MOBILE, Ala. (WKRG) -- With Mel Showers approaching the end of a 50 year career at WKRG-TV, the Mobile-Pensacola market will soon lose a broadcasting pioneer - one of the first African-Americans to appear on the news locally, and the first to anchor an evening newscast.
As a boy growing up in Mobile, Mel Showers enjoyed watching the news, but never dreamed of a career in broadcasting.
"I used to watch Huntley and Brinkley and Walter Cronkite," Showers said. "I used to think a lot about them. And I used to say to myself 'I wonder if I could ever do that one day?' But I couldn't look at that realistically because I didn't see any darked skinned people on the air doing that."
In fact, Mel says there was just one black local on-air role model.
"The only on-air black person leading up to when I stared at a booth announcer was Estelle Payton," he said.
Payton served as sidekick to Connie B. Hope during cooking segments on WKRG's midday news.
"I used to think so much of her because she was my complexion and she was on TV! Up until then you didn't see any black person in this area on TV, and there she was," Showers said.
Mobile avoided much of the racial conflict that divided other southern cities during the Civil Rights movement. Showers says it was that same "proactive" social strategy that led to him being hired by WKRG in 1969.
"WKRG said 'we're not going to have any picketing outside our station.' We're going to go out and find somebody black," he said.
Showers was hired among qualified African-American students at the University of South Alabama as a booth announcer and became a news field reporter a few years later, joining just a handful of other African-American reporters like the late Bob Brazier.
Early on in his career, Showers did stories on racial inequity in Mobile's police and fire departments and, sadly, covered his fair share of cross burnings.
"At that time, burning crosses was pretty common," Showers said. "They were burning crosses all over the place. All across the TV5 viewing area."
Showers says his early reporting days had some challenges, but were generally positive
"I don't know if you would call it 'difficult' because I had so many people pulling for me, from the black community especially," Showers said.
Former co-workers say it was Mel's personality and demeanor that won over many people who may not have been ready to see black reporters on TV.
"You think about it, the late 1970's, integration still going on, not many African-Americans on the air, he was one of the first so there was additional pressure, and he handled it with such class," said Stu Kellogg who worked with Showers at WKRG-TV in the late 1970s.
Current African-American leaders in the city say Showers had a huge influence on them.
"He has been a role model to me," said Mobile City Councilman C.J. Small. "I saw an African-American on the news, bringing the news to the citizens of Mobile!"
"Particularly as an African-American male," added Councilman Levon Manzie. "Seeing him in that prominent role he's touched the lives of thousands of young men who saw him and said to themselves that they could aspire to that level of professionalism, because Mel Showers, someone from our community was able to do that."
Showers became the Mobile-Pensacola's TV market's first black evening news anchor in 1990. It was a big moment in the African-American community.
"I didn't believe I would ever see an African-American as a news anchor," said Mobile City Councilman Fred Richardson. "When they elevated him to anchor I thought the earth moved! Then, he just became the standard face for us to see during the news. He's just an outstanding man."
Showers last day anchoring the 6pm and 10pm newscasts will be Wednesday May 22.