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Hubert J. Schlafly Jr. obituary: Invented the teleprompter

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 13, 2011 - Politicians and performers the world over can thank a former St. Louisan for their ability to deliver seamless speeches and heart-wrenching lines, and everyone who watches satellite or cable TV can add their appreciation.

Hubert Joseph "Hub" Schlafly, an Emmy Award-winning television engineer who created the now indispensible teleprompter and helped develop satellite and cable networks, died April 20, in Stamford, Conn., following a brief illness. He was 91.

Mr. Schlafly was born in St. Louis on Aug. 14, 1919, the only child of Hubert Schlafly Sr. and Mary Rose Parker Schlafly. Joseph Schlafly, Mr. Schlafly's cousin, said the family had lived in the city's Central West End.

Patent No. 2,635,373: Television Prompting Apparatus

Mr. Schlafly, along with Fred Barton Jr., a Broadway actor who wanted to be shed of cue cards in imprecise human hands, gave the Teleprompter its debut on a soap opera, "The First Hundred Years," in 1950. The teleprompter's next big starring role came in 1952, at the Republican National Convention when former President Herbert Hoover gave the keynote speech using the new device, becoming the first politician to do so. But he would not be the last.

Every president since, except Richard Nixon, has spoken to the public with the aid of a teleprompter, those scrolling cheat sheets for speakers that are in plain sight of the reader but which are virtually invisible to the camera and live or home audiences.

It was the actor, Barton's, idea; Irving Berlin Kahn, a nephew of the famous composer and then vice president of radio and television at 20th Century Fox, asked Mr. Schlafly, then Fox's director of television research, if he could create such a device. Recalling the outcome in a 2008 interview with the Stamford Advocate in 2008, he said: "It was a piece of cake."

Confident they had a winner, Barton, Kahn and Mr. Schlafly quit their jobs at Fox and formed Teleprompter Corp. (originally called TelePrompTer) to develop and market their "television prompting apparatus." Mr. Schlafly was the company's leader, first as its executive vice president and later as president.

"He was brilliant," said his cousin, Joseph Schlafly, head of private equity and venture capital at Stifel Nicolas in St. Louis, "but he was very modest and self-effacing, which is not something you see often in entrepreneurs and great scientists."

Joseph Schlafly met his cousin, whom all family members called "Uncle Hub" regardless of relationship, only a few times, but over the years, stories abounded.

"I grew up hearing about this teleprompter in the '50s, about this marvelous invention of Uncle Hub's," Joe said.

Spirit of St. Louis

Mr. Schlafly's father, Hubert Sr., and his brother, August Schlafly, came to the United States from Switzerland in the mid-19th century. The Schlaflys landed in Carlyle, Ill., and later moved to St. Louis.

"They had enormous spirit and a pioneering approach to life," Joe said.

"Uncle Hub was both a scientist and consummate entrepreneur who had the same approach to life as his Uncle August, a venture capitalist and entrepreneur who bought and built a number of businesses in the latter half of the 19th century and early 20th century."

Unlike most of his relatives, Mr. Schlafly would make his life far from St. Louis, but he never forgot home.

"He always said that he was from St. Louis; he was very proud of that," said Thomas Gallagher, a longtime friend from Connecticut who eulogized Mr. Schlafly at a service on Tuesday in Greenwich, Conn. "A few years ago while in St. Louis, I got him a T-shirt from the (Schlafly) brewery that says, 'Beer is not just for breakfast anymore.' He was delighted."

After graduating from St. Louis University High School, Mr. Schlafly attended the University of Notre Dame, earning a degree in electrical engineering in 1941. With 16 patents to his credit, he would become one of the school's most famous alumni. He is the first person featured in Hannah Storm's 2006 book, "Notre Dame Inspirations," taking his place alongside such notables as Regis Philbin, Joe Montana and Phil Donahue.

New York, New York

Following college, Mr. Schlafly spent several years working for General Electric and the MIT Radiation Laboratory. In 1947, he joined Twentieth Century Fox in New York City, where he created the teleprompter and co-founded the Teleprompter Corp.

Under Mr. Schlafly's leadership, the Teleprompter Corp. branched out to create what became one of the first cable TV networks. The company sold its teleprompting business in the 1960s to focus on emerging technologies such as closed circuit television, cable's forerunner. By the early 1970s, Teleprompter Corp. owned franchises in 140 markets, serving approximately 1.4 million customers.

In 1973, Mr. Schlafly worked with Hughes Aircraft and Scientific Atlanta Company to broadcast the first cable program via satellite from Washington, to a convention of 3,000 cable operators in Anaheim. He demonstrated the coming power of satellite by engineering the famous HBO satellite transmission of the "Thrilla in Manila" boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in 1975.

Mr. Schlafly left Teleprompter Corp. in the mid-1970s, and the company merged with Westinghouse Electric Corp. in 1981.

Later in his career, Mr. Schlafly was president of Transponder Corp., a telecommunications company, and Portel Services Network, a communications patent-licensing company. He also served as chairman of the FCC Cable Television Advisory Commission. He retired in 1998.

The Seer

In 1956, the editors of a leading science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories, invited Mr. Schlafly to join more than a dozen public figures, including Sid Caesar, Salvador Dali and John Cameron Swayze, to predict what the world would be like in 2001.

Mr. Schlafly predicted: "Systematic information storage will be in a form instantly available for response to remote inquiry. Communications will be highly refined, without the encumbrance of any wires to or between terminal devices. In fact, this advanced state of communications may substantially reduce our need for transportation."

He had presciently described the advent of computers, the internet and cell phones.

"He made truly amazing predictions," Joe marveled.

Mr. Schlafly could not, however, have foreseen the impact of his work, for which he received numerous accolades.

A Pioneer Honored

Mr. Schlafly was a fellow in the Society of Motion Picture and TV Engineers and he was designated a Cable Television Pioneer by the National Cable Television Association.

Perhaps his most notable honors were the two Emmy Awards he received for technical achievements: one in 1992 for his work developing cable television technology and another in 1999 for creating the teleprompter.

He received the prestigious Sarnoff Citation for inventing the teleprompter and for his many contributions to cable television, and the Vanguard Award for Science and Technology from the National Cable and Telecommunications Association.

In 2008, Mr. Schlafly, at age 88, was inducted into the Cable Television Hall of Fame. He delivered his acceptance speech with the help of a teleprompter, admitting that it was his first time using his invention.

Mr. Schlafly was a philanthropist who supported numerous charities, particularly educational initiatives to help disadvantaged children. He and his wife endowed a scholarship program for minority students in engineering at Notre Dame and the school's Schlafly Electronic Circuits Laboratory. He received the Notre Dame College of Engineering Honor Award for his overall contributions to electronic technology in the television industry and, in 1992, he was honored as Notre Dame Man of the Year.

The digital media lab at Sacred Heart University was dedicated in Mr. Schlafly's honor and in 2003, the university awarded him an honorary doctorate. As a tribute to his wife, Mr. Schlafly underwrote the costs of the school's Chapel of the Nativity.

"Hub's expertise in cable TV and broadcast is indisputable, but he was an even greater person and humanitarian," Gallagher said.

In addition to his parents, Mr. Schlafly was preceded in death by his wife of 59 years, Leona "Lee" Martin Schlafly, who died in 2003. They had no children.

"His work was his life," Joe said.

In addition to Jospeh Schafly, he is survived by numerous Schlaflys in the St. Louis area.

A lifelong Catholic, Mr. Schlafly was a member of the Order of Malta and was a Knight of St. Gregory the Great.

A Mass for Mr. Schlafly was held Tuesday, in Greenwich, Conn. A graveside service will be at 10:30 a.m. todayin Louisville, N.Y.

Gloria Ross is the head of Okara Communications and the storywriter for AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service. 

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.