Newsmakers


"Limping on Water": The Phil Beuth Story

Phil Beuth built a highly successful career in television. In Naples since 2000, he’s devoted himself to helping those in need.

 

There are undoubtedly stories like this nestled into quiet corners of our emerald city of Naples; rags-to-riches sagas of men and women who, from humble origins, rose to positions of prominence and prosperity—stories that fire our imaginations, like those of Horatio Alger, Damon Runyon, even Charles Dickens. The tale of local resident Phil Beuth is one such drama of struggle and success.

Born into a blue-collar neighborhood of Staten Island in 1932 to working-class parents of good German and English stock, he never complained; not when it was discovered he had a mild form of cerebral palsy that gave him a signature pigeon-toed limp all his life; not when his father died in a car accident when Beuth was just 4; not when he was sent to live with his curmudgeonly step-grandfather and help him with the backyard junk business so his mother could take a factory job across the bay in Manhattan; not while doing sit-ups to try to straighten legs compromised by his disease; not when he held down two or three jobs to help his mom pay the bills. 

No, Beuth was not a complainer. Sure, his physical and environmental obstacles proved an impediment, but also a springboard as, time and again, the determined young man picked himself up by his orthopedic bootstraps to greet the next challenge, eventually rising to become a leader in one of the quintessential industries of the 20th century: television broadcasting.

In addition, Beuth had the luck and uncanny instinct to hitch his indefatigable little wagon to a start-up that would become media behemoth Capital Cities Communications, “the minnow that swallowed the whale” and, according to Warren Buffett, “the gold standard for corporate ethical behavior.” Beuth was the company’s first employee and, as the booster rockets fell away and Beuth’s career blazed skyward, he became an influential player during broadcasting’s fabulous Mad Men formative years, eventually becoming president of Good Morning America and one of five division presidents at ABC after his company famously bought the much larger network.

All through his illustrious career in show business and broadcasting, Beuth always believed you have to give back: “As a broadcast executive, often running market-dominant television stations,” he says, “I was acutely aware of the power at my fingertips. And along with that power (and the privilege of a broadcast license) came responsibility—a duty to serve the viewers and promote worthy causes in our communities.” So, it’s no surprise that when Phil settled in Naples in 2000, he plowed straight into community service.

Some in town know Beuth as an adviser to the board of the Gulfshore Playhouse, or through the Naples Press Club, where he sits on the board and revived a dormant student scholarship program. Some know the work of the Beuth Foundation that has awarded grants to more than 200 worthy charities over the past 20 years. Beuth’s largesse toward his alma mater, Union College, is evidenced by the building that sits on its campus sporting his name, and he is a member of two broadcasting halls of fame. But he is perhaps best-known here as a senior board member of the Guadalupe Center, which works to break the cycle of poverty and improve the lives of disadvantaged youth through education.

“Shortly after I moved here,” he says, “I was introduced to the Guadalupe Center and the world of possibilities being created out there in Immokalee, the town Ted Koppel describes as ‘30 miles and $30 billion east of Naples.’ I began to invite people out to the center, and the guests were never disappointed as they discovered a goldmine of opportunity and community action. I vividly remember when a woman I had met from Buffalo and whose family I knew to be involved in community service there visited the center for the first time. Her name is Linda Yost. Linda was absolutely flabbergasted and overwhelmed. Today, she has joined a very active board of directors and devoted herself to the organization. In fact, Linda was recently chairperson of the center’s major fundraising event.

“In addition, we all had the experience of attending a celebratory dinner for former students, like Elizabeth Midney, who presided over the graduation of our Tutor Corps high school students about to attend colleges across America. There are over 140 such college students, recipients of scholarships from the Tutor Corps program. Today, Elizabeth has graduated from college and medical school and she is in her second year of residency at Lee Memorial Hospital in Fort Myers, preparing for a career in family medicine.  If that is not a beautiful success story, I don’t know what is. Elizabeth is the exception in this country (and in Immokalee), but she is closer to the rule at the center, where we have a graduation rate of 95 percent for our scholarship students.

What so impressed me is how many success stories have sprung out of there over my 10 years on the board. It makes me feel good because I can see with my own eyes what is taking place as lives change. Years ago, when I was on the board of Unicef, I coined the acronym ‘MINE,’ standing for ‘Membership Is Not Enough.’ Many lend their names to boards and such, but that is just not sufficient. You have to work. That has been my motto since I first did community outreach in Albany in 1955, while working for a struggling start-up that would become Capital Cities Communications, and it is just as important to me today.”

Those who wonder why contributing is so important to Beuth need only look to his own history. For though he rose to great heights in the tinseled world of entertainment, his beginnings were altogether humble.  

Beuth has great respect for the value of a good education and earned an undergraduate degree from Union College and a master’s from Syracuse University. He didn’t have the money to pay for either of these prestigious institutions, but tuition to both was generously provided by individuals who recognized his potential and smiled on the gutsy kid with smarts, resourcefulness, unbending optimism and a terrific work ethic.

Fifty years after a childhood where, because of his limp, he was typically the last boy picked for the schoolyard baseball team, Beuth was general manager of Buffalo’s leading TV station and captain of its softball team. A particular game stands out: the station against the mayor’s team in an annual contest to benefit Variety Club’s Children’s Hospital. The memory of what happened then remains with him and is part of what drives him today:

“In a rare moment of my limited athletic experience, I got a big hit that won the game … just what all players hope for. The stadium announcer kept shouting, ‘The boss wins the game, the boss wins the game!’ There were hugs and high-fives all over, but as they quieted down, a woman approached me, asking, ‘Mr. Beuth, would you come over to see my son, please?’ The game-winning hit that every baseball player dreams about paled compared to what happened next. I bent down and greeted a 9-year-old boy wearing a baseball cap to cover and hide his bald head. He looked up from his wheelchair and asked, ‘Do you think I could ever do that?’ I remembered another little boy decades earlier, facing challenges, who held those same aspirations, and assured him he could as I buried my head on his shoulder, pulling him close to get hold of my emotions. That event gave me an important perspective about what really counts in life, and I hold it closely.”

During the course of his career, Beuth often found himself in the company of some pretty notable characters, like Lowell Thomas, Ronald Reagan, Ted Knight, Jackie Robinson, Red Barber, Kirk Douglas, Nelson Rockefeller, Muhammad Ali, Red Skelton, Burt Reynolds, Richard Nixon, Bette Davis, Sammy Davis Jr., Cher, Paul McCartney and Frank Sinatra, whose out-of-retirement comeback concert Beuth produced as a televised charity fundraiser. Here’s how he recalls his brush with “Old Blue Eyes”:

“He was certainly cool; black turtleneck, loafers, sharply creased slacks, teeth a brighter shade of white than seemed possible on a human being. He was just simply, ‘It, in one!’ I expected he would be casual and he was. I expected he would be in charge and he was. He had a stack of charts handled by a few sidemen he had brought with him, and he joked with the crew as though they were old friends. When I asked how things were going, he smiled and said, ‘Just fine, boss!’”

And, smiling, he tells a tale on Kirk Douglas from his years running Good Morning America:

“When I looked up, it was the legendary star, Kirk Douglas, about to do a guest spot and looking very vigorous despite his age. After a pleasant exchange, he asked me, ‘You are not a reporter are you?’ I responded, ‘No, I am supposed to be in charge here.’ At that, he got up, shook my hand and then approached a mirror, where he began to curl his eyelashes! He headed off into the studio, but not before turning back and flashing that famous smile.”

The glitz aside, Beuth’s life has not been all dandelions. He lost a beloved son to AIDS; his first marriage ended in distress; and, after 40 years with the same company, he was retired early by ABC’s new management team. Still, his life captures a uniquely American success story. And, perhaps more importantly, it constitutes a “how-to” manual in conducting a career that is both profitable and honorable. The motto of Capcities, since its inception, was “Doing Well and Doing Good.”  Beuth is the personification of that creed.