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One of Fargo's first TV personalities dies at 89

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

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."