A Tankful of Instant History
Neil Zurcher was born in Oberlin, Ohio in the height of the Depression, November 12, 1935. For the first ten years of his life Neil and his family lived with his mom's family in Henrietta where they did farming.
His father was an insurance salesman who had a horrendous accident that tore his foot right off. It was sewn back on, but not well. Although he sold insurance, he didn't have any of his own. So his recuperation time and time off work took its toll on the family.
Neil's grandfather, John Zurcher, owned an operated a country store in South Amherst, Ohio and when Neil's father, Oscar, was injured, he remembered his father's business and to support his family bought a small grocery store and all night restaurant/gas station in Henrietta. It was called Zurcher's Henrietta Service.
They even bought an old school bus and turned it into a traveling grocery store. "At a very young age I went from farming to short order cook."
A young Neil Zurcher in his
first One Tank Trip car
Neil has two siblings; his brother Noel, who is six years younger than he and; his sister; Caroline who is fifteen years younger. He went to Henrietta High School where he says he "graduated 9th" in his class. Of course he quickly adds that there were only 8 students. "I was not a good student. In fact, I flunked American History. But my family insisted I continue and not drop out."
Young Neil off on another trip
It's hard to imagine Neil as anything but intrigued by American History; he is so involved in it today. He credits this to a wonderful teacher, Lowell Gatts, who tutored him. "We went to places to imagine being part of history and I wound up with a great love for American History. He was wonderful."
Neil never went to college, but proudly entered the U.S. Marine Corps. He spent his time in the Corps stateside. "I still have a great love for the Corps. They gave me many opportunities and many true friends." He says the best friends he has made over the years are fellow Marines. The Marines also sent him to journalism school.
He first considered the Navy but a strange set of circumstances brought him to the Marine Corps. First, and possibly foremost, he wanted to impress the girls. But equally important was the fact that at 17 his first job out of high school was selling Packards. It was not an easy sell and he only got paid if he sold one. He was told that the recruiter at the Marine Corps office liked Packards - which he did.
Neil needed direction in his life. The Korean War was over. It didn't take much for the recruiter to convince him to join up - and he did. It was a decision he has never regretted.
Neil Zurcher and Chet Roberts
shooting a promo
In November of 1954 Neil went to The Oberlin News Tribune where he was hired as a combination reporter/photographer/delivery man/floor sweeper! All for the tremendous salary of $1.00 an hour. He worked with another reporter, James Fixx, who became the inspiration for running as a sport (Author of the "Joy of Running"). The owner's paper at the time was Chuck Mosher, who went on to be a U.S. Congressman.
Neil also wrote a column for the paper; "Neil's' Nook". He was also the photographer for the column. "It was basically a local gossip column. Who said what. Who did what."
He was tasked to expand the paper beyond Oberlin to the rural areas. "It was a very good experience because I did a little bit of everything. By the time I left there was very little I had not tried."
He spent some time at radio stations WEOL, WBEA and WAVE where he headed a three man news staff.
Neil Zurcher interviewing John Glenn
His friend Walt Glendenning was a photographer at Channel 5. He convinced Neil to come to Cleveland and try television here. He was hired as a stringer for Channel 8 and the Cleveland Press. Being a stringer meant he was exclusive to the two but not actually an employee. So Neil became involved in radio, television and print media all at the same time. "The result was some really great story ideas and opportunities."
Neil Zurcher interviewing Arthur Godfrey
He remembers the Palm Sunday Tornado in Pittsfield in which many lives were lost and thousands were injured. He was the first reporter on the site and the only one there during the night. This story resulted in Neil's being promoted to News Director at the Radio station.
He also remembers the Viet Nam War protest at Oberlin College. Jenny Crimm came in to cover the story. She did her report and left. Shortly after, violence broke out, and Jenny Crimm was already back in the studio in Cleveland. Neil was there and was offered his first street reporter job. At that time everyone else was an anchor or a specialty booth announcer. Neil was the first reporter on the street for Channel 8.
He liked what he was doing so much he stayed for the next 38 years!
Neil Zurcher on Fox8 Morning Show set
In 1980 the first oil embargo went into effect and people were feeling the effects. Virgil Dominic recognized that a lot of people were not vacationing and suggested a week long series "It was to be a Charles Kuralt-type thing, but in Ohio. It was called Consumer Watch and the idea was to tell people what they could do and see with only one tank of gas." Charles Kuralt was most noted for his "On The Road" television essays done on Americas back roads for CBS.
The first week they went to places like Cedar Point, The Islands, Marietta, the covered bridges in Ashtabula and even downtown Cleveland. "The mail was absolutely incredible. We hit a nerve. Every night after the show there was extra work to do just answering all the calls."
One Tank Trip through a covered bridge
The show was scheduled to increase to one a week until the end of summer. Then demand was so great it was continued through November. It started up again in December with the Christmas lights and then ran from March until November. Then straight through December. "We were always restricted to one tank of gas to get to a destination and back. After a couple of years I asked them to change it to one tank there and one tank back. With that change I was able to reach 7 states and part of Canada."
