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Published: Sunday, 3/30/2014

Tom Perna; 1941-2014: Director led 40,000 newscasts

BY MARK ZABORNEY
BLADE STAFF WRITER
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Tom Perna, director for 40 years of nightly newscasts on Channel 13, whose competitive drive, quick mind, and split-second reflexes also contributed to his mastery of racquetball, died Saturday in Ebeid Hospice Residence, Sylvania. He was 73.

Mr. Perna of West Toledo had cancer, his wife, Marilyn, said.

At his retirement in July, 2006, from what is now WTVG-TV, Mr. Perna he was credited with directing more newscasts than anyone in Toledo — an estimated 40,000 from 1966 onward.

“He liked the spontaneous unknown and challenge of live TV,” his wife said.

Mr. Perna stayed behind the scenes, making sure that the newscast got on the air “the way the producer wants it,” he told The Blade in 2006.

That involved matching graphics to stories, making sure camera shots and audio levels were correct every moment while fully conscious of what to do next, and then after that, in a fast-paced, no-turning-back newscast.

“What Tom had a genius at was he could act in the present while thinking in the future,” said Al Mannes, a former reporter and producer at Channel 13 who was a longtime friend. “It’s very hard to split your brain in half and do that.”

As Mr. Perna said in 2006: “There are so many elements that can bite you.”

Yet he found live coverage of breaking news most satisfying “when you’re flying by the seat of your pants,” he said at his retirement.

Mr. Perna took part in the station’s coverage of strikes, major fires, and, yes, the Blizzard of ’78. He directed pioneers of Toledo broadcast news — Frank Venner, Gordon Ward, Frank Gilhooley, Chase Clements, Jim Rudes, Jim Uebelhart — and such contemporary newscasters as Diane Larson and Jerry Anderson, now at WTOL-TV, Channel 11.

He also survived innumerable news directors, each with a particular take on the latest ratings and a plan of improvement.

“A lot of people want to argue and fight about it,” Mr. Mannes said. “Tom learned you have to flow with these people, because in six months it will be a new plan and we’ll do something different. He was very flexible. If you’re inflexible, that’s how you get fired.”

The biggest change from 1966 to 2006 was technology.

“He was like Methuselah,” Mr. Mannes said. “He would throw himself into whatever new thing there was. That was his gift.”

Mr. Perna was as competitive in his pastimes as on the job. He was a champion racquetball player and held at least six state titles and more than 100 tournament victories. In 1996, he was inducted into the Ohio Racquetball Association Hall of Fame.

He started in the sport to get in shape, but “no matter what you did, Tom had no interest in coming in second,” Mr. Mannes said.

He also was renowned as a waterfowl hunter and was a charter member of Lake Erie Waterfowlers. He took part in marshland conservation efforts and liked to fish.

He was born Thomas Andrew Perna on Feb. 15, 1941, to Dorothy and Andy Perna and grew up in the old south end. He was a 1959 graduate of Central Catholic High School, where he played shortstop on the baseball team. Mr. Mannes said that he won a tryout with the St. Louis Cardinals organization thanks to his father, who was a longtime trainer with the Mud Hens.

He wrestled in high school and for a time was a professional wrestler — Tommy Hawk — as was his brother, Rip. He got his start in television at an Evansville, Ind., station, where his duties included knowing everyone else’s job, he told The Blade.

His marriage to the former Jan Brandt ended in divorce.

Surviving are his wife, Marilyn Perna, whom he married Nov. 17, 1979; daughters, Andrea Nichols, Susan Perna, Laura Roth, Kristie Bach, Michelle Glanville, and Katherine May, and nine grandchildren.

Services will be private.

The family suggests tributes to St. Catherine of Siena Church, where he was a member.

Contact Mark Zaborney at: mzaborney@theblade.com or 419-724-6182.



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