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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”