Neil Zurcher in Toronto
Neil wanted a trademark, like Kuralt had his RV. Fords came out with a replica 1930 Model A. "I really tried to get Ford to donate one because it just wasn't in out budget. Unfortunately in 1980 the Cleveland PR office for Ford closed down."
Neil Zurcher with
1940 American Bantam Roadster
Bill and Bonnie Cutcher had a classic car collection and loaned him a 1948 lime green Chevrolet convertible. He drove this for about a year on the series. They also let him use their 1940 Bantam Roadster, a little red car. "This was just for filming promos and such though."
Neil went back to Virgil Dominic and explained that with the show gaining so much popularity he really needed a signature car, but Virgil was adamant - there was no money in the budget. So Neil went out looking on his own and found a 1959 Nash Metropolitan. He bought it himself, got it cleaned up and road ready and started taking it on many of the trips.
Neil Zurcher with Nash Metropolitan
The car became almost too famous. When it was parked somewhere people would try to get in it to have their pictures taken, or even take "souvenirs" off the car. So it became necessary to protect the car from "fans". He also drove the car in many parades and special events.
By 1982 they were receiving a large amount of requests for information so they put together a small 6 or 7 page booklet. Whenever Neil appeared in parades or Sports and Travel Shows he brought the booklets with him. The first year they passed out 25,000. By the following year and every year after, the number increased to at least 150,000 each year.
In 1989 Neil got a call from David Gray of Gray and Company Publishers concerning the possibility of him doing a book. "It's something I was toying with any way so I thought it was worth a conversation. We met at Max and Erma's and I agreed to write "Favorite One Tank Trips". It was a very big hit when it came out in 1995 and stayed on the Plain Dealer's local best seller list for 22 weeks. (Neil Zurcher's Favorite One Tank Trips, 2nd Edition)
A few years later he wrote "More One Tank Trips" and then turned his attention to Road Food. But his interest really peeked when he started writing about the strange things you can see and find in Ohio. In his book "Ohio Oddities: A Guide to the Curious Attractions of the Buckeye State" Neil describes one of a kind sites and happenings around the state. (Read the review of the book)
Ohio Oddities: A Guide to the Curious Attractions of the Buckeye State
Once he left Channel 8 in 2004 he had more time to write and came up with another book of Strange Tales from Ohio ("Strange Tales From Ohio: True Stories Of Remarkable People, Places, And Events In Ohio History"). This year yet another book is coming out.
"There are some very interesting stories in Ohio. I love to try and hunt down the information, see who remembers what. Sometimes people just won't talk even if they know." This was the case with a story in his book about the last public whipping to take place in Ohio. For years he had heard rumors that there was a public whipping in Holmes County ("That's Amish country of all places!") You would not be alone if you thought that public whippings were a thing of the past - the distant past.
Neil Zurcher working on a
Kitchen Sink Sundae from Elm Dairy
But all of the legends Neil heard led him to believe there was one in the 30's! "After 2 years of looking around and asking questions one day I got lucky. I was told about a retired deputy sheriff who was said to remember all of the details."
As it turned out the deputy not only remembered, but had the original clipping and picture! The story he told was that the judge had just had it with crime in his county. Two brothers, drifters, came before the judge for stealing a refrigerator. The brothers told the judge they were enjoying his jail and the judge had enough.
He gave them the option of 30 lashes and they had to leave the county or bread and water and hard labor. On July 5, 1932, the brothers chose the whipping. The whipping took place and the judge was re-elected into the 1960's.
There was also a lynching in about 1890. "The man's name was Jeff Davis. People know about it but they just won't discuss it."
Not the Land of the Giants
- just Neil Zurcher on a mini-train
He is also trying to track down the legend of Giants living in Ohio, more specifically Ashtabula County. According to Neil thousands of graves for people 8 to 9 feet tall have been discovered and some of the Indian burial mounds have headdresses sized for "huge people".
And of course there's the story of the lost Frenchman's gold in Minerva, Ohio. "I am always surprised at the lack of curiosity some people have. They just don't seem to have the interest in history I expect. There are so many mysteries out there but most people aren't interested in solving them."
For all of his great trips, Neil has had a few disappointments too. He remembers being called frequently by one couple who really wanted him to go to their ranch just outside of Columbus. They lured him with a spring fed pond, a horse, trail riding - everything you could want.
But when they got there it was just an old farm house, 2 sway back horses and a scum filled pond. Of course they had to leave and find another place to shoot, quickly. They found Slaterun Farm Metropark in Franklin County, a spot that seemed to be frozen in 1912.
Neil Zurcher and SkyFox in July 2004
"In general I was always very lucky with the One Tank Trips. It was on personal vacations that I had problems." He may be referring to the personal vacation when a tornado hit and his car was lifted off the road. Or it could be when his hand was slammed in the car door and required medical care. Or even when he celebrated his 50th birthday in Hawaii and got pneumonia. "These things never happened on One Tank trips. I barely even remember Maui!"
