The Life of Chalmers Harpole Marquis

A champion of public television, a musician, a caring father, a loving husband and a good friend, Chalmers H. Marquis, Jr. gave joy to many people during his 91 years.

Born in Bloomington, Illinois on November 12, 1926 to Chalmers H. Marquis, and Elsie Welch Marquis, Chalmers moved to Chicago at age 5 with his parents and sister Dorothy. Growing up there, his talents for music and theater blossomed. In high school he performed in several shows and formed a nightclub act with friends that attracted a national touring agent. He also found a love of swimming and boating that would continue throughout his life.

Chalmers graduated high school early and enlisted in the Navy in 1944, training in radio and electronics and served on LSM 484 in the Pacific during World War II. Following the war, he used the GI Bill to earn degrees at The Universities of Chicago (1948) and Illinois (1950). At the University of Illinois, he created the University’s first radio station and was named to the Kappa Tau Alpha journalism honor society. He also joined Phi Gamma Delta fraternity and was a loyal “Fiji”.

He was fascinated by a new medium: television. In 1950, Chalmers accepted his first broadcasting job as a dolly pusher for WGN – TV in Chicago. Following stints there and at WBBM-TV, directing commercials and baseball games, Chalmers felt that television could do more—that it could educate as well as entertain. So, in 1955 he joined Chicago’s new educational TV station WTTW as it opened its doors. That began a 35-year career that helped bring public television to America.

From 1955 to 1964, Chalmers rose from producer/ director to Director of Programming at WTTW. During his tenure, the station became the largest public broadcaster in the United States and set the standard for educational broadcasting.

In 1964, Chalmers accepted a post as Executive Director of Educational Television Stations in Washington. He became an effective advocate and ambassador and was promoted to Vice President of the National Association of Educational Broadcasters, then to Vice President of National Affairs for PBS and finally serving as Congressional Liaison for the National Association of Educational Television Stations. During these tenures, Chalmers helped to create the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, and expand educational television in classrooms across the country. As public television’s chief Congressional liaison, he also helped secure support for landmark children’s programming including “Sesame Street” and “1-2-3 Contact”.  

In 1991, the man hailed as “Public television’s long time voice on Capitol Hill” retired. In 1992 Chalmers was awarded public television’s most prestigious honor, the Ralph Lowell Award, for his extraordinary efforts and leadership in Public Broadcasting. Even after retirement, he kept active: lecturing at universities, traveling, and working with the U.S. State Department to help Saudi Arabia establish an educational television network.

As many of his friends know, Chalmers’ life extended well beyond television. He enjoyed music, especially jazz, and played several instruments. He spent 22 years playing bagpipes and serving as Gigmeister for the Northern Virginia Firefighters Emerald Society Pipe Band until 2006. He was also a devoted churchgoer, serving as a member and lay leader at Georgetown Presbyterian Church and then at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. Above all, he was committed to making his community a better place and was a frequent volunteer for many causes, including Meals on Wheels.

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Military Service

World War II
served on LSM 484 in the Pacific during World War II