While I credit my mother’s strengths, and weaknesses, to getting me to where I am today in life, she never saw me working at a commercial, network-affiliated television station. She did see me on television as a weathercaster and music show host (“Music Visions”) on MSU TV-11, our campus television station in Murray, Kentucky, back in the 1980s.
She was always proud of my straight As in high school, for which I thank my favorite science teacher, Roxanne Ferguson, and my favorite math teacher, Vasteene Rives. They inspired to me to follow my dreams of being a scientist.
As a teenager, I confirmed that I wanted to be a television meteorologist. For that, I have current “Good Morning America” weatherman Sam Champion, who was working at WPSD in Paducah, Kentucky, back then, along with WPSD meteorologist Paul Boucherau to thank. Also, there’s former “Good Morning America” meteorologist John Coleman, who started the “The Weather Channel”.
However, the person that inspired me the most to get into the television news “rat race” was a woman who tragically died on this day back in 1983.
While some Americans first learned of Jessica Savitch on the radio in New Jersey and New York in the 1960s as the “honeybee”, while she attended Ithaca College in New York, her first television job was at KHOU in Houston, Texas in 1971.
She worked her way up from being a reporter to becoming the first woman news anchor in the South three months after starting there. It didn’t take long for the big markets to seek her out. In 1972, she was hired at KYW in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the fourth largest television market in the country, for the weekend newscasts. She then became that station’s main anchor.
From there, NBC News came calling in 1977 and offered her a position as the Washington correspondent. Although it was tough on her because many thought she was given the position for her beauty, she fought to prove herself and become the weekend news anchor.
On air, Jessica was magical. The camera loved her. America loved her. And, I loved her. As much as I wanted to be a television weatherman, I remember as a teenager sitting on my bed reading the newspaper to the wall pretending it was a camera and wanting to be just like Jessica Savitch.
It’s often said that fame and success comes with a price. And, that’s true. For Jessica, the price she paid for success was rumored to be drugs. I won’t say that it’s true or it wasn’t because I wasn’t there.
Nevertheless, her private life was a mess. It started with her abusive boyfriend back in Houston, who was a reporter at a competing station and continued with her two failed marriages in 1980 and 1981. Her second husband, Dr. Donald Payne, committed suicide in the basement of their Washington DC townhouse with her husky, Chewy’s, leash knowing that Jessica would find him.
It had to be rough on all women, including Jessica, working their way up in the male chauvinistic world of television in the 1970s. For women, it meant you had to work twice as hard as men to accomplish less and it also meant that you made enemies. Enemies that would make recorded tantrums public.
Being a television personality, I’ll defend Jessica here. I have been burned several times by the production crew, directors, and producers with timing issues. You are the person on the air that is cut off, rushed, or made to look bad. You are the face that people at home see when things go wrong.
As the rumors swirled about Jessica’s possible drug use and erratic behavior, it all reached a climax with this NBC News Digest from 1983.
Jessica blamed it on a faulty teleprompter (the magic words of the scripts on the camera that an anchor reads), yet her publicist said it was adverse reaction to prescription medication and a glass of wine at dinner. Nevertheless, it added fuel to the fire about Jessica.
Jessica began dating Martin Fischbein, the Vice President of the “New York Post”, and seemed happy. On the evening of October 23, 1983, they drove to New Hope, Pennsylvania, to have dinner at Odette’s Restaurant.
When Jessica and Martin left the restaurant in heavy rain, she got in the backseat with Chewy. In the inclement weather, Martin apparently missed the posted warning signs and the car dropped fifteen feet and sank in the mud to the bottom of the old Pennsylvania Canal’s Delaware Division, which is on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River.
Jessica, Martin, and Chewy were trapped inside and they all died.
The official cause of death was asphyxiation by drowning. No drugs or alcohol played any part in the crash, according to the coroner’s report.
In the fall of 1983, I gave a speech about Jessica Savitch and her death in my “Introduction to Radio-Television” class at Murray State and I made a “B” for my presentation.
Jessica, I still think of you 29 years after your death and I thank you for inspiring me and so many young women that followed in your footsteps. You set the standard for television news that is still being mimicked today.