at the Old North Church, it was front-page news in Boston. A year later, they were profiled in People magazine. The birth of their daughter Lindsay, in 1981, garnered even more page one headlines.

“He was, you know, just ubiquitous, the guy who was everywhere who could handle any kind of situation,” US Secretary of State John F. Kerry, former long-time US senator from Massachusetts and a former lieutenant governor, told WCVB Thursday. “He was always fair. He approached things with unbelievable professionalism and had an ability to be able to be critical, to be tough, but also never to lose sight of a relationship, of the humanity of what he was engaged in.”

He is survived by his daughters, Dana Curtis Keep, Dawn Curtis Hanley and Lindsay Curtis Wynalek and grandchildren, Matthew and Ryan Keep, Carlin and Devyn Hanley and long-time partner, Kerry Kristine.

“We have been blessed to grow up watching how our father lived his life — with unwavering kindness, compassion and gratitude,” his daughters said Thursday in a statement. “We learned so much from him, but his greatest gift was to teach us how to love. Our hearts are heavy today but we take comfort in knowing that he will live on in the hearts, eyes and smiles of all who knew and loved him.”

Born Chester Kukiewicz in Amsterdam, N.Y., Mr. Curtis endured a difficult childhood, beginning with his mother’s death shortly after he was born. An only child, he was raised by his father until the age of 15, when his father died suddenly. He went to live with an uncle. As a teenager, Mr. Curtis gained a measure of notoriety singing on local television shows. Singing, in fact, would become a lifelong passion of his, along with sailing and piloting airplanes.

In 1960, he graduated from Ithaca College, the same year he married Helen Wagner. He subsequently worked in radio and television, holding jobs with CBS affiliates in Washington, D.C., and New York City before moving to Boston in 1968. In 1969, he changed his family name to Curtis, which he’d been using professionally for 13 years. He and Wagner separated in 1973 and divorced a year later.

By 1981, due in no small part to the “Chet and Nat” phenomenon, WCVB’s news broadcasts had overtaken perennial rating leader WBZ (Channel 4), a position the station would hold until the late 90s, when WHDH (Channel 7) moved ahead of them both. In 1987, at the height of their popularity, Channel 5 aired a 15th anniversary special that included wedding footage of Mr. Curtis and Jacobson.

Even as their partnership endured, however, the TV news landscape began changing, slowly at first and then more rapidly. Deregulation, corporate takeovers, cable TV competition, and Internet websites began eating into the near-monopoly that local affiliates had once enjoyed. Newscasts and their formats began contracting under the influence of outside consultants, who often favored jazzier graphics and more attention-grabbing lead-ins to more nuanced analysis and lengthier stories. In many cases, newsroom layoffs followed.

After Mr. Curtis and Jacobson announced their separation in December 1999, their ratings began to slide further, leading to speculation that viewers were uncomfortable watching them work together under the cloud of personal turmoil.

“From the beginning,” Mr. Curtis told the Globe in 2001, “we made a conscious effort not to mix our personal and professional lives at the station, and we continue that, even today.”

He also expressed bewilderment at the continuing interest in his private life. Mr. Curtis moved to a condominium in Marina Bay, Quincy. Why anyone should care “where I am, what I am doing, and who I am doing it with” baffled him, he said. “There’s got to be something more important in the world.”

The Globe profile called him “a solid reporter who could think on his feet, ad lib, and handle most any surprise that came across the desk.” By 2010, though, local viewership for the 11 p.m. news had plunged 40 percent from 1990 levels. No longer were local anchors being promoted as name brands, as Mr. Curtis and Jacobson once had been.

“There is no question that it’s a lesser role,” Mr. Curtis commented in a 2011 Globe article. “They are still putting out pictures of anchorpeople, but it’s promoting the total product rather than focusing on the anchorpeople.”

In November 2012, the Boston/New England chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences inducted Mr. Curtis into its prestigious Gold Circle club. Membership is based on a minimum of 50 years in the industry, excellence in broadcasting, and commitment to the community, all hallmarks of Mr. Curtis’s long career in broadcast news. Last year, he was inducted into the Massachusetts Broadcasters Hall of Fame.

In recalling her friend and colleague, Rooney passed along a story Mr. Curtis relished telling about himself. As a young reporter with WCBS in New York, he was sitting at a bar one evening when fire trucks roared by. A colleague wondered if they should give chase. No, Mr. Curtis said, they were too “big-time” for that.

“At that, the man sitting beside him rushed out the door in pursuit,” Rooney wrote. “It was Walter Cronkite.”

Mr. Curtis’s wake was slated for 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday at Waterman & Sons Funeral Home, 580 Commercial St., Boston. The funeral was to be held at 11 a.m. Monday at St. Cecilia Parish, 18 Belvidere St., Boston.

The family requested that, in lieu of sending flowers, people make donations in Mr. Curtis’s memory to The Genesis Foundation for Children, which supports innovative programs that care for children with complex genetic disorders. The foundation is located at 1347 Main St., Waltham, MA 02451.

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com

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