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Isle radio vet BJ Sams retires after 56 years


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POSTED: Monday, August 03, 2009

On July 31, BJ Sams retired from broadcasting, ending 56 years of radio and television work. He's come a long way from his start as a radio station janitor working for 75 cents an hour at WBEJ in his hometown of Elizabethton, Tenn., to becoming a top-rated news anchor.

Sams spent the majority of his career in Little Rock, Ark., but his decade working as a news anchor in Hawaii is what he is best remembered for in the islands.

Sams arrived in Hawaii in 1973 after spending seven years at KATV, the ABC affiliate in Little Rock, where he quickly moved to being the disc jockey known as “;BJ the DJ.”;

During the Easter weekend that year, Sams took an airplane ride with his son and KHON traffic reporter Al Allen, who piloted the plane. Shortly after takeoff from Honolulu Airport, the plane crashed and exploded into flames, and Sams was the only survivor.

With such a tragic introduction to Hawaii, he could have easily left the islands for good, but he stayed, due in large part to an outpouring of love and support from residents.

“;I would like to thank them for opening their hearts to me, especially after the plane crash,”; said Sams. “;I'll never forget that.”;

In 1973, Sams co-anchored the “;KHON Eyewitness News”; with Bob Basso, and in 1974 he had a new co-anchor, Barbara Tanabe.

“;I had the privilege of co-anchoring the 'KHON News' with him in the '70s,”; she said. “;BJ was a wonderful television partner, and I was fortunate to be able to work with him during a time in broadcast news when there were few women on the air. BJ was a gentleman, supportive of my role as an anchor and reporter, and fair in his treatment of all reporters when he was the news director.

“;He was unlike many anchors with outsized egos. BJ was kind, respectful and genuinely cared about people,”; Tanabe said.

; Together, Sams and Tanabe anchored the KHON news for five years with the late Les Keiter as sportscaster. Sams also worked with Ray Lovell, Scott Shirai, Pete Pepper, Ed Evans, Melanie Granfors, Ken Wilson and Joe Moore. One of Sams' most memorable moments in Hawaii was the return of Vietnam POWs to American soil during the Vietnam era. “;It was very emotional—not a dry eye anywhere,”; he said.

SAMS graduated from the University of Tennessee with a degree in industrial management. He was drafted into the Army and took basic training at Fort Hood, alongside Elvis Presley. “;He was just like one of the boys. He wanted to be treated like anyone else,”; Sams said.

Sams was a broadcast specialist in the Army, and his radio career later took him to Oklahoma and Tennessee before he got his first television break in Monroe, La., at KTVE, working as a weatherman and sports director. In 1966 he moved to KATV in Little Rock, becoming the first person to be seen in color on air there.

In 1980 Sams was hired to anchor the weekend news at KITV, where he worked with Rick Quan, Kelly Dean and Emme Tomimbang. Also that year, Sams completed the Honolulu Marathon.

During his years in Hawaii, Sams was a friend of Don Ho and Tennessee Ernie Ford, a frequent island visitor. Ford and Sams had a special bond, having grown up in the same state.

In 1982 Sams returned to Little Rock, this time to anchor at KTHV, the CBS affiliate. During the 1980s he covered Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton's ascent to national politics and eventually the presidency.

Sams sang in the church choir at Immanuel Baptist Church, and as president, Clinton had Sams and his church choir sing at both inaugurations.

For the past 12 years, Sams has anchored on “;Today's THV This Morning”;, the top-rated morning program in the Little Rock market for more than a decade.

Awards followed him. In 2007 he was inducted into the Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame, joining the ranks of author John Grisham; TV producer Harry Thomason; singers Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, Al Green and Charlie Rich; and actors Gil Gerard, Laurence Luckinbill and Billy Bob Thorton.

In 2008 he was inducted into the Mid-America Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences' Gold Circle, an honor bestowed on professionals who have made significant contributions to the television medium for the last quarter-century.

In spite of the distance between Arkansas and Hawaii, Sams has remained a member of the Outrigger Canoe Club for more than 30 years and is looking forward to returning soon for a visit now that he has the time to travel.

“;I miss living over there, especially in the winter when it's 20 degrees,”; he said.