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Longtime TV personality led high-flying career ‘with humor and grace’

By Dimitri Vassilaros
Saturday, October 5, 2002

The air is Don Riggs’ second home. Whether it’s his lifelong passion of flying and building planes, his teenage stint as an aerial circus performer or his most notable achievements — on the air as a personality at a number of Pittsburgh television stations — Riggs can look back over his 74 years with a certain measure of satisfaction.
Take-offs and safe landings are second nature to Riggs.


Riggs was on the air in Columbus before moving to Pittsburgh in 1960 to co-host “Daybreak” with Marcy Lynn and musician Johnny Costa. The morning magazine talk show aired from 7 to 8 a.m. on KDKA (Channel 2). Their popularity soared as 67 percent of available Pittsburgh television viewers started their day with them, according to Riggs. The viewers’ children liked him, too.

“Bwana Don,” his Saturday morning alter ego, hosted “Safari.” Dressed in Banana Republic-esque khakis, he introduced wide-eyed kids to exotic wildlife and old Tarzan films. Younger viewers looked at each other in amazement when Riggs gazed into the camera and told them he saw they were wearing pajamas.

The low-budget set was decorated with zebra skins, spears and bamboo. It looked as if it were partially furnished by Pier One Imports instead of Horne’s department store. But it might not have been low-budget enough for management.

Corporate cost-cutting cut short his KDKA career in 1967, but he landed on his feet in Indianapolis as a news anchor. After 18 months, Riggs was lured back here to produce specials and documentaries for WQED (Channel 13). After two years, a $3,000 pay raise enticed him to take a position as Community Affairs Secretary to WIIC (Channel 11), which eventually became WPXI. He was there 20 years before he retired.

“He was one of my most important mentors,” says Mary Robb Jackson, KDKA reporter. “Uncompromising about his work and ethics. He is the original flyboy.”

“He does it with humor and grace,” says Adam Lynch, former news anchor. “I love the man.”


Riggs’ first job, at age 15, paid $40 a month. That was during the summer he left his hometown of Newark, Ohio, running off to join the circus.

Riggs is not sure why he left his family after 11th grade without telling them.

“Somehow, I wanted to get even,” he says. “I don’t know why.” His family — mom, dad and his younger brother and sister — finally learned what happened to the 15-year-old when a hospital called telling them he survived emergency surgery for a burst appendix. They got him back safe at home in time for his senior year in high school.

Riggs’ twin wasn’t as fortunate in his life. Carl was dropped on his head at birth and was never right. Neither was the remorseful doctor who delivered him and, a year later, committed suicide. Carl could not walk or take care of himself. He was so spastic that he made teeth marks on the spoon his parents used to feed him. It seemed as if Carl demanded their all for five exhausting years. Carl also received all the attention at his funeral — while his jealous 5-year-old twin played with the cat.

Riggs got his parents’ attention when he was 10 years old, trying to protect the family property. Even though they owned both sides of the creek by their home, someone set trout-lines from bank to bank to help himself to their fish. When his parents discovered their son had destroyed the trespasser’s equipment, they said Riggs’ act was an embarrassment.

“I’ll be damned if I protect our property again,” Riggs vowed.

He says he thinks that was the defining moment of his childhood — why he wanted to “get even.”

Five years later, he did just that — going up, up and away in the hot-air balloon act at the circus. His job was to cling to the side of the balloon as it rose 1,000 feet in the air. It wasn’t the last time he touched the sky.


The old biplane “Miss Pittsburgh” became something more than the subject of a Riggs documentary video, independently produced in 1993. The historic plane had made the first airmail flight in U.S. history — at noon April 21, 1927 — from McKeesport to Cleveland to Youngstown.

Riggs worked behind the scenes to have her soar forever above travelers in its permanent position hanging in Pittsburgh International Airport. He helped raise $11,000 for the restoration, then raised additional money for the purchase price of the plane. The blue-and silver mail plane was set in place in 1994.

Riggs’ interest in aviation transcends such projects. As a pilot, he has logged 2,500 hours in nine aircraft and is a life member of the Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 45. “I no longer fly, because my left knee won’t bend enough to operate the left rudder,” he says.

A pair of 16-foot airplane wings in his basement is testament to his desire to soar above the clouds. The project — building an airplane — a Pamsey’s Flying Bathtub — is unfinished due to his painful arthritis-twisted knuckles and fingers.

On the earthbound side of life, Riggs was one of the driving forces behind “Presents for Patients.” The program, started in 1984 by William V. Day, now president of St. Barnabas Health System, is kind of a geriatric version of Toys for Tots.

It encourages people to buy gifts — and deliver them — to senior citizens in assisted-living facilities. More than 200 institutions in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, New York and Missouri are involved. About 20,000 gifts were purchased for the residents last year — nearly 500,000 since its start, according to an appreciative Day.

“Without Don Riggs’ willingness, it would not have happened,” Day says. “He opened up his heart and his arms to me. It tells about the character of the man. It’s more than what you see on the screen or at air shows.”

Riggs continues to help train organizations for the program. Every cent goes for the gifts.

“When different people need help, he reaches out and helps them,” says Patricia Buck, executive director of the Myasthenia Gravis Association of Western Pennsylvania.

“The five telethons he set up raised $750,000 for the Duquesne University Tamburitzans,” says Pat French, president of the Bulgarian Cultural Center. “He never is too busy to talk or help.”

