Longtime faculty member, WPSU's founding force, dies

Marlowe Froke, a professor of journalism for 33 years who helped establish the strong public broadcasting presence at Penn State and also helped set the foundation for the College of Communications, died Tuesday, Feb. 23, at Mount Nittany Medical Center in State College, Pa. He was 82.

Froke, born Nov. 4, 1927, in Vienna, S.D., was a passionate believer in education at all stages and stations of life. He was an early and lifelong proponent of television's power to bring education to rural areas and to anyone who could not physically attend school in a classroom.

As part of that approach, he established WPSX-TV (now WPSU-TV) at Penn State in 1964, and took the lead in the early days of cable and public TV to establish networks of connections among Pennsylvania stations and cable operations that preceded today's Public Broadcasting System.

"He was one of the early and strong champions of cable television," said Patrick Parsons, the Don Davis Professor in Ethics in the Department of Telecommunications at Penn State. Parsons wrote "Blue Skies: A History of Cable Television," which has been repeatedly hailed as the definitive history for cable television. "His vision was instrumental in the early development of cable television, and in how cable television developed locally, regionally and nationally."

Above all, Froke was simply an extraordinarily nice and decent person. He did the right thing, always. He made friends with cable industry millionaires and taxi drivers in Denver, waitresses, professors, nurses, business leaders and bus drivers in State College, and children in the neighborhood for whom he was a surrogate grandfather.

He never ceased to say "please" and "thank you." And he meant it.

"Marlowe was, indeed, a person of great accomplishments, but, at his core, he was, very simply, a good man," said Dean Doug Anderson of the College of Communications. "We will miss him."

He is survived by his cherished family: wife Marliene and daughters Paula Froke of New York City and Dana Plumley of Indiana, Pa., and Dana's husband, Glen. He was preceded in death by his parents, Peter and Amanda Froke of Vienna, S.D.; his foster parents, Ralph and Hazel Olmsted of Vienna; and two brothers and four sisters.

In many ways, everyone he touched was treated as family.

"He was very good at making people feel comfortable," said Katie O'Toole who hosted, produced and wrote for "What's In The News," a current events show for children that Froke conceived and that was eventually syndicated nationally, for 24 years. "He was soft-spoken, you always heard him saying ‘very, very good,’ and he put people at ease. He gave them space to do their thing."

Still, Froke was clearly driven and passionate about public television.

"There was a vision. He could look ahead and see where we were going and what it was going to take to get us there," O'Toole said. "That was the difference between stations that did well and those that did not.

"I think his passion came from growing up in rural South Dakota, so far from a major market. He believed and knew that there had to be a way to connect people over those vast distances. Plus, his early radio work was clearly an influence."

After serving as news director for the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service in Osaka, Japan, from 1946-48, Froke earned a bachelor's degree in journalism at  South Dakota State College and worked as news director for KWAT-AM in Watertown, S.D. He earned a master's in journalism from Northwestern University and worked as news director at WGN and WGN-TV in Chicago, then taught  journalism and supervised television news courses at the University of Illinois, where he met his future wife.

He joined the Penn State faculty in 1959 as an associate professor of journalism, developing the school's first broadcast journalism curriculum. In 1964 he was named Penn State's director of broadcasting and established WPSX, which within a few years featured such popular programs as "TV Quarterbacks" and "What's In The News."

In 1971, he was named director and general manager of what became the University's Division of Media and Learning Resources, including WPSX and other groups. Working with Pennsylvania's cable television operators, he established in 1976 a 24-hour statewide education and public affairs network of cable systems then called PENNARAMA, now the Pennsylvania Cable Network.

He later served as chairman of the strategic planning committee whose report led to the establishment what became the College of Communications. He retired from Penn State in 1992 with emeritus status and served in a variety of volunteer positions after that.

Continuing his deep interest in the significance of cable television as an educational medium, Froke worked with cable industry pioneers both before and after his Penn State retirement to establish the first cable television museum, initially housed at Penn State in a joint effort of the Cable TV Pioneers and the University. The museum later relocated to Denver in a new and greatly expanded facility now called The Cable Center. Froke served as the center and museum's first president in Denver for three years.

"My favorite Marlowe story happened back in the early 1980s. CNN was starting up a children's program and they wanted to come to Penn State to see what we did," O'Toole said. "They spent the whole day watching everything we did and a taping and then we went to dinner. Marlowe thought it was a great time to pitch a partnership, but the people from CNN wanted to do their own thing.

"Marlowe was clearly upset, but he launched into the most eloquent defense of public service television I'd ever heard. He told them they just wanted to steal our ideas and model and then someday, when it was not making money, Ted Turner would cancel the show. He was passionate about public service television and the role it could play. We're really losing one of the giants in the field."

As a young boy Froke loved playing the piano in a small South Dakota Lutheran church. Decades later he returned to that love and filled the house with the sounds of Mahler and Bach and Beethoven. When arthritis prevented him from playing any more, he donated the piano to Penn State Public Broadcasting, which uses it for various musical productions including the annual "Music Theatre Spotlight."

He reveled in the wild and beautiful trees and flowers that grace the quiet lane where he lived, and -- lest they somehow run out -- added seedling after seedling to the century-old trees already towering above the lane, and flower after flower to the wild array of pinks, purples, reds and yellows. He weeded with equal enthusiasm, dedicated to the belief that there must always be room to grow.

Services will be private. In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to Penn State Public Broadcasting, 238 Outreach Building, 100 Innovation Blvd., University Park,  PA, 16802; or to South Dakota State University, Department of Journalism and Communication, 823 Medary Ave., Box 525, Brookings, SD, 57007. Or he would ask that you simply do something nice for someone else today.

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Last Updated November 18, 2010