A Nebraska legend turns 100: Don Meier

Don Meier, creator of "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom," turned 100 on february 2, 2015.

Don Meier, creator of “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom,” turned 100 on February 2, 2015.

Happy 100th birthday Don Meier. This Oshkosh, Nebraska native and College of Journalism and Mass Communications graduate from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln strides across the century mark today. I talk with Don and Lorena by phone several times a year and count our conversations as memory highlights. Meier is as full of curiosity, optimism and enthusiasm today as when he entered this world on a chilly (-12), clear winter’s day in 1915.  Of course you don’t turn 100 without some perseverance. Millions of people don’t know Meier by name, but they do know him by the television program he created.

In 1963, Meier’s program “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” debuted on the NBC television network. It was the first TV wildlife program to take viewers into the natural habitat of the creatures the world over who were highlighted in each “Wild Kingdom” episode. This was visceral television. Charging elephants covered in dust and sweat. Blood stained lions devouring prey. Venomous cobras and cold-blooded killer crocodiles. No program before captured it as well as “Wild Kingdom.”

Don Meier visited Africa to film several episodes of "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom" during the program's 25 year run on television.

Don Meier visited Africa to film several episodes of “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” during the program’s 25 year run on television.

It was a dream fulfilled for creator and executive producer Don Meier. Within a few years, “Wild Kingdom” became appointment television for 34 million U.S. viewers each Sunday. “Wild Kingdom” remained the definition of a television wildlife program for the next quarter century with Marlin Perkins, Jim Fowler and others hosting the program. In the process “Wild Kingdom” helped cultivate and inspire an environmental consciousness in generations of TV viewers.

Don and Lorena Meier received several Emmy Awards for "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom" program and have also underwritten several scholarships for students at the University of Nebraska.

Don and Lorena Meier received several Emmy Awards for “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” program and have also underwritten several scholarships for students at the University of Nebraska.

Which takes me back to Don Meier’s perseverance. Looking back at “Wild Kingdom,” it seems the program’s strong audience appeal and ultimate ratings success would make it a surefire pick for potential sponsors. Not so. Don Meier invested all of his and wife Lorena’s savings to produce a TV pilot for the program in 1960. Meier took out a second mortgage on the couple’s home. He spent the next several years traveling across America, visiting with scores of prospective sponsors, trying to convince one of them that “Wild Kingdom” could be a commercial success. Meier never stopped believing that America would watch the right kind of wildlife program. He made 84 visits to advertising companies across America; New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit, St. Louis, Milwaukee and a long list of other U.S. cities. Eighty-four times Meier was turned down.

Don Meier in the early days of Chicago television in the 1940s where being a TV pioneer meant you did everything from producing TV programs to sweeping the floors after their conclusion.

Don Meier in the early days of Chicago television in the 1940s where being a TV pioneer meant you did everything from producing TV programs to sweeping the floors after their conclusion.

Then, serendipity struck. Marlin Perkins, during a visit with the president of the Mutual of Omaha, learned the insurance company was looking to sponsor a new TV program it might build a national image around. A half hour later, Mutual of Omaha was on the phone with Meier, asking him to fly to Omaha to show the company’s executives his pilot for “Wild Kingdom.” The rest, as they say, is history. In late January, 1963 “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” debuted on NBC and to this day still remains one of the highest rated TV programs in U.S. history. Mutual of Omaha still uses the “Wild Kingdom” name for a series of branded Web programs hosted by Stephanie Arne.

A young Don Meier entered the pioneering world of television in the late 1940's after serving as an officer in WWII.

A young Don Meier entered the pioneering world of television in the late 1940’s after serving as an officer in WWII.

Don himself could have been an actor. He had the dashing good looks of a young motion picture star. Fortunately, Don stayed behind the camera. There, his true genius as a producer and program creator was unmistakable. In “Wild Kingdom,” he left us with a TV wildlife program that entertained, informed, educated and inspired viewers the world over. That was Don Meier’s gift to us.

There have been many others too. Don and Lorena Meier have established more than a dozen scholarship funds here at the University of Nebraska. Those scholarships continue to allow many young men and women to achieve their dream of a college degree and the higher education experiences that go with it.

On this day, my gift to Don is this small recognition of his 100th birthday. So, happy birthday Don Meier. You have been a mentor to me and many others through your actions and deeds. You are a reminder to us all to persevere so we can keep paying it forward.

