April 13, 2017

A National Treasure Visits Fifth Grade

When longtime inaugural parade announcer Charlie Brotman found out that—for the first time in 60 years—he’d been relieved of his duties by the Trump administration, he was heartbroken. Brotman, 89, had announced for every presidential parade since Dwight D. Eisenhower’s second term inauguration in 1957 and wasn’t ready for his historic streak to end. Although he did get to cover the parade for a local NBC affiliate, was welcomed to announce the organizers of the Women’s March in Washington the day after inauguration, and was named “Announcer Chairman Emeritus” by the current administration, believe it or not … it was a group of Oakwood 5th graders that really cheered him up.

Current parent Davia Hunter caught wind of Brotman’s story and suggested to her husband and 5th grade teacher Earl Hunter that the students could possibly reach out to him. When the students heard this suggestion and learned about the end of Brotman’s tenure in his beloved role—and that the announcer had also recently lost his wife of 65 years—they wrote letters to him to offer their condolences on his loss and their admiration for the job he had done for 60 years. Upon receiving the students’ letters, Brotman was so touched that he set up a Skype conference with the class to thank them.

Below is a transcript of that conversation between Charlie Brotman, a true national treasure, and some of our thoughtful, curious elementary school students.

Festivities and parade associated with the second inauguration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1957 in Washington, DC. CREDIT: Old Guard Museum

Charlie: Good morning, boys and girls. I’ve wanted to make a telephone call to you girls and boys, because you made me feel so good. I was not feeling so good until I got this bunch of letters, and I wanted to talk to you and thank each of you.

What makes this a very special telephone call is that we’re about 3,000 miles away, and it was so important to me, first of all, to get this envelope. I opened it up, and there were—oh, I would say—about 24 letters. I read every single one. They were excellent. You guys and girls put in a lot of time sending me this.

I was teared up, because I was at a low level. I was feeling sorry for myself, because of that situation. I was so disappointed, but the next thing I know is that I am reading one letter after another after another, and the result—I was not sad anymore. I was happy receiving this set of letters, and seeing how wonderful the girls and the boys of this fifth grade are really touched me. You made some really nice points, and you took time. Anybody got a question for me?

Student: Can you tell us about your old job?

Charlie: The job I had was actually to be the announcer for the presidential inaugural parade, and I had done that for a long time, for 60 years. And when they indicated somebody else was to be the announcer, I thought, “Oh, my heavens.” I was really disappointed. But, I do still have a job in the communications field.

President Kennedy and First Lady in limousine during inaugural parade, 1961. CREDIT: Robert Knudsen
Parade procession for President Lyndon B. Johnson's second inauguration, 1965. CREDIT: Old Guard History

Student: How did you get into this field?

Charlie:  Well, I went to school to be an announcer and broadcaster, and schooling was the best thing that ever happened to me. It helped me learn what I wanted to do. I remember my mom and my dad saying, “What are we going to do with our son, because all he does is talk about sports.” And then for me, sports came to my life, and that’s been my job. I’ve really enjoyed it. One of the things that you might think about—in just a few years, you’re going to be out of this school, going to college, and then, after college, you’re going to be out into this world as someone really special. Remember, a lot of years ago, I was exactly where you are right now. Then, in time, you’ll get to be an accountant or an attorney or an announcer. Then, you are our future, so you better do good.

Student: How did you feel after you found out you wouldn’t be doing the inauguration?

Charlie: How did I feel? I felt terrible. I thought I was going to be the announcer like I had been for so many years. When they said, “We have a new announcer,” I thought, “Holy mackerel, how is this possible? I’m the man.” I felt not so good. I felt disappointed. That’s where your letters come in. I mean, they really picked me up. That’s why I wanted to be able to call you personally and thank you for picking me up. It was a necessary time in my life where I needed somebody to tap me on the back and say, “We love you, Mr. Brotman.” That’s what you guys have said to me. It was just fantastic.

A scene from Nixon's first inaugural parade in front of the grandstand, 1969. CREDIT: G. Moore
President Nixon taking the Oath of Office for his second inauguration, 1973. CREDIT: Ollie Atkins

Student: Why and when did you get interested in broadcasting?

Charlie: I enjoyed sports, all of the sports, soccer and basketball and so on, and there were times when they asked me in high school if I would be the stadium announcer. Then they asked me to be the arena announcer. In the stadium, the football, and then in the arena, the basketball. I really enjoyed that. I went to the University of Maryland only for one semester, because I didn’t feel that I was doing what I enjoyed doing.

I dropped out of Maryland and went to the National Academy of Broadcasting, because I wanted to be a sports announcer. Things worked well, and that’s what I ended up doing. One of the things that I want to share with you is that whatever job you select, whatever you’re interested in, just be sure you enjoy it. You don’t want to get into jobs just for money or just to be famous. Whatever you do, enjoy it, because you’re going to spend a lot of time doing that.

