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Honoring the Walter Cronkite of Orlando

Anchor Ben Aycrigg, left, interviews Vice President George Bush at the Kennedy Space Center Press Site in 1981 for WDBO TV 6.

Anchor Ben Aycrigg, left, interviews Vice President George Bush at the Kennedy Space Center Press Site in 1981 for WDBO TV 6.

Brittni Larson

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TV anchor Ben Aycrigg was taking a break in the station’s lobby before his 6 p.m. newscast when he saw the smoke billowing into the sky.

The clock read 5:30, and he knew there was no easy way to get the story — an apartment building in flames across town — on the evening news in less than an hour. But Aycrigg loved a challenge.

He quickly dispatched the traffic helicopter to fly over the scene with a photographer. But the airport was too far away to get the photos in time, so he had the photographer drop the film off — from the passenger seat of a helicopter — down into some woods by the station.

They had the story, in about 30 minutes, all before the news trucks with satellites could send their images back to their news stations.

“And that was doing something really, really fast,” said Aycrigg, 85, a Maitland resident. “Now, that would be nothing, but then….”

That story epitomizes what he found most exciting in his 35-year broadcasting career. He loved the time crunch, the rush of getting news to viewers quickly and with the newest technologies and strategies possible.

Man of distinction

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Ben Aycrigg, 85, wears his new Circle of Distinction medal at his Maitland home.

He was the face of WDBO-Channel 6 news (now WKMG), where he started in 1961, and was dubbed the “Walter Cronkite of Orlando” by many who watched him as the lead anchor on television each evening.

Winter Park High School honored the 1944 graduate’s career last month, inducting him into the school’s Circle of Distinction, which has been honoring outstanding alumni since 2006.

Ed L’Heureux, Circle board member who nominated Aycrigg, said it’s important to recognize those who meant so much to the community, such as Aycrigg, whom residents might have lost track of since he retired.

The face of news

Aycrigg became a celebrity in town, his daughter Elizabeth Lowe said. Then, everyone could say the unfamiliar-sounding last name, but at his start, as a Rollins College speech-student-turned-radio-drama-character, that certainly wasn’t the case.

In his radio debut, as the credits were being read, “Ben Ay-grugg” popped out of the announcer’s mouth. Not correct.

“My first appearance in broadcasting was a flop,” he said with a smirk.

Reporting history

But of course that didn’t last. Through the years, Aycrigg was able to interview presidents and see the first experiments in color TV. He covered the opening of Disney in Tokyo, and he was floored as his broadcast was sent around the world to the CBS station in New York City.

He’s also down in history books as one of the first to announce the bombing at Hiroshima. He remembers exactly what the teletype said that day and what he read over the radio for listeners.

“A bomb 2,000 times as powerful as TNT was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan,” he quoted himself as saying. “I felt like that was part of history.”

What he remembers most fondly, though, is the beginning of NASA’s shuttle program. When he first heard of the program, he and a photographer went to scope the area out, only to find a man and his goats as the sole inhabitants of the bare orange groves. The farmer and Aycrigg didn’t know about the “rocket garage” being built or what would prove to be an exciting future in space for the U.S.

“It was very exciting to talk to these space pioneers,” Aycrigg said.

Family man

But beyond all the excitement of breaking news and interviewing astronauts, Aycrigg was a family man above all else, Lowe said. The whole family would watch him at 6 o’clock — his wife, Artemisia Aycrigg, inspecting her work of making him “presentable” — and then wait for him to come home for dinner, which he did every night before his 11 p.m. spot.

“I just loved seeing how he handled people,” Lowe said. “He is always authentic.”

This Central Florida legend didn’t just write news, either. His children know him as the dad who wrote stories with cameos by their favorite toys and novels about the horses he rode.

Safari picnics in the backyard and spending time with his wife of 56 years are also special memories Lowe shared about the man who made his family the most important part of his life.

“He always put his family first,” she said.

Learn more

For more information about the Winter Park High School Circle of Distinction Foundation, and to get a form to nominate someone, visit https://www.ocps.net/lc/east/hwp/school_info/Pages/CircleofDistinction.aspx.