Click here to listen to a radio report featuring Don Meier two years ago on the 50th anniversary of “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.”

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About Bernard McCoy

My views are my own and not a reflection of my employer. I'm an associate professor of Journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I've also been a working journalist for the past 29 years. I have covered news stories in war zones, reported on human and natural disasters, presidential conventions, a presidential inauguration and the September 11th, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. My career experiences include work as an award-winning documentary producer, television news reporter, photographer, producer, and anchor. I worked at WIBW-TV, Topeka, KS., KCTV, Kansas City, MO, WKBD-TV, Detroit, MI., WILX-TV, Lansing, MI. and WBNS-TV, Columbus, OH. I have also worked as a contributing reporter for The Columbus Dispatch, Associated Press, CBS, CNN, the Ohio News Network and lecture at the Kosovo Institute of Journalism and Communications. I have a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and a master’s degree in telecommunications management from Michigan State University.
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11 Responses to A Nebraska legend turns 100: Don Meier

  1. Doreen Pizzato says:

    My name is Doreen Pizzato and I worked as a secretary for Don & Lorena Meier at Don Meier Productions in Chicago from 1969-1975 and from 1978-1988. They were wonderful people to work for and I was truly blessed when I was hired. I was 19 years old and basically “grew up” under their watchful eyes. Don is the most intelligent, talented, hard-working man I have ever known. His integrity is above reproach and his generous and compassionate nature makes him such a special person.. Lorie shares the same attributes and is truly a woman before her time. I learned so much about business as well as life from both of them. I was so fortunate to have such an interesting and unique job and Don & Lorie are the reason. I formed a lifetime bond with them. They continue to be such an important part of my life and I am still amazed by them. A very Happy 100th Birthday Don!

    • barneymccoy says:

      Thanks for writing Doreen. What a blessing to have mentors and friends like Don and Lorie. They are special in so many ways; hard working, talented, committed, generous, fun-loving. I say “fun-loving” because whenever I call them to chat, I can still hear them giggling in the background as they talk with each other. One of the most amazing couples I’ve ever met. Regards, Barney McCoy

  2. SimplyWyse says:

    Are Don and Lorie still living?

    • barneymccoy says:

      Hi SimplyWyse,
      Don and Lorie are both doing great. I talked to Don two weeks ago. He told me he had just renewed his driver’s license. Don turned 101 last week and is a joy and inspiration to know.

  3. SimplyWyse says:

    If you would, can you please email me at simplywyse@gmail.com?

  4. Melanie Apel says:

    My dad was one of the film editors of Wild Kingdom. I am thrilled to hear that Don Meier is alive and well at 101! Happy birthday!
    Melanie Apel

    • barneymccoy says:

      Thanks Melanie. I just talked by phone with Don this week. He’s 101, just renewed his driver’s license and just seems to be ageless in his curiosity about life.

  5. Mike Jorgensen says:

    I lived in Oshkosh Nebraska for over a quarter of a century and had the pleasure of knowing Don’s family and meeting Don. He sat in my office one afternoon and spoke fondly of his world-wide adventures. He commented on the miles and miles of film that was left unseen after editing. He felt there were valuable pieces even in this. He was very humble in describing his adventures and accomplishments.

    • Bernard McCoy says:

      Hello Mike,
      Thanks for sharing your memories of Don Meier. What an incredible man whose life experiences have enriched and informed millions of people around the world. Don is now 101 years old and still as sharp as a whip.

  6. Ray Pawley says:

    When Marlin Perkins hired me as a Zoologist it was the Chicago Park District that paid my salary but it was on the Wild Kingdom set at Dal Jones studios off of Clark Street where I spent most of my time scheduling the animals according script, creating some of the sets and keeping the critters content. What an amazing experience!! How I wish I could revisit/see some of those “out-takes” of the unexpected and humorous “takes” that are part of the filming industry–however, they probably no longer exist!! To Don and Lori, my very warmest best wishes. Last month I returned from a 14 mile hike in the Grand Canyon just to see if I could still do it after turning 80–Don could probably do it at 100 in half the time! 🙂 Cheers and my best to Don and Lori! Ray Pawley

    • Bernard McCoy says:

      Thanks Ray for sharing your memories of Don Meier and Wild Kingdom. You have had an interesting life and it sounds as if you are in great shape. I spoke with Don last week by phone and he is as sharp and conversant as someone half his age of 101 years. Amazing!

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