But Riggs doesn’t take much credit for his success — he wants others to have their moment in the sun. Ask John DeSantis.

DeSantis is executive director of the Pittsburgh Home & Garden Show, which Riggs covered on the air for several years. “Don Riggs leaves his fingerprints on nothing but touches everything,” DeSantis says. Riggs once told DeSantis you can accomplish anything if you don’t care who gets the credit.

Other documentaries Riggs produced inspired more than television credits.

“Let Me Be Brave,” hosted by former Pittsburgh Steeler Rocky Bleier, featured five mentally retarded athletes who advanced to the national competition at the Special Olympics in Louisiana. It was so moving that the Special Olympics used it for years to help tell its story. Tapes were sent overseas to inspire others to start their own chapters.

Rick Minutello was Riggs’ cameraman for that and other projects. “Don Riggs could make a one-hour documentary on laying asphalt and make it entertaining,” he says.

“His secret is that he cares about the subjects,” says By Williams, former WIIC news director.

“Riggs is a continuing spirit,” says Arthur Ziegler, president of Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation.

Louise Sturgess, executive director of History & Landmarks, agrees. “He is a craftsman,” she says.

“Riggs is a pro,” Minutello says. “In this business, that is high praise.”

High praise indeed, considering Riggs sometimes walks around with a duck.


“Willie the Duck” is a takeoff on Donald Duck. The rubber puppet of a large duck head made its first appearance on Columbus WBNS-TV in 1956, along with Hugo Hippo. They traveled with Riggs to KDKA. Willie became a trademark of Riggs, but Hugo was forgotten along that way.

Willie reappeared during a newspaper strike in the early 70s. “Willie” read the comics on the Channel 11 newscast. The irreverent duck always called news anchor Ray Tannehill “Mr. Tannenbaum.” Tannehill would break up as the ratings went up. Drawings by art director Bob Johnston — but supposedly by “Willie” — were the gimmick justifying the duck’s segment after the strike ended. A corporate executive decided the newscast would never be the most watched, because the staff was too happy. His new news director said Willie’s goose was cooked.

“I felt we were going to miss something valuable, especially for kids who had begun to watch our news,” Riggs says. The ratings declined after that.

Today, Minutello vividly pictures Riggs leaving the studio when he retired in May of 1990, as reporter Jack Etzel gave his regards to the duck.

Willie was in a box with a hole in the bottom for Riggs’ hand. As the two were leaving hand-in-head, Riggs said, “It’s time to say good-bye.”


The air Riggs breathes these days includes medical oxygen. “Emphysema sneaks up on you,” he says.

At 74, Riggs lives in Mt. Lebanon with his wife of 51 years, Joan — pronounced Jo Ann — a retired nurse.

His interest in aviation apparently rubbed off on his two sons, Eric and Carl; both are graduates of the Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics and work in the airline industry. His daughters, Amy Baker and Kathleen Prince, followed their mother’s footsteps and became nurses. Four grandchildren complete the family.

“Joan, his wife, has a job and a half,” DeSantis says. “She goes with him everywhere and always laughs at his punch lines. Their marriage is one that other married people should study.

The Don Riggs file

Full name: Donald Seasholes Riggs.

Age: 74; born Nov. 19, 1927, in Newark, Ohio.

Residence: Mt Lebanon.

Wife: Joan Striker Riggs, retired cardiac care/rehab nurse.

Children: Amy Baker, Kathleen Prince, Eric Riggs and Carl Riggs.

Grandchildren: Allie, Emily, Carla and Walter.

Education: 1945 graduate, Hebron High School in Hebron, Ohio; 1952 graduate, Capitol University in Columbus, Ohio, with a B.S. in Education, Speech and Music.

Military: Supply sergeant; honorable discharge from the 359th and 362nd Army Service Forces Bands.

Broadcast career:

1952-54: WHKC radio, Columbus, Ohio, as announcer and newscaster.

1954-60: WBNS-TV, Columbus, Ohio, as singer, announcer, puppeteer, movie host, weatherman, music writer for TV specials and Santa Claus.

1960-67: KDKA-TV, Pittsburgh, as host and principle performer of “Daybreak,” magazine-style show, and host of “Safari” children’s Saturday morning program.

1967-68: WLWI-TV, Indianapolis, as news anchor.

1968-70: WQED-TV, Pittsburgh, as producer and program host.

1970-90: WIIC-TV, as weatherman, public affairs writer/producer, telethon host, emcee for air shows in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New York and Colorado, and the Three Rivers Regatta.

Other interests: Aviation (Riggs has 2,500 hours in nine aircraft and is a life member of Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 45); carpentry (Riggs made his dining room table and chairs); historic preservation (member of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation); community service (St. Barnabas Charitable Foundation “Presents for Patients” program co-chairman); toastmaster and emcee.

Favorite film: “Bridge Over the River Kwai.”

Favorite book: “Worlds in Collision,” by Immanuel Velikovsky.

Favorite composer: Benjamin Britten.

Favorite TV show: “The Honeymooners.”

People would be surprised to know: “I am basically shy.”

People also would be surprised to know: “I’m not as secure as I seem to be.”

Proudest accomplishment: “I lasted a long time. I wore well.”

Dimitri Vassilaros can be reached at or 412-380-5637.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633