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TV fixture Stohl was serious about fun for kids

| Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2008

For a man who gained local celebrity with a yarn-haired puppet named Knish, Henry "Hank Stohl" Zakowski could be serious about his craft.

"There's nothing he wouldn't do, wouldn't try. He was really amazing -- funny, but also very much together, as far as writing and making sure all the routines were carried out well," said Pittsburgh musician Joe Negri, a Scott man in his late 70s who worked with Mr. Zakowski at WTAE decades ago.

"I was just really thrilled to know him," Negri said. "He was truly one of the pioneers of television, particularly children's television."

Henry "Hank" Zakowski of Whitehall, whose TV appearances as Hank Stohl introducing cartoons alongside puppets such as Knish entertained a generation of Pittsburgh-area baby boomers, died Monday, Dec. 15, 2008. He was 81.

Mr. Zakowski's career started in Ohio. But he designed Knish -- which would become somewhat synonymous with his name -- with rug yarn and a darning egg, a tool for mending socks, while auditioning for a spot on "Mitzi's Kiddie Castle" in Pittsburgh in 1952, said Kathleen Wendell, the deputy director of Heinz History Center's museum division.

After working for WDTV, KDKA's predecessor, in the mid-1950s, Mr. Zakowski appeared on WTAE from 1961-63.

His puppets, including Knish and "Popeye and Knish" fixtures Rodney J. Hackenflash and Connie The Dog, are in the Heinz History Center's collection.

Harry Kloman was about 4 years old when he met Mr. Zakowski at a Wilkins restaurant. The University of Pittsburgh professor-instructor and film critic approached Mr. Zakowski and asked how he could exist outside the Kloman family TV set.

Mr. Zakowski provided a rather existential answer, saying sometimes he appeared on TV and sometimes outside of it, Kloman said.

Kloman remained a fan of the show, in part because his family's black-and-white TV set in Wilkins got Channel 4 the best over the antenna.

"It was great. It was fun," said Kloman, 51. "I just watched. It wasn't until years later that I became a critic."

A World War II veteran and pilot, Mr. Zakowski developed creatively outside the medium of children's television. He appeared on a WTAE morning show, acted extensively on TV and in film, and helped write a novel, a three-act comedy and other plays. But children's television provided him a kind of local celebrity.

"I grew up with local television. and Hank Stohl was certainly part of that," said Aviva Radbord, a public affairs producer with KDKA. "He was an extremely creative man."

He was warm and friendly off-screen, said his mother-in-law, Ida Heh.

"He was fun," said Heh, 87, of Mt. Lebanon. "He was a nice guy. And he had the puppets, and the kids all loved him."

Mr. Zakowski is survived by a wife, Anita Heh Stohl; children Donna Zeller, Henry S. and Lynn Zakowski II, Julianne and Alfred Gemino, Michael and Maura Hegley, Erik and Wendy Stohl, and Robert Perry; grandchildren Henry Stohl Zakowski III, Shelby Stohl, Taylor Stohl, Martha Hegley, Maeve Hegley, Madison Gemino and Michael A. Hegley; siblings Leona Benson and Lois Cook; and a former wife, Ruth Zakowski Getz.

He was predeceased by a sister, Audrey Tennant.

Visitation will be from 2 to 4 and 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday and 2 to 4 and 6 to 7:30 p.m. Friday at Beinhauers, 2630 W. Liberty Ave., Dormont. Burial will be private.

The family suggests memorial contributions be made to The Intersection, care of Sister Bonnie Heh, P.O. Box 827, McKeesport, PA 15132.

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