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WDAY-TV's 'Party Line' co-host Verna Newell was one of F-M area's first TV personalities. (Forum file photo)

One of Fargo's first TV personalities dies at 89

News Morris,Minnesota 56267
Morris Sun Tribune
One of Fargo's first TV personalities dies at 89
Morris Minnesota 607 Pacific Avenue 56267

FARGO -- She was equally at ease chatting with Richard Nixon or Johnny Cash and the organizers of a local church crafts fair. She always had impeccably styled hair - and well-researched questions for her on-screen guests.

Verna Newell, for 22 years co-host of WDAY-TV's show "Party Line," died Sunday at 89.

Newell was an unassuming homebody who became one of the area's first television personalities, unflappable in the

company of even the highest-profile interviewee. She was a female mover-and-shaker who shaped a profession dominated by men. She held her own alongside a slew of male co-hosts from 1957 to 1979, when the show went off the air.

"She was a major figure in television in our area; everybody knew Verna," said Marv Bossart, a one-time WDAY newsman who occasionally filled in on "Party Line." "Her work helped women become more visible in the television world here. "

Host Bill Weaver enlisted Newell after a quartet she performed with, the Honey Bees, appeared on the show. Newell, a Fargo native, had worked in radio in Jamestown, N.D., La Crosse, Wis., and at KFGO in Fargo.

"Party Line" was an hourlong afternoon show broadcast live in front of a studio audience. Over the years, Newell welcomed then-Vice President Richard Nixon, actors Gregory Peck and Dustin Hoffman, singer Peggy Lee and boxer Joe Louis.

The show also featured an in-house organist, makeovers, crafty gift ideas and tips on how to stretch the family budget. Newell produced it and lined up the guests.

"She was a maverick back then," said Helen Danielson, a regular guest and occasional host of the show. "It wasn't really common to have women in that position."

Newell's husband, Bill Erwin, didn't realize at first what a big deal the show was when he moved to the area to head the state's American Cancer Society chapter. The couple met when a beauty pageant recruited them as judges.

But Newell's fame soon became apparent. Strangers constantly stopped her on the street; she always graciously paused to visit. At a meeting with Cancer Society volunteers in Cavalier County, N.D., Erwin was told they had to wrap up by 3 because that's when "Party Line" started.

And guests whom Newell had once cajoled to come on the show were calling her to finagle a spot, said Erwin: "I never heard her say, 'I tried to get so-and-so, and I just couldn't do it.' "

Still, Newell remained down-to-earth, a fiercely private woman who hated to have her picture taken and rejected the idea of an on-screen alias as "too fancy for her." Erwin said she rebuffed at least one offer from a Los Angeles station because she wanted to stay in Fargo. Her two sons from a previous marriage remained a priority.

After the show wrapped up, Newell worked as a tour guide for a local travel company. But the frequent encounters with strangers and former guests eager to chat continued.

After all, said Danielson, "Verna and 'Party Line' were like a member of the household from 3 to 4 p.m. each weekday for many faithful viewers."