Student: How did you feel when you were offered a new job at NBC?

Charlie: This was very exciting for me, to be asked by the number one television station in Washington, D.C. to be its anchor. I was so excited and so enthused. I was really thrilled that they would ask me to do it. Then, everything seemed to go well. I was really pleased that I was playing with the big boys. These are the announcers, the same people that you guys look at on the television set just like I do, and you’re always impressed with what they can do. There I was. It’s an odd feeling to stand watching the TV. It’s like the TV has watched you.

President Jimmy Carter taking the Oath of Office, 1977. CREDIT: US Federal Government

Student: What did you want your job to be when you were a kid?

Charlie: When I was a fifth-grader in Washington, D.C., I was exactly like you. I had no idea what I really wanted to do the rest of my life. I was confused, and I wanted to get an education, but what a selection. I had always enjoyed sports, so I wondered if I could just stay in sports and earn a living. Lucky for me, it seemed to go that way, but it’s really difficult. When I was in the fifth grade, I did not know what I really wanted to do. I had an idea to do something in sport, but I had no idea what. I hope that many of you have ideas now you’ll pursue.

Student: What was the most challenging thing about being an inaugural announcer?

Charlie: The most challenging? This is a wonderful question. Somebody asked me, do I ever get nervous about being on the microphone and talking to thousands and thousands of people? Basically, I say, if you are properly prepared, you won’t get nervous. That’s the way it is with me. You should be doing your homework. You should be paying a lot of attention in class. If that’s the case, if they call on you, you’ll have an answer. That’s being prepared. That’s the reason that I feel confident, not nervous, because I think I know what I’m talking to everyone about.

Student: Who was the first president you ever voted for?

Charlie: Wow. That’s a good question. I’ll think back on that. I think it had to be that, I think, I was 18, and it would be my first time. Boy, you got me looking through my record book. I’m really not sure. I don’t think it was Abraham Lincoln. [one of many places when there was shared laughter]

President and Nancy Reagan wave to the crowd waiting along the inaugural parade route down Pennsylvania Ave, 1981. CREDIT: TSGT John L. Marine
President Reagan being sworn in for his second term, 1985. CREDIT: White House Photographic Office

Student: What kind of a child were you in fifth grade?

Charlie: Probably as snack-loving as everyone in this class. I always enjoyed sports, but I was an average student. I wasn’t really smart. I wasn’t stupid either. I wanted to be a success, and I did my homework, and I participated in everything, all kind of activities. In high school, they voted me the president of the student council, and I enjoyed that. I loved leadership and things that I had to work at, and everybody here can feel a similar way. Listen to your teachers. They have been there, too, and they have shared their knowledge with you. Take advantage of it.

Student: What made you want to go to broadcasting school?

Charlie: It’s a love of the moment, really. If I were a plumber, I would probably want to be the best plumber in town, or an electrician or whatever it might be. Everybody in this class has different ideas. As far as me, I just thought, I was an average student. But when it came to broadcasting, I excelled, because I really enjoyed it. That’s, I believe, the reason that I went into broadcasting, because it was easy for me.

George H.W. Bush receives the Oath of Office, 1989. CREDIT: Library of Congress

Student: Are you still announcing for anything? If so, what’s your favorite thing to announce?

Charlie: Yes. I’m still announcing, and it’s still for sports. I have been announcing tennis tournaments for over 40 years. I also, when people ask me to do things, I sign up. They asked me to do hockey. I thought, “Well, I do other sports.” I thought, “Yeah, I’ll do hockey.” I sat down and put a microphone in front of me. Then I thought, “Charlie Brotman, you’ve never seen a hockey game in your life.”

There were all kinds of things, expressions, and I mentioned to the talent rep, “I don’t think I’m qualified to do this announcement.” He says, “Well, you just watch me and just repeat what I do.” So I did. Really, he was telling me what to do. When it was all over, a little boy came over to me and said, “You were the announcer?” I thought, “Oh, boy. I did the best hockey. He wants my autograph or something.” Then he says, “You don’t know a thing about hockey, do you?”

I said, “How can you say that?”  He said, “I was sitting behind you, and all you did was just do exactly what the guy on the right was telling you to do.”

From then on I knew, “Look. I’d better be better practiced.”

But I do love sports, whether it’s golf or tennis or soccer — I’ve done them all, and I enjoy the excitement and the challenge.

Student: What inauguration did you most enjoy announcing?

Charlie: There were really two presidents that I thought were just so successful. The first one was Eisenhower. He was a military man. It was really exciting. He really had a wonderful parade. Normally, a parade would last about two hours. His lasted four hours. It was just terrific, and I was the announcer on top of the building. It was freezing cold, but I was up there, and it was a terrific parade.

