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Published: Monday, 11/17/2003

TV newsman wrote Worth, Roper strips

John P. Saunders, one of the pioneers of television news broadcasting in Toledo who for many years was the writer of nationally syndicated comic strips “Mary Worth” and “Steve Roper,” died Saturday at St. Luke s Hospital. He was 79.

The cause of death was complications from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, his wife, Alice Saunders, said.

After starting in Toledo radio in 1946, he moved to television, where he stayed until his retirement from WSPD-TV, Channel 13, in 1979.

It was then that he devoted his attention to “Mary Worth,” one of the longest-running continuity strips, or comic-page soap operas. Publishers Syndicate asked Mr. Saunders father, the late Allen Saunders, to take over a strip called “Apple Mary,” which had been created by Martha Orr. He agreed and changed the strip to “Mary Worth s Family” in the late 1930s and moved the character out of her Depression-era poverty into a more pleasant environment.

The elder Mr. Saunders, who died in 1986 at the age of 88, had already been writing “Big Chief Wahoo,” a forerunner of “Steve Roper,” when he began the “Mary Worth” strip.

John Saunders began working on the strips periodically during the 1950s, but took over in 1979.

“He kiddingly called Mary Worth a nosey old lady. In the last few years, it has been stories of different people, and Mary is in it, but not as much as she used to be,” Mrs. Saunders said. “He really enjoyed writing it and just 24 hours before he died, he dictated something to me.”

When asked in 1990 to describe the “Mary Worth,” character, John Saunders called her “a confused observer of the modern scene who stands on the sideline trying to catch up with the 20th century.”

Mr. Saunders was born in Crawfordsville, Ind., and his father moved the family to Toledo in 1927, when he was hired by the former Toledo News-Bee as a reporter and a cartoonist.

He graduated from Libbey High School in 1942 and attended Wabash College in Crawfordsville until he left to serve in the U.S. Army in 1943. Mr. Saunders was a staff sergeant and fought in the Battle of the Bulge, for which he received a Bronze Star, his wife said.

He briefly attended Purdue University and Northwestern University School of Broadcasting after the war.

In 1946, shortly after returning from his military service, Mr. Saunders worked as a disc jockey for WTOD radio in Toledo and in 1951 became a full-time broadcaster at Channel 13, which was the first TV station to operate in Toledo.

“Without a doubt in my mind, there were two pioneers in television in Toledo - one was John Saunders and the other would be Jim Trautwein,” said Frank Venner, a retired anchorman-news director at WTVG-TV, Channel 13. Mr. Trautwein was one of the first broadcast journalists in Toledo before spending 38 years as an Episcopal priest.

“[Mr. Saunders] was the first Toledo weather forecaster and was probably one of the best announcers I have ever known in my career,” Mr. Venner said.

Mr. Saunders was a newsman at Channel 13 until 1961 when he began working for WTOL-TV Channel 11. He went back to Channel 13 in 1971.

“Mary Worth” and “Steve Roper,” which was previously named “Steve Roper and Mike Nomad,” are syndicated by North America Syndicate, Inc. “Mary Worth” is distributed to about 350 newspapers worldwide. Joe Giella, of New York, is the artist for the comic strip.

Longtime Toledo disc jockey and morning radio show host Bob Kelly, now at WRQN-FM 93.5, has been parodying “Mary Worth” since 1975, when he was doing the WCWA-AM 1230 morning drive time slot.

“We agreed that trying to spoof something that already was funny would be futile. So, we seized on the Mary Worth strip, given its strait-laced approach to life,” Mr. Kelly said. A friendship with Mr. Saunders blossomed from the spoofs, and at one time Mr. Kelly said Mr. Saunders would give him advance copies of the story line so that the radio host could plan the parodies.

“John once said to a crowd at a dinner we both attended that one of his goals in life was to write a Mary Worth strip that Bob Kelly couldn t make fun of,” Mr. Kelly said.

In 1984, when Mr. Venner unsuccessfully challenged Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) for the U.S. Congress, then-Vice President George Bush came to Toledo for a campaign event. Mr. Saunders served as master of ceremonies for the event.

Mr. Saunders and his wife, who married in 1947, had lived in Whitehouse for the last 13 years. Before that, they lived in Waterville for 36 years.

Surviving are his wife Alice; brother, David Saunders, and sisters, Penny Carson and Lois Morgan.

A memorial service will be at 10 a.m. Wednesday in the Peinert Funeral Home in Whitehouse.

The family suggests tributes to the American Lung Association, St. Luke s Hospital, or Hospice of Northwest Ohio in Perrysburg Township.

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