I was hit quite hard last week by the passing of two very impressive gentlemen, both at age 91, whose lives and careers were quite different, but exemplary with some very cool parallels.
You see, both had been trailblazers in their own rights — the African American engineer and former Merchant Marine, Thomas I. Dawson and Lew Klein, an icon in the broadcast industry who launched such careers as Dick Clark of American Bandstand and television personality Bob Saget.
And that’s why I was so humbled several years ago when I first met the special guest and broadcast legend Henry Lewis Klein just before I gave a Pennsylvania Cable Network (PCN) television presentation at the regional headquarters of the National Archives in downtown Philadelphia in front of a live audience about the history of Camp William Penn where the first northern black federal soldiers trained for combat from 1863 to 1865 in what’s today Cheltenham Township during the Civil War.
My wife Billie and I had a delightful conversation on the set with Klein and his wife, Janet, who served as chair of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission for many years.
Ironically, one of Dawson’s ancestors, his grandfather and Maryland-native Prestley Dorsey of the 43rd United States Colored Troops (USCT) infantry, was one of almost 11,000 African-American warriors fighting in many of the war’s major battles in 11 regiments who trained at Camp Penn that featured some of the nation’s top anti-slavery abolitionist speakers and activists including the Quaker minister Lucretia Mott (a nearby resident) and former slave Frederick Douglass – topics that very much interested the Kleins.
I was very impressed as Lew Klein offered advice to the production crew for the program that was hosted by broadcast journalist Tracey Matisak, employed locally for WHYY, FOX, KYW and other news outlets after graduating from Temple University where Klein taught for an amazing six decades broadcast journalism and other courses after earning an English degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1949.
Television news was in its infancy while Klein — whose father Alfred “ran a successful legal practice in Philadelphia” and worked “as a journalist for The Philadelphia Lawyer,” according to a 1989 online article in the periodical, “Broadcasting” – attended Cheltenham High School where he was editor of the “Cheltonian” while participating in several sports and the orchestra, says the school’s 1945 yearbook that I also found on the Web.
Lew Klein’s subsequent broadcast career was meteoric as he worked initially for WFIL-TV, now WPVI-TV that pioneered the “Action News” format and where I was fortunate to serve as an intern in 1977 while a student at Cheyney University. He instituted such children’s programs as “Romper Room” and “Captain Noah and His Magical Ark” before launching Dick Clark’s nationally popular dance show, “American Bandstand,” featuring Philly-area teens with the latest dance moves.
He also bolstered the broadcast careers of baseball players Richie Ashburn, Bill White and Tim McCarver while climbing the corporate ladder to become one of the most powerful and respected broadcast executives in the country. Conceiving and helping to start in 1963 the National Association of Television Program Executives, Klein’s teaching and professional guidance helped many students and journalists rise to stellar levels — from CBS News executive Stephen Capus to broadcaster Tamron Hall.
Several Temple facilities and programs hold and honor the name of Klein because of his immense broadcast-industry stature, as well as Lew and Janet Klein’s gracious philanthropy.
Meanwhile, Thomas Dawson was born and raised on Maryland’s Eastern Shore where some of his ancestors were enslaved before becoming mostly farmers in the vicinity of Denton, Md., not far from where Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman were slaves before escaping to freedom — both initially stopping in Philadelphia.
Born about 1840 in Howard County, Maryland, Dawson’s Civil War ancestor, Prestley Dorsey, enlisted in April 1864 at age 24 in the 43rd USCT of Camp William Penn, participating in such intense Virginia battles as Hatcher’s Run, the Rapidan campaign and the Battle of the Crater at Petersburg. Dorsey’s leg was severely injured, and he was hospitalized at least twice, based on family research conducted at various repositories, before being mustered out of service on Oct. 20, 1865 in Brownsville, Texas.
Over the years, I learned that much of the grit, determination and intelligence that Dawson exhibited, must’ve been derived from his warrior grandfather.
Dawson, who told me that farming did not appeal to him as a young man, traveled the world as a Merchant Marine and visited 50 countries – sometimes braving seas that would nearly swallow the large vessels he sailed, cementing his faith in the Almighty.
Along the way, he would sometimes recall the terrible racial conditions and discrimination that he endured. Yet, that did not stop him from serving as a radar technician in the Army, later taking higher-education courses and getting certifications in engineering, as well as work for such companies as General Electric – often as the first black management employee in various divisions. He even taught engineering concepts to trainees, focusing on electronics, and became deeply involved in several civic and church groups.
Moving to Philadelphia decades ago, Dawson married, had several high-achieving children and grandchildren, some with advanced college degrees, and lived on Bouvier St. near Cheltenham Ave. where he harbored a war medal of his ancestor, Prestley Dorsey. Ironically the family resided just across the street from where Camp William Penn once stood in Cheltenham.
And as destiny would have it too, I first met Dawson at Cheltenham High School where Klein graduated from in 1945, at the end of a history presentation I gave there years ago when he introduced himself to me and revealed his grandfather’s medal.
They were two remarkable men, on separate paths, but with enduring dedication that still greatly impacts me and many people near and far.