The other one was President Ronald Reagan. The reason that was so exciting was he had half of Hollywood, all of the movie stars, coming in.

I was really excited to be rubbing shoulders with movie stars. I’m just an ordinary guy, like people in the fifth grade, like you guys. All of a sudden, here I am with presidents and movie stars. It was really exciting. There’s no reason that everyone in this class couldn’t have that same success. It’s easy when you know how, so keep in mind. Do your homework. Retain as much of this information as you possibly can.

President and Hilary Clinton wave during his first inaugural parade, 1993. CREDIT: Public papers of the Presidents of the United States
The Clintons at their second inaugural parade, 1997. CREDIT: JO3 Thomas M. Smith

Student: Throughout your experience of broadcasting, what’s one thing you learned?

Charlie: The main thing that I learned, retained, and I make a point to do it for everything: preparation. Prepare. If ever there’s anything you have to do, prepare. If you’re afraid the teacher’s going to call on you to answer a question, you are nervous, and you don’t know it, the teacher will look at you. That’s because you were unprepared. If you’re prepared properly, and you know the subject matter, you’re going to hope that the teacher calls on you. That’s a nice feeling, being prepared. That’s what I’ve learned mostly about any kind of assignment.

Student: What was the favorite sports event that you announced for?

Charlie: During my time in working public relations and marketing and sport, I had the pleasure of presenting Sugar Ray Leonard. Has anybody heard of Sugar Ray Leonard? He was a boxer for a bit. The old folks in the room might remember.

He was a boxer, and he won the World Championship. It was really exciting for me, so I enjoyed being in the boxing business for a while.  I think announcing opening game baseball teams is my favorite when the president of the United States was throwing out the ceremonial first pitch. It’s really exciting. For a while, I get to be a friend of the president, because, when a president comes to a baseball game, they bring him to me. I introduce the president to all the ballplayers in the locker room and the dugout. It’s really a lot of fun being a buddy of the president.

One thing that you might think is interesting: Everybody has heard of President Kennedy. Is that correct?

Students: Yes.

Charlie: Good. President Kennedy came to the ballpark, and I introduced him to a lot of the ballplayers. I said, “Mr. President, I’m going to get you a baseball. What you’ll have to do is throw it out at the first pitch.” He said, “Okay.” Then I told the president, “Don’t go anywhere. Don’t get lost.”

“I’m going over here to get a baseball and help bring it back to you.” About three minutes later, I come back. There were people near the dugout, and I said, “What happened to the President? You see him?” Everybody’s looking. We don’t know what happened to him. Well, in baseball, like football and other sports, they have a tunnel going from the dugout to the locker room. I go into the tunnel, and there is the president of the United States, President Kennedy, all by himself, smoking a cigar.

I say, “Mr. President, that you?” He says, “Charlie, I’m over here. I didn’t think the fans would like to see the President smoke a cigar.” So he put the cigar down, and he went back up. He threw out the first ball. Then I thought, years later, “Why didn’t I pick up that cigar butt?” I could have had a souvenir of our President. But, I forgot. I didn’t do it.

I’m going to get in the way of you guys learning and preparing yourselves, but is there one more question we could have?

George W. Bush is sworn in for his first term, 2001. CREDIT: Wally McNamee
President G.W. Bush and his wife Laura wave during his second inaugural parade, 2005. CREDIT: Eric Draper

Student: How did you feel when your story got on the news?

Charlie: Oh. A good question. I was expecting an email that said, “Charlie Brotman, you are going to be our announcer for the parade” — that’s what I expected. When I got the email that said, “We have a new announcer. We’re going to work with you and give you a good speech near the president if you come in, but you will not be the announcer,” I was rather disappointed. I was sad. What really saved me is you guys and what you sent me. I was feeling sorry for myself, but you told me that you loved me. You liked me. You want to be like me. There was love in your letters, and that’s what really made me feel good. I’m going to say thank you.

I want to actually applaud you guys, because that’s wonderful, Oakwood School.

I will not forget you ever. I’d love for you, when you graduate, you’ll go to a university somewhere, and maybe—women are now announcing as well as men—you’ll be in the industry. Maybe I’ll be introducing you as an announcer.

Earl: Us having an opportunity to speak to you, the only person who has done what you’ve done and had such an impact on our country—we really appreciate what you’ve done. Thank you for reaching out to us. It has been such a pleasure to talk to you this morning.

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle wave during the inaugural parade, 2009. CREDIT: Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley
The Obamas wave to the crowds on Pennsylvania Avenue during President Obama's second inaugural parade, 2013. CREDIT: Official White House Photo