Bill McEwen

John Wallace was TV ratings gold, but his real legacy is helping others

Master of Ceremonies John Wallace speaks at the 2002 California Business Conference at the International Agricultural-Center Heritage Complex in Tulare.
Master of Ceremonies John Wallace speaks at the 2002 California Business Conference at the International Agricultural-Center Heritage Complex in Tulare. Fresno Bee file

John Wallace had the good looks, authoritative voice and smarts to become the long-reigning king of Fresno television news back before cable and the internet splintered the media a thousand different ways.

He was ratings gold, the man Valley households counted on to tell them what was happening around the nation and the state, and in their neighborhoods.

But that’s not how I remembered Wallace in the moments after learning Monday morning that he had died after battling COPD these past few years.

OBITUARY: John Wallace, 1945-2017

It struck me immediately how many lives he had enriched in his pursuits outside of television, especially with his passion for Westcare and his commitment to help those fighting alcohol and substance abuse turn their lives around.

In 2003, Wallace invited me to attend a Westcare graduation ceremony at Fresno-Westside Seventh-day Adventist Church. With the church packed to its capacity, 49 men and women walked down the center aisle. The graduates were given a chance to say as much or as little as they wanted about their lives. It had taken some of them years to complete the recovery program. I counted the standing ovations that day. There were nine.

The whole time Wallace stood in the back out of the limelight. He cheered and clapped and, at times, tears welled in his eyes.

Wallace had been a newsman, one of the best. But he never allowed himself to become a hard-bitten newsman. Cynicism occupied no space in his heart. He judged people and stories on their merits, always leaving room for second chances. Indeed, it was the negativity of politics that kept him from running for a high-profile office – a loss that was ours, not his.

John Wallace’s wry side

His sense of humor was legendary and often self-deprecating. He downplayed his baseball career at the University of Arizona, describing himself as an “all-field, no-hit” infielder. Of his stint in the U.S. Marines, he always said this: “I protected Palm Springs from enemy invasion.”

In truth, Wallace was a very good athlete. And a showman. While we often faced each other in softball games, we ended up on the same team in a charity event at Clovis High School.

Early in the game, massive Jesse Sapolu of the San Francisco 49ers hit a one-hopper to Wallace at third base. He gloved it, took the ball out and pretended to inspect it – much to the delight of the crowd. I had seen him do this many times through the years and then throw a perfect strike for the out.

But this time his throw sailed high and wide of first base, where I was stationed. I came off the bag and applied a swipe tag, narrowly avoiding a collision.

“The 49ers would have never forgiven me if I had gotten Jesse hurt,” Wallace deadpanned.

An asset for the Valley

Most of all, Wallace was a champion of Fresno and the Valley. He would go anywhere to help a cause. Often he served as master of ceremonies or auctioned items to help raise money for nonprofits. He and I, from time-to-time, co-hosted events, and I always felt lucky to be on the same stage with him.

He was meticulous in his preparation and wanted everything perfect. One example: Fresno State football coach Jim Sweeney’s going-away party at the Exhibit Hall in 1997 started with a coin toss and a kickoff conducted by Wallace, who had a knack for thinking of the extras that made an event special.

But Wallace was not content being the face of a television station, charity event or organization. He loved to get in and make things happen. And, over the decades he did just that – especially for Fresno State athletics and education, and for the city of Clovis, where he served as a planning commissioner for two terms.

Life wasn’t easy for Wallace at the end of his life. But surrounded by family and friends, he soldiered on, sending emails and sharing jokes, and advocating for the causes he held dear to his heart.

Whatever your memory of John Wallace, you can best honor him by trying to uplift others. That was his mission, one that he fulfilled with dedication, ingenuity and a smile for everyone.