Donald Meier, creator, producer and director of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, one of America’s most iconic television programs, died peacefully of natural causes on July 13, 2019 at age 104 in his Winnetka home.
From 1963-1987 tens of millions of Americans gathered every Sunday night around the television set to watch his show bring wildlife and wild places from Africa to the Amazon River straight into their living rooms. Hosted by Lincoln Park Zoo Director Marlin Perkins, the real-life action/adventure series was a groundbreaking forum that stressed ecological and environmental awareness and the importance of the preservation of wildlife and natural habitats throughout the world. Further, the show’s pioneering “live” format created an interest in wildlife programming that flourishes today in forms such as the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet.
“When we first started out there was hardly any concern about wildlife,” Meier said in a recent interview. “From the very beginning the primary mission was to educate people. Conservation was the main issue throughout all the episodes.”
Born in Pulaski, Iowa and raised in Oshkosh, Nebraska, Meier graduated from Garden County High School in Oshkosh and the University of Nebraska, where he received degrees in business administration, speech and theater. Serving in a U.S. Army from 1941-1946, he was discharged as Lt. Colonel and Director of Training, Army Finance Training Center.
Meier soon became an early television pioneer at WBKB, Chicago's first commercial TV station, where he learned the business “from sweeping the floors on up.” At the time, only 250 sets received a TV signal in the city. In the 1950s, he worked for the NBC network where he was a director of the Dave Garroway show and other popular programs such as Quiz Kids and Mr. Wizard. He also worked on Zoo Parade, hosted by Perkins, and utilized the novel concept of taking the cameras beyond the zoo confines and into the wilds.
In 1958, new management at NBC canceled Zoo Parade and Meier made a deal with the network to take ownership of film he had produced in the Amazon. “I took out a second mortgage on my house, borrowed money and took the biggest gamble of my life,” said Meier, who formed his own company and created a pilot “Animal Kingdom” program with Perkins as the host. The pilot’s introduction was shot in Wilmette’s Gillson Park.
NBC told Meier he would have to find a sponsor. “I visited 84 potential sponsors and was turned down 84 times,” he said. Perkins was in Omaha giving a speech when he learned that Mutual of Omaha was looking to build a national image around a new TV show. The connection took, and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom debuted in 1963.
Wally Podrazik, curator at Chicago’s Museum of Broadcast Communications, called the show one of the earliest examples of effective television branding. “Anyone who grew up in that era doesn’t immediately say ‘Wild Kingdom.’ First reference is ‘Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom,’” Podrazik said.
Filmed in 47 countries, the show became an instant hit, offering an educational experience and compelling entertainment all in one package. “We always edited it so that the program looked as though you were looking over Marlin’s shoulder and participating with him in the action. Everyone in the audience felt involved in it,” he told an interviewer.
In 1974, Wild Kingdom parted with NBC to become a successful syndicated program that ran through 1988. During its peak years, 34 million Americans watched the show each Sunday on 224 U.S. TV stations. Former co-host Jim Fowler called Wild Kingdom one of television’s first reality TV shows. “We actually went out and had the adventures and had the experiences that we showed on television,” he said.
Reflecting on Wild Kingdom’s success, Meier said the program's greatest achievement was its reshaping of the way many viewers thought about wildlife and wild places. “There were places I went when I was doing Wild Kingdom. I could see the changes happening all the time,” he said. “It doesn’t take very much awareness to come to the conclusion that we better take care of the planet now rather than later.”
While Meier was traveling for decades into the wild, Lorie, his wife of 68 years, was in Chicago taking care of business, which meant dealing with lawyers, bankers, insurance companies and ad agencies, as well as doing the bookkeeping, payroll and some film editing as well. “She was the general in charge of everything. She ran the place,” he said. “She was not only a wife, she was a partner, she was an advisor, she was a supporter. She was everything, and never for a moment did she relinquish that role.” Lorie died June 22, 2018 at age 100.
Niece Stacy Hutchinson recalled him as a captivating storyteller. “When my sons and I came to Chicago for aunt Lorie‘s memorial service, we made plans to see all the sites and do the touristy thing. When I asked the boys what they wanted to do, they said ‘honestly mom, we just want to go hang out with uncle Don some more and listen to more of his stories!’ He had such an amazing memory and his attention to detail was uncanny.”
Former Wild Kingdom staff employee Doreen Pizzato spoke of the great impact he had on her life over the course of 50 years. “He filled the roles of boss, teacher, second father, and a very dear friend. His integrity was above reproach, his advice immeasurable, his compassion and support heartfelt and his love such a blessing.”
Jessica Salinas, care giver for both Don and Lorie, came to see Meier as a best friend and mentor. “Every day I learned something new, from preparing tax documents to birdseeds. From his early years teaching in the Army to later teaching night school at Northwestern, he was a teacher to many. I once read that teaching is the greatest act of optimism, and Don was just that — an optimist.”
Meier’s sense of humor was with him always, as well. “Lorie and Don were very kind and smiling friends,” said Jerry and Gilda Edelstein, who were Don and Lorie Meier’s neighbor for over forty years. “When Gilda asked Don where he was going, he’d say he was off to chase giraffes.”
His fame notwithstanding, Meier remained grounded, said his niece, Connie Koepke. “He never forgot about his small town roots and his family. Both were very important to him. We always enjoyed their visits. He and Lorie had wonderful stories to tell and they were always very interested in our lives.”
Nephew Bob Bennett echoed the sentiment. "As big and successful as his professional career was, so too was his personal life and personal relationship with people he was close to. I consider myself fortunate to have been one of those.”
Mary Bennett, another niece, said that when Meier was presented with a point of view he didn’t agree with, he made a point of engaging that person. “He was a great speaker, but he was also a good listener,” she said.
David Shoub, Don and Lorie’s friend and personal accountant and attorney for 50 years, called the couple “the most generous, honest people I had the pleasure to know and represent. It was my honor to work with them.”
Meier was the son of John Henry Meier and Ada Grace Hilpert and was the eldest and last surviving of four boys and two girls. He is survived by 15 loving nieces and nephews and 29 grandnieces and grandnephews.Visitation: Friday, August 2, 2019, 12:00 p.m. until time of Memorial/Celebration of Life: 1:00 p.m. at Northfield Community Church, 400 Wagner Road, Northfield, IL 60093.
A lunch and time to share memories and stories about Don will follow after the service in the Church's Fellowship Hall. Interment: Private In lieu of flowers please make donations to a charity of your choice that you know Don would be comfortable with.
A very special Thank You to Don’s caregiver Jessica Salinas, her mother Maria and her cousin Nancy for all they did and meant to Don during the last year of his life and to the staff at NorthShore Hospice for the quality and attention to care that kept Don comfortable during the final journey of his life.Read More