At age 86, Ward Chamberlin looks back with humility and humor on a life of grand achievements. He has been called "the founding father of public television," but he scoffs, "That's because I'm one of the few left behind." He's also credited with starting intercultural programs that promote peace through student exchange, but he says he was just fortunate, lucky to have had the chance to play a role.
Lucky, perhaps. But Chamberlin came up with the idea for the exchange program while driving ambulances around the bloody battlefields of North Africa and Italy during World War Two. "Somebody said that war is 95 percent boredom and 5 percent absolute terror," he says with a chuckle. "That's about it."
Chamberlin's father had been a decorated hero in the earlier world war, and Ward, like millions of other young Americans, wanted to fight when his turn came. But he had lost an eye to meningitis as a child and was barred from military service. So he joined the all-volunteer ambulance corps of the American Field Service. "You were treated just as soldiers were treated," he remembers. "Same lousy food that everybody else had!"
The American Field Service had been founded by young, Francophile Americans who wanted to help France repel the German Kaiser's forces in the early years of World War One. Their motto: "Everyone and everything for France."
More than a generation later, the experience was a bit broader for the ambulance platoon that Ward Chamberlin led. "When we got back," he says, "we had served with the troops of about ten different allies: the British, the French, the Poles, the New Zealanders, the South Africans, the Indians. And we realized what most civilized people know, that there's not a tremendous difference among people. And if you can get to know them pretty well, why, they turn out to be fine."
At war's end, Chamberlin spearheaded the formation of a novel exchange program that, for the first time, involved teenagers: 45 boys and girls to start. Now there are 12,000 young people in the American Field Service exchange program.
"It doesn't just involve the United States, to and fro," Chamberlin notes. "It involves, maybe, an Italian boy going to Australia, or a Danish girl going to Brazil. I think having wonderful young people — most of them extraordinary kids — get that early impression of what the United States is really like and how we function is a tremendous asset to this country as they move through their own lives. And I think other countries feel the same way."
Ward Chamberlin's father was a successful New York and Connecticut lawyer, and Ward (educated at Princeton University and Columbia Law School) seemed ticketed for a legal career as well. But soon after joining a small law firm, he was lured to more interesting work. In Washington, Paris, and London, he helped negotiate contracts for the Marshall Plan, America's ambitious program to feed and rebuild war-torn Europe.
A lawyer's life loomed again when an old friend, Frank Pace, who had been Secretary of War, called with a proposition. President Lyndon Johnson had asked Pace to chair the board of something called the "Corporation for Public Broadcasting." He needed someone to run this brand-new amalgamation of non-commercial radio and TV stations that would one day set the standard for cultural, public-affairs, and children's programming.
"People said in those days, and they still say it to some extent, that public television is for the overage and overeducated," Chamberlin offers with a laugh. "But where else can you see the Metropolitan Opera? Where else can you see some of the great singers and dancers and ballet? We're the only people that ever do any ballet. And so we've made no attempt to 'dumb down' American culture. We've shown it at its best."
Ward Chamberlin proved adept at tying together immense talent, strong wills, and fragile egos in the television business. Later, he ran a couple of the biggest public stations, in Washington and New York.
Chamberlin now lives near the Massachusetts coast with Lydia, his wife of 52 years, who's a celebrated landscape artist. He's still advising non-profit entities in television and the arts as a consultant. While Lydia paints and he sits nearby, pausing between the pages of a book, he sometimes thinks back on his remarkable career. And you can guess what conclusion he comes to: "I was just plain lucky."
Lucky to have helped change the world — through his service in war, recovery, international exchange, and broadcasting — a life uniquely dedicated to the public interest.