An icon was in the building, and everyone knew it.
Technically, he was on the phone, but that did not matter to the 20 students in the Broadcast Writing class at Northwestern University.
We were juniors in college, we were aspiring anchors and reporters, and we were about to speak to Tom Brokaw.
The whole situation had taken everyone by surprise. We had arrived at the TV lab for our usual class, only to be greeted by the chair of our broadcast department, Joe Angotti.
“I think we’re going to be able to get Brokaw on the phone,” he announced.
Angotti, I should mention, was once Brokaw’s executive producer at NBC Nightly News. We students already knew that fact and revered Angotti accordingly, but we never expected this.
The man can just summon Tom Brokaw on an ordinary weekday afternoon? What other mystical powers does he possess?
But our questions about Angotti quickly gave way to our excitement about Brokaw.
He’s calling? Right now? About what?
And then, once the A/V folks in the journalism lab had patched Brokaw’s call to the classroom’s speaker system, we waited until …
That voice — part gravel, part gravitas — confirmed our hopes. Tom Brokaw was on the line.
And then Angotti responded:
“Brokes”?!? He calls him “Brokes”?!?
So began a relatively short conversation. Brokaw offered advice to us aspiring journalists, and when we were prompted for our questions, I seized the chance to take the microphone and briefly chat with the legend. The whole thing lasted maybe 15 minutes.
More than a decade later, I do not remember what wisdom Brokaw imparted, nor do I remember what question I asked him. But I definitely remember how I felt — how we all felt — in his virtual presence.
Here was our brush with fame, our taste of the big leagues from our amateur dugout. For so many of us, Brokaw was our North star, the dream vision of a successful career in television news. This phone call was simply a reminder that he was out there, linked now by just one degree of separation. We viewed Brokaw through the lenses of our own careers.
At the time, that was my takeaway.
And it was a good one, but the wrong one.
An icon was in the room, and I