Neil says he likes every place he's been to in Ohio and would return to many of them, "especially Southwest Ohio." His favorite place is the next place he goes. "It's always exciting and I'm always having fun."
There were some things he did because of television that he would never have done otherwise. For example, he parasailed over Lake Erie!
Neil Zurcher parasailing
Few people know he is claustrophobic and really hates caves. But once a year he still went and did a One Tank Trip to the caves. "I hope people could never see how much I hated being in them."
One would think Neil, for all his travels, would be an avid collector and his wife says he is. But, he says he has "passed those phases." At one time he collected swords, guns and cars but not anymore. "There's just a lot of little odds and ends around but not really a collection of anything any more." He used to enjoy going to flea markets.
Neil will tell you he spent over 25 years getting paid to go on vacation - and he got to pick the spots. "They never really knew where I was and never asked. It was not just about PR - it was the real deal and I was a real person. That might be a big part of the segment's appeal."
Neil Zurcher on the Presidential Yacht
Neil also writes a column for AAA's publication, Ohio Motorist Magazine. In his column he writes about one tank trips like the ones he did for so long on television. At one time Neil even became an ordained minister, but that was just for a story on how easy it was to get the license and the tax break. He "retired" when somebody sent him $100 in tithing. He sent it back to them and that was the end of his ministry.
Neil once heard journalists described as "Instant Historians." He not only agrees but is justifiably proud of the title. Nothing aggravates him more than so-called journalists that are not careful of the facts; "It makes me crazy!"
"For example, I will read or hear a story about soldiers and then realize they are talking about Marines. Marines aren't soldiers. They are Marines. There's a difference and it's an important distinction. But lazy journalists don't bother with the details."
Neil Zurcher in Shay Model A
in Ashtabula in 1999
And don't think of getting him started on plagiarism. "There is absolutely no excuse for plagiarism. Some people say if you write history you have no choice but to plagiarize. But the facts must be checked and the words must be your own."
He believes the standards of journalist have changed but "it is hard to say that because people think it is sour grapes. But it's not about age. I have a deep respect for the profession and I want to see today and tomorrow's journalists maintain the high standard."
He thinks television losing great journalists such as Tim Taylor and Tom Haley is a tragic loss and wonders why they are allowed to just "go away, without being debriefed on their standard of excellence and knowledge."
Zurcher is not only an Emmy Award winner but he is also the recipient of the Distinguished Service award from the Society of Professional Journalism and the "Silver Circle" award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.
One of Neil Zurcher's Hall of Fame awards
He was inducted into both the Broadcasters Hall of Fame and the Press Club of Cleveland Hall of Fame. He says he is "like the Eveready Bunny. I just keep going and going." He's always got 2 or 3 projects in the works including documenting the history of Ohio Tourism over the last 25 years.
Senator George Voinovich, then Ohio Governor, says Zurcher is "One of the most respected and knowledgeable travel writers in the state." He has logged over a million miles - one tank at a time.
Neil has been married to Bonnie for almost thirty years.
Neil Zurcher and wife Bonnie
He has 2 daughters from his first marriage. Melody McCallister lives outside of Dayton Ohio and has 2 children (Allison and Bryan). Melissa Luttmann lives in Dayton and also has two children (Ryan and Jason).
Neil Zurcher with grandsons
Jason and Ryan Luttmann
Bonnie and Neil have one son, Craig, who lives with them. Most of us will remember Craig from the many trips he took with his dad.
Craig Zurcher on Camel
Craig "driving" on his own Trip
Bonnie, a surgical nurse (St. John's Hospital and Fairview Hospital), seldom got to travel with them, but Craig was always very willing.
In addition to Craig, Neil and Bonnie the Zurcher household includes a Blue Fronted Amazon Parrot, with an attitude. Chico, who is estimated to be more than 22 years old, hates strangers and women - except Bonnie.
Bonnie and Neil Zurcher with parrot Chico
And his grandfather's grocery store? Well that's still right there in South Amherst. But now it's a quilting store known as Quilts and Kreations and Bonnie still visits. She is an accomplished quilter and has a wonderful eye for beautiful patterns and fabrics.
Neil Zurcher and family at
Silver Circle Awards presentation
Neil Zurcher is one of those people we all recognize. But to think of him solely in his role as "Tour Guide" is just not enough. He is truly a journalist, an instant historian if you will. He is also a loving husband and father. And he is an explorer with a love of mystery and intrigue.
Maybe the best thing you can say about Neil Zurcher is that he is curious. He cares enough to want to know everything about anything. And he cares enough about people to want to share what he knows.
He is also a testament to the power of a good teacher and good parenting. Had Neil failed American History and left school because of it we all would have suffered for the loss. There is a lot to be learned from Neil Zurcher. Aren't we lucky he is so generous with his discoveries?
Profiled by Debbie Hanson
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