As we conclude our “Where Are They Now?” series, we talk with former ‘Good Morning America’ host David Hartman.
It happened again just recently at a bagel shop in Durham, North Carolina.
A woman eating breakfast looked up from her table, and upon seeing the tall, recognizable man walking by, smiled and said to him, “Make it a good day today!”
The man was former Good Morning America host David Hartman. The woman was citing the famous sign-off he used at the close of each broadcast during his 1975-1987 tenure.
The phrase viewers still cite today “goes back to my childhood,” Hartman, 79, tells TVNewser. “My parents said ‘hey, the responsibility for your life is you. So if you want something to happen, you’re going to make it happen – don’t wait for anybody else to bring it to you.'”
And David Hartman has always made things happen.
A Rhode Island native, he was a talented young athlete who, as a high school student, was offered a pro baseball contract. Opting instead to enroll at Duke University, Hartman majored in economics, while participating in choral and orchestra activities and in the school’s Air Force ROTC. He also did radio and TV announcing, and was president of his fraternity.
After graduation, he served in the Air Force before pursuing an acting and singing career. In 1964, Hartman landed a role in the original Broadway production of Hello, Dolly!. Later, he starred in primetime TV shows such as NBC’s The Bold Ones and Lucas Tanner.
Hartman then began producing educational documentary programming for ABC. Birth and Babies “showed the birth of a baby for the first time on American television,” he says of the 1974 show, which caught the attention of network executives.
They invited him to host ABC’s new morning program, which had the unenviable task of going up against NBC’s venerable Today.
Debuting November 3, 1975, GMA “started with not one paid commercial – not one,” says Hartman. With nothing to lose, the show tried a different approach.
“We didn’t try and blast people out of their pajamas in the morning,” Hartman says of the “quiet, conversational” program, which featured a living-room like setting, sans news desk.
Within a couple years, the show would take the morning ratings crown. Along with his co-hosts – most memorably Joan Lunden – Hartman became a household name. Among his thousands of interview subjects were Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush; world leaders such as Muammar Gaddafi; and actors, musicians, and athletes, including Bette Davis, George Harrison, Ted Williams, and Muhammad Ali. He spent two “life-changing” weeks reporting from the former Soviet Union.
“It was a privilege to do that work,” Hartman reflects. “Wouldn’t trade a day of it.”
His departure from the show came with his four children in their critical pre-teen and teenage years. “I just thought, eleven years is enough,” he says of the 16- and 17-hour workdays that started at 3:30am. “I literally wanted to have more time with my family.”
Post-GMA, Hartman went on to do extensive public speaking, and he continued his passion for informative television by producing, writing, and hosting a slew of documentaries for PBS and the Discovery Channel.
In addition, the former Air Force officer donates his time producing and writing live programming about civil and military aviation for conferences such as the popular Experimental Aircraft Association annual gathering in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
In 1997, his beloved wife, Maureen Downey, died of cancer at the age of 53. Two years later, on a trip back to his alma mater in Durham to host a choral concert, he met local resident Mary Putman, whose late husband had been a Duke University executive.
Hartman and Putman were married in 2001, a real second chance for both. “It’s something that we don’t take for granted, either of us,” Hartman says. Their combined families include seven grown children and nine grandchildren.
While maintaining a pied-à-terre in Manhattan, Hartman has put down roots in North Carolina with his wife. He’s taken an active role in the community, hosting North Carolina Symphony broadcasts on public radio.
Life is good as Hartman approaches a milestone in 2015.
“I think, ‘There’s no way I’m going to be 80 years old!'” he laughs. “I don’t feel like it – I’m busy as a bird-dog and doing stuff, and travel – I’m just lucky. I’m lucky.”
Watch David Hartman sign off as anchor of Good Morning America on Feb. 20, 1987.