Danny Vil­lanueva, for­mer pro football player and Univi­sion co-founder.

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - David Colker david.colker@latimes.com Twit­ter: @david­colker

Danny Vil­lanueva, a for­mer pro football player who be­came key to the growth of Span­ish-lan­guage broad­cast­ing in the United States, was known as a gre­gar­i­ous, friendly ex­ec­u­tive.

Un­less his prin­ci­ples were crossed.

In 1968, he was news di­rec­tor of KMEX-TV in Los An­ge­les when more than 10,000 stu­dents walked out of schools in East L.A. to protest the state of con­di­tions there.

Re­al­iz­ing itwas a his­toric mo­ment for the Latino com­mu­nity, Vil­lanueva rushed to a tech­ni­cian and told him to switch from reg­u­lar pro­gram­ming to a news feed. The tech­ni­cian re­fused.

“Do it and I’ll take re­spon­si­bil­ity,” Vil­lanueva re­called telling the tech­ni­cian in a 1997 in­ter­view with The Times. “If you don’t do it, let’s go out­side, be­cause you’re go­ing to have to beat meup to stop me from do­ing it.”

The tech­ni­cian took a look at the hulk­ing, for­mer pro player, and the switch was flipped.

Vil­lanueva, 77, who was born in a hut in New Mexico and went on to co-found the pow­er­ful Univi­sion net­work and be­come one of the wealth­i­est Latino ex­ec­u­tives in the coun­try, died Thurs­day at Ven­tura County Med­i­cal Cen­ter.

The cause was com­pli­ca­tions from a stroke suf­fered ear­lier in the week, said one of his sons, also named Danny.

In ad­di­tion to Univi­sion, Vil­lanueva had a fi­nan­cial in­ter­est at var­i­ous times in ri­val net­work Tele­mu­ndo, the soc­cer teams L.A. Aztecs and L.A. Gal­axy, and the well-en­dowed in­vest­ment firms Bas­tion Cap­i­tal and Rus­tic Canyon/Fontis Part­ners.

He was also ac­tive as a phi­lan­thropist— he and his wife, Myrna, gave mil­lions to ed­u­ca­tional and char­i­ta­ble causes.

Be­fore he amassed his for­tune, Vil­lanueva spent eight years in the NFL. He started as a kicker for the L.A. Rams in 1960, at a time when itwas rare for a Latino player tobe ona pro team. In 1962, he led the league in punt­ing and set a team record by kick­ing a 51-yard field goal.

His salary as a Ram: $5,500 a year.

To boost his in­come, he worked as a sports­caster at KMEX, which at the time was a tiny op­er­a­tion.

“Most of the TV shows were from Mexico,” said Felix Gu­tier­rez, a re­tired USC jour­nal­ism pro­fes­sor who lec­tured about Span­ish-lan­guage media. “And the news­casts were rip-and-read, mean­ing the an­nouncer just ripped the news off the wire ma­chine and read it on air.”

Vil­lanueva kept work­ing there, when pos­si­ble, af­ter be­ing traded to the Dal­las Cowboys in 1965. The trade boosted his salary to $15,000. “I thought I’d died and gone to heaven,” he told the San An­to­nio Ex­press-News in 2007.

Af­ter two years with the Cowboys— where he set the record for the most ex­tra­point kicks made with­out a miss (56) — he re­tired from football and be­came news di­rec­tor of KMEX.

The sta­tion be­came the spring­board of his even­tual media em­pire.

As the sta­tion grew, he hired KMEX’s first field re­porter and oth­ers to cover spe­cific ar­eas such as en­ter­tain­ment. Af­ter be­com­ing pres­i­dent of the sta­tion, he made it more com­mu­nity ori­ented, not just in news and sports cov­er­age, but also with on-air fundrais­ing and other events.

“We don’t have an L.A. Times. We don’t have a KCET. We have to be a lit­tle more than a TV sta­tion to our view­ers,” Vil­lanueva told The Times in1985.

Itwas a pat­tern copied by other Span­ish-lan­guage sta­tions seek­ing to forge a close con­nec­tion with view­ers.

“He was a trail­blazer,” said Gu­tier­rez, who for a time had a public af­fairs show on the sta­tion.

Vil­lanueva bought stakes in other sta­tions and KMEX be­came the flag­ship of the Span­ish In­ter­na­tional Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Corp., the pre­cur­sor to the na­tional Univi­sion net­work. Vil­lanueva was part-owner of Univi­sion when Hall­mark Cards bought a ma­jor­ity stake in the net­work in 1988 for more than $260 mil­lion.

“It just goes to show you how much the His­panic mar­ket has grown,” Vil­lanueva told the Mi­ami Her­ald in 2002. “It’s one of the great Amer­i­can sto­ries.”

Dur­ing Vil­lanueva’s ten­ure, KMEX went from a niche op­er­a­tion to a cul­tural force in Los An­ge­les.

But still, much of the pro­gram­ming, in­clud­ing pop­u­lar novel­las, was im­ported. Long af­ter Gu­tier­rez was no longer as­so­ci­ated with the sta­tion and had be­come a USC pro­fes­sor, he wrote a piece crit­i­ciz­ing that trend.

Later, the two men ran into each other at a con­fer­ence and had a friendly talk. “Well, ev­ery­thing worked out fine,” Vil­lanueva told him. “You got ten­ure and I got rich.”

Daniel Dario Vil­lanueva was born Nov. 5, 1937, in the small town of Tucumcari, New Mexico. He was the ninth of12 chil­dren.

Only days af­ter he was born, the fam­ily moved to Phoenix where his fa­ther, a Methodist min­is­ter born in Mexico, had been as­signed to a new church. He later min­is­tered to mi­grant work­ers in Cal­i­for­nia, and Daniel spent most of his child­hood in Calex­ico, just north of the bor­der with Mexico.

Grad­u­at­ing form Calex­ico High School, he got a football schol­ar­ship to at­tend the Univer­sity of New Mexico, where he earned a de­gree in English.

He at­trib­uted his drive to suc­ceed to his mother, who stressed the im­por­tance of hard work and ed­u­ca­tion, and prac­ticed hard­ball tough love — such as when his high school team lost a football game.

“I’d get home and the house was dark,” he told The Times in 1985. “She’d lock me out of the house and she’d let me think about it… andthen she’d let­mein.”

In ad­di­tion to his wife of 58 years, Myrna, and son Danny, he is sur­vived by son Jim; sis­ters Mary Blank, Lily Her­nan­dez, Noemi Prince and Es­ter Aguilar; broth­ers Sa­muel, Paul, Ben and Primo; five grand­chil­dren and eight great-grand­chil­dren.

As­so­ci­ated Press

A HUM­BLE START While a kicker for the L.A. Rams in 1961, Danny Vil­lanueva (11) made $5,500 a week and was a sports­caster at KMEX, where he would even­tu­ally be pres­i­dent.

Gina Ferazzi L.A. Times

MOGUL Danny Vil­lanueva co­founded Univi­sion and had ties to Tele­mu­ndo.

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