Danny Villanueva, President of KMEX-TV : He Gets His Kicks Serving Latino Community
When Danny Villanueva’s father was on his deathbed, he told his son that he was tired. “I think he was telling me more than leave me alone. . . . He was telling me to keep going,” Villanueva said. “To move on.”
After the burial of Primitivo Villanueva in Calexico, Calif., Danny Villanueva hugged his brothers and sisters and flew back to Los Angeles for a business dinner party he hosted that night.
He never cried.
The pace and single-minded pursuit of a goal were typical of Villanueva, 47, the president and general manager of the Spanish-language KMEX-TV, Channel 34, and former punter and place kicker for the Los Angeles Rams and Dallas Cowboys.
Villanueva said he shed no tears at the 1972 funeral because he believed he had to keep his 11 brothers and sisters together and because of his father’s instructions “to keep going.”
He has strived to follow that admonition ever since on a whirlwind schedule that has been slowed only by four hospitalizations for stomach problems, including ulcers.
The schedule has also taken him from a two-room earthen hut in Tucumcari, N.M., where he was born the ninth child of migrant missionary workers, to a three-bedroom ranch-style home above Santa Monica Canyon in Pacific Palisades.
Along the way, Villanueva made 1,000 free talks to youth groups as a member of the Rams, worked seven days a week for 28 months (weekdays as station manager at KMEX; weekends as sports announcer at KNBC), and worked 18-hour days routinely.
He still does. A board member of at least 12 businesses and charities, Villanueva recently flew to New York on Tuesday for business and charity meetings Wednesday and Thursday. Thursday afternoon he took a plane to Kansas City, where he did color commentary on a Spanish-language broadcast of the Los Angeles Raiders’ football game.
He caught a late-night flight to Los Angeles, where his chauffeur picked him up for work at 7:30 a.m. Friday.
The schedule continued last week as he worked long hours to develop today’s scheduled internationally televised fund-raiser for Mexican earthquake victims.
He has slowed his pace somewhat. The chauffeur drives him during work hours to ease the strain of travel, and he runs for an hour in solitude each morning at the Wilshire Country Club and arrives at work at 8 a.m. instead of 7.
But he still gets only three to four hours sleep a night.
“I got up at 3 this morning,” he said on a recent afternoon, sitting in shirt sleeves in a brisk wind in the patio of the house he shares with his wife, Myrna, 46.
A son, Danny, 25, who attended Stanford, is an assistant general manager at KMEX. Another son, Jim, 21, an All-American punter at Harvard, plans to attend business school.
Villanueva said he spends most nights listening to news radio. “If it doesn’t bother my wife, I’ll watch cable news all night. . . . Been doing it for years.”
His nocturnal habits started at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces where he played football, edited the school newspaper, worked on the local paper and majored in English literature.
Chance for a Tryout
Villanueva had finished his football eligibility as a kicker and was practice teaching when he received a phone call asking if he’d come to Los Angeles for a tryout.
The Rams’ coaches had been meeting about their need for a kicker, and Chuck Benedict, a radio broadcaster who was listening, remembered covering Villanueva as a high school player in Calexico.
When Villanueva reached Los Angeles, the Sheraton West Hotel had no rooms.
“They stuck me in a small ballroom and they put a rollaway bed in it, right near the rest room,” he said. “I thought I was in the biggest hotel room I’d ever seen.
“I told my wife it had a great ceiling with ornate stuff and a chandelier and . . . I asked somebody if that’s what they called a suite, you know, ‘cause I’d heard about a suite in a hotel. I’d never seen anything like that.”
The next morning the Rams drove him to Grant High School in Van Nuys where he kicked for Rams’ Coach Bob Waterfield, a Pro Football Hall of Fame member as a quarterback and kicker.
“Bob sat there quietly with a toothpick in his mouth and . . . I thought he was the greatest thing I’d ever heard of and so I kicked and I kicked and I kicked and I kicked,” Villanueva said.
“I don’t recall the exact number anymore, but it was 30-something in a row and I never missed. And he said, “ ‘I’ve seen enough.’
” . . . So they offered me a contract. . . . It was $5,500. . . . I was hearing about bonuses (for signing a contract), so I thought I’d hit ‘em up for a bonus. They gave me $200, and they took it out of my last check.”
It was a bargain for the Rams. Kicking for Los Angeles from 1960 to 1964, Villanueva punted for an average of 45.5 yards in 1962, a team record he still holds. He also set a team record for the longest field goal, 51 yards, which he shares.
Shares Football Record
Traded to Dallas in 1965, Villanueva kicked 56 points after touchdown without a miss in 1966, a National Football League record that was tied only last year. He retired before the 1968 season.
Despite a successful career, the 5-foot-10, 205-pound kicker described himself as short and fat and said he survived eight seasons only through hard work.
While other athletes not involved in plays watched practice from the sideline, he studied game films to improve his form. He made sure that he ran, lifted weights and kicked almost every day during the off season.
The habit of hard work had been impressed upon him by his mother, Pilar, who Villanueva describes as illiterate and brilliant.
She devised noteworthy lessons in Calexico, where the family moved after living in Arizona.
Mother Would Cheer
Villanueva said his mother, who died in 1979, didn’t understand football and would cheer whether he fumbled or scored a touchdown. But she knew whether Calexico High, with Villanueva as its quarterback, won or lost.
If the team lost, Villanueva said, “One of her little tricks was . . . I’d get home and the house was dark.
“She’d lock me out of the house and she’d let me think about it . . . and then she’d let me in. During the week, there were little digs. How’s it feel to lose? . . . Could I look at myself in the mirror and say I absolutely did the best I could?
“If we won, the lights were on, there was food, hugs.
“I think without telling us she saw that as our ticket (out). You know, ‘I can’t . . . pay your education.’ So she had all of us playing sports.”
Pilar Villanueva’s plan worked for Villanueva’s brother, Primo. An All-Conference back at UCLA in 1954, he became a Vancouver restaurateur.
And when Danny Villanueva taught a boy how to kick in a Rams’ training camp, the boy’s father introduced Villanueva to Burt Avedon, the first manager of KMEX, and to Ford Motor Co. executives, who began sponsoring him on five-minute sports shows on the station.
Retiring from football, Villanueva made a painful transition to full-time news director in 1968 as he relearned Spanish and regained pride in his heritage.
“We were that transitional generation that thought that by distancing ourselves from our culture, our language and our background and our roots, we were going to somehow magically be accepted by the general community,” he said. “It didn’t work. I went so far from Spanish that I majored in English. That’s the ultimate.”
Foreign-born broadcasters who spoke the language fluently dominated KMEX and scorned the newcomer.
“I had to ask . . . is this the way?” he said. “And I finally told them, look, laugh at me, but correct me. . . . Tell me what I’m saying wrong, please.”
His Spanish improved and he won promotion to station manager in 1969, but physical pressures developed.
Covering the East Los Angeles riots of 1970, he got caught in a cross fire on Whittier Boulevard.
Station Was Bombed
When KMEX tried to defuse the rioting, it was bombed. “Militants were calling us pacifists,” he said. “Some on the other side of the coin were calling us agitators.”
Villanueva placed a guard on the station’s roof.
Eventually, as the station succeeded, physical pressures were replaced by demands for support from a growing county Latino community, which exceeds 2 million, according to the 1980 census.
“Our giving is doubling, doubling, doubling to organizations that need help,” Villanueva said.
Villanueva has never questioned that the station, a major news source for the Latino community, should be active in that community’s affairs.
At the Cutting Edge
“When things needed to be done in that community, the station has always been at the cutting edge with an advocacy type of journalism,” he said.
“We don’t have an L.A. Times. We don’t have a KCET. We have to be a little more than a TV station to our viewers.
” . . . It’s a whole philosophy of involvement that I put in when I took over (as general manager) in 1971. That part can’t be questioned. . . .”
Within 30 days last year, he said, the station raised money for a boy’s kidney operation, provided an eye operation for a Honduran woman and raised $240,000 for victims of a Mexico City gas explosion.
The station, which started with a skeletal staff in 1962, he continued, now employs 155 people and sometimes reaches 400,000 homes or about 15% of all households watching.
Villanueva oversees the operation from a carpeted office where a long, bright row of 141 Olympic flags are displayed behind him, a reminder of his work last year as Olympic boxing commissioner.
The office overlooks the 5400 block of Melrose Avenue in Hollywood, where the station has branched out to three buildings on both sides of the street.
On rare occasions when Villanueva gets away from the office, he heads for a family condominium in Palm Desert or a just purchased 400-acre ranch above Oxnard, which Myrna Villanueva and her parents were recently painting and decorating.
Villanueva met his wife packing fruit in a shed while he attended Reedley Junior College. Her German Mennonite father worked as a school custodian after an unsuccessful attempt at farming.
Fulfillment of Fantasy
Their new ranch, Villanueva said, is the “fulfillment of a childhood fantasy. You work other people’s fields and you say one day I’m going to own my own. So finally after all these years . . . we bought one.
“And she’s happy. It makes me happy that she is. . . . You can see the glimmer in her eyes.”
Villanueva, who picked asparagus, cantaloupe and watermelon as a boy, and whose family often ate cactus when it ran out of money at the end of the month, allows that his Pacific Palisades home and 400-acre ranch are a long way from Calexico.
He is pleased at the success, but one thing eludes him.
Villanueva’s parents wanted him to be a missionary and pressed the notion that he had to serve people.
First Cry in Adult Life
Hurt when people criticize the public service record of his station, he cried over the subject in a recent interview, the first time he had cried in his adult life, he said.
“I think we’ve been good broadcasters. We’ve stuck our neck out 10 miles when it wasn’t the prudent thing to do. . . ,” he said.
“We were having trouble making bank payments (in the early years of the station). We were refusing certain advertising that we thought was not in the best interests of Hispanics. . . .
“We were sued. . . . We had to go to court to defend ourselves because we wouldn’t let them use our station to rip Hispanics off.
” . . . We tried so hard, you know, to raise the level of life and to try to just help out. . . . They don’t recognize that we’ve done so much good. . . . Perhaps we’ve been too successful.”
Reflecting on his parents’ wishes, Villanueva said that he had “tried desperately within the framework of what I wanted to do” to serve others.
TV Provided Opportunity
“TV gave me the opportunity just like football. It gave me visibility and a chance to make a mark.”
A few days before, he had accepted membership on three more boards of directors, and a friend had begged him to slow down.
Pacing the floor in his office, Villanueva answered that he was almost done with his work and could relax soon.
“I remember a phrase my father used to use: ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant,’ ” he said. “That’s all. One day I want him to tell me, ‘Well done.’ ”