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Remembering Pierre

The recent death of television producer Pierre Kimsey leaves a void in the Memphis community.

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When I first met Pierre Kimsey I had no idea what to make of him.

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It was an era when it seemed everyone in the television industry was trying to find the elusive magic formula that would capture viewing audiences in whatever media markets we were in. The "happy talk" format, which often painfully forced interactions between news anchors, was just starting to become a trend. I could imagine to uncomfortable viewers it verged on the voyeuristic. Here were people in a previously one-dimensional box suddenly sharing snippets of their personal lives when they were on camera in an attempt to humanize themselves with a strained 30-second exchange of conversation.

But I knew, when Pierre and I watched in disgust — at the now defunct Fort Pierce, Florida, television station WTVX — while two of our anchors feebly struggled to talk to one another, I'd found a kindred spirit. What I didn't know was it would be the beginning of a 30-year bond between two people who saw an opportunity to explore television as the free-form medium we thought it was meant to be.

WTVX, a UHF start-up, was the perfect testing ground for us. Pierre was hired as feature reporter and film critic. I reported and anchored sports, but was pressed into service for news stories, as well. Our station struggled to find an identity in one of the fastest-growing television markets in the country. Since we had to fill hours of news time with a small staff, it was imperative that on occasions, we would stretch the envelope of creativity.

I specifically remember when, in his role as film critic, Pierre came up with the idea of doing a review of one of the original trilogies of Star Wars movies. He enlisted my help as co-starring in a four-minute piece in which he portrayed Han Solo and I was his nameless co-pilot. I was nameless because Pierre, long before such concerns existed, worried that casting me as "Chewbacca the Wookie" might come off as racist.

In true Pierre form, the preparations and logistics were meticulous. We commandeered station owner Frank Spain's twin engine plane, which was parked in the station's lot. Our fellow employees came out and rocked the plane as if it were undergoing an attack. The finished product was seamless. With his usual unselfish nature, Pierre gave me all the laugh lines while he played the foil. It was brilliantly edited and produced ... and when the ratings came in, it was stunningly obvious, almost nobody watched it. Thus was life at X-34!

After working together for a couple of years, Pierre took a job in Detroit and became a sensation. We kept in touch through the years as I eventually landed in Memphis, and he fell from the stars in Detroit as a feature reporter to be resurrected in Huntsville, Alabama, as a producer of award-winning documentaries.

We eventually reunited at WHBQ to work together on investigative stories. It was during that time I came to fully recognize the talent and caring for the human condition Pierre had behind his cultured and sometimes distracted demeanor.

As I related in a recent WKNO tribute to Pierre with my television colleagues Jackson Baker, Bill Dries, and Andrew Douglas, issues such as the depth of poverty and racism in Memphis truly angered and befuddled him. He wasn't naïve enough to believe that every man could be transformed into a foot soldier for change. However, unlike many of us, he was willing, until proven otherwise, to give everyone he met the benefit of the doubt.

Pierre's unmatched body of television work was reflective of his attempt to reach the core of people's feelings. He assumed a life's mission to make that one-dimensional box come alive, not through idle chatter but by producing thought-provoking weekly programs and thoroughly researched documentaries for WKNO.

My biggest heartbreak is in knowing that for all the lives he may have unknowingly touched and motivated, Pierre died alone. The circumstances of his death will haunt me for the rest of my life. Why didn't I ask him about his health? Why didn't I have him over to the house just to talk with him about whatever was going on in his life? Why didn't I know there might be something amiss?

The answers to those questions were just a phone call away. Yet, it was a phone call I didn't make.

Decades ago, I didn't know what to make of my first meeting with Pierre Kimsey. But I learned, as so many viewers also did, to appreciate his creative genius. He will be sorely missed.

Les Smith is a reporter for WHBQ Fox-13.

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