Raymond Witcoff, a founder of local and national public TV, dies at 96

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Raymond H. Witcoff, longtime civic and philanthropic leader, and a founder of public television nationally and in St. Louis, died peacefully Jan. 2, in his home in Phoenix.  He was 96.  His wife, Roma, son Mark, daughter Caroline and many other family members were at his side, a family statement said.

Mr. Witcoff was a graduate of the University of Chicago, where he was a protege of the innovative and widely admired university president Robert Maynard Hutchins.  He served as a naval lieutenant during World War II. 

Described as “a true pioneer of public television,” Mr. Witcoff was a founding member and first chairman of National Educational Television (NET), the precursor to Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). In 1954, KETC (Channel 9), now known as the Nine Network of Public Media, came to fruition largely as a result of his support.

Mr. Witcoff’s keen intellect and natural leadership qualities impressed those who worked with him through the years.  He served as chair of the Human Development Corporation, which administered local War on Poverty programs.  He had an ability to cut through red tape and bureaucratic double-talk to get right to the issue at hand and work toward a solution.

Mr. Witcoff and his wife, were members of Congregation Shaare Emeth for many years.

Mr. Witcoff’s many civic activities included being a central figure in the revitalization of the downtown St. Louis area.  He was also instrumental with the St. Louis Gateway Arch.  He went to a White House meeting to urge then-President John F. Kennedy to come to St. Louis for its inauguration.

A builder and developer by profession, Mr. Witcoff’s many other activities and honors included serving as a trustee of Washington University; chairing the board of directors of Jewish Hospital and being instrumental in the merger between Jewish Hospital and Barnes Hospital (now BJC).

Mr. Witcoff headed the local Rhodes Scholar Selection Committee and helped develop the Great Books program.  He and his wife served on the Mayo Clinic’s National Leadership Council.

In addition to his wife, survivors include children Mark and Caroline Witcoff, four grandchildren, five step-children, seven step-grandchildren and one step-great grandson. 

A memorial service was held at Sagewood in Phoenix on Jan. 7.  A memorial service will be held in St. Louis at a later date. 

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Nine Network, Washington University, or a charity of the donor’s choice.