ST. PETERSBURG — He was known as "Captain Dan" and the "Eye in the Sky" for delivering his daily traffic reports from the two-seat plane he flew over Tampa Bay’s clogged interstates.
Daniel Lunin’s real legacy, though, was built on the ground.
He was a skilled, talented and passionate engineer who helped build the infrastructure for several local radio and TV stations, and in so doing became a bay area broadcasting legend.
Mr. Lunin died July 7. He was 82.
"I’ve always considered him one of the best engineers I ever worked with among the more than two dozen stations in a half-dozen states (and England) covering my radio career," Rick Crandall, president of WMTB-FM 96.7 wrote in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.
Born at Tampa General Hospital, Mr. Lunin grew up in St. Petersburg. He was fascinated by electronics. At the age of 8, he built his first kit radio, and at age 15 it was a TV set, said his son, Daniel Lunin Jr.
Mr. Lunin developed a reputation as a "radio station groupie."
That’s how broadcaster Bob Skidmore described them both.
They shared an interest in radio broadcasting when they met. That’s what drew both teens to hang around outside the old WTSP radio studios in St. Petersburg.
When Skidmore needed help on a junior high school science project, the older Mr. Lunin, a student at Admiral Farragut Academy, offered to help.
"My dad died when I was 3 months old, and I didn’t have any male influence to step in and help out with this," Skidmore said. "He did."
The two became fast friends, and Mr. Lunin remained a friend and mentor to Skidmore through the years.
"He sort of prodded me into getting into the industry," said Skidmore, who later became a senior engineer at New York City radio station WOR-AM. "Dan has probably been involved in one way or another with every radio or TV station in the Tampa Bay market in one way or another …
"He was a man of many, many, many talents."
Skidmore said Mr. Lunin as an engineering "genius" when it came to broadcasting.
After Mr. Lunin graduated from Admiral Farragut, the son said his father turned down a scholarship to attend the U.S. Naval Academy and instead attended St. Petersburg Junior College (now St. Petersburg College.) Then Mr. Lunin attended the University of Florida, became an announcer on the campus radio station and later chief engineer at the local Gainesville radio station.
There, he married his wife Pauline in 1955 and they had a daughter before he moved his new family back to St. Petersburg. He went to work for WTSP, which signed onto the TV airwaves in 1965 as WLCY-TV.
He later got his pilot’s license and became "Captain Dan," reporting on traffic conditions from the small airplane he flew out of Albert Whitted Airport.
Mr. Lunin also passed his love of technology to his son, who calls himself a "broadcast brat." Even the family outings were built around broadcasting. In 1975, when Mr. Lunin was building the engineering infrastructure for WXLT-TV Ch.-40, he set up an eight-person tent at the transmitter site where his son and daughter lived for the summer.
It was the first year NBC’s Saturday Night Live went on the air, and Daniel Lunin said he remembered watching it from the tent with his sister. Later, the father convinced the station to hire his son and daughter to sodder transmitters that summer.
"It was fascinating growing up in his wake," Daniel Lunin said. "He inspired me to go into computer science and become a technology freak."
Paulette Wallingford, who has babysat the Lunins’ two children since she was 13, said Mr. Lunin was like a father figure to her. He helped boost her popularity at school when he took her up with him to report from the sky.
"I was scared to death," she said. "I’d never been on a plane. It was a little tiny plane, a two-seater. It was really exciting. ... He just made you feel like you were the most important person in the world."
Mr. Lunin would go on to help shape WFTS-Ch. 28 in Tampa and WMOR-Ch. 32 in Lakeland, and later became an engineer for a video production studio.
Wallingford said Mr. Lunin continued to enjoy tinkering with technology in his later years. He was also determined to remain active. When forced to use a walker, he fought the department of motor vehicles to keep his driver’s license and allow him to drive with an extended gear shift.
He was also a longtime volunteer for American Stage and always tried to stay active in the community. Daniel Lunin said his father tried to help anyone he could, even at times stopping on the side of the road when he saw someone who needed money.
Mr. Lunin’s only request was that those he helped pay it forward, his son said, adding: "The only charge was the next time someone needs help, you stop and help them."
Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Divya Kumar at [email protected] Follow @divyadivyadivya.