In October, 1983, I was anchoring the morning news Today show cut-ins on WTAP, something I continued to do for nearly the entire decade of the 1980's.
On the morning of October 24th, I was standing near the Associated Press and United Press International wire machines, when the story came over that Jessica Savitch had died. Short of the unexpected death of a family member, I can't think of anything that would have stunned me more at the time.
Savitch, then 35, had already had a career considered meteoric. By 1983, she had been anchor of the weekend NBC Nightly News for six years, along with substitute appearances on the weekday news and Today, reporting from the U.S. Capitol, conventions, and countless prime-time news updates. In a TV Guide poll the year before, only the three main network news anchors ranked higher than she in terms of popularity and believability.
I had also met her personally. While I was still a student at Ohio University, she came to visit her sister, Lori, with whom I worked at WOUB (and with whom I co-anchored my first live TV newscast). I saw her a second time, when she came to Parkersburg to address the Chamber of Commerce's annual dinner. We both endured a news conference during a bumpy ride to the airport (West Virginia Route 2 was under construction at the time), where she headed off on a reporting trip. And I got my first view of her on TV not on NBC, but on KYW-TV in Philadelphia, and directly from the station's control room, along with fellow students who were on a spring break trip visiting stations in the East. When she made her debut on NBC six months later, I was watching again from Ohio U., with her sister and a group of my fellow students. The campus newspaper, the Ohio University Post, was also there to report on the event.
But I think my parents were even more mesmerized with her than I was. My mother, in particular, who was never a big fan of the news media, loved her. When she came to visit me, after I started at WTAP, she found the station on TV by tuning in at 6:30 on a Saturday night. Whichever station, she reasoned, was showing Jessica Savitch doing the news was the one I worked for. (Fortunately, she found WTAP and not WSAZ.)
I have read both of the tell-all biographies on Jessica Savitch (both, amazingly, released at practically the same time), watched the "biopic" based partly on those biographies, and have seen the 1989 interview with Lori and her sister on A Current Affair (you can find it on the web, but in general, Lori's comments about the books were highly critical). And that's all I'll say about that. A website, www.jessicasavitch.com, talks about her life and career.
Savitch wasn't the first female anchor of a network newscast. She replaced the late Catherine Mackin, who had been a congressional correspondent at NBC and later ABC. And Barbara Walters partially broke through the "glass ceiling" a year before Savitch's tenure by becoming the first woman to co-anchor a weekday evening newscast (a stormy tenure with Harry Reasoner) when she came to ABC from NBC. Years later, Katie Couric and now Diane Sawyer became the first women to solo anchor a weekday network newscast, long after we got used to the idea of a woman reading the news.
But Savitch's impact on TV news hasn't been forgotten. This week, the Radio-Television Digital News Association paid tribute to her acomplishments, on the 30th anniversary of her death.
It notes there are numerous scholarships in her name, including one at her alma mater, Ithaca College. When she received an honorary doctorate at Ithaca 1979, her address included words of wisdom she often quoted from President Theodore Roosevelt. They serve as good advicenot only for aspiring news people, but for just about anyone struggling to make it in the world:
"Do what you can, with what you have, where you are. It may not necessarily bring success. It often, however, brings the peace of mind that comes with knowing you gave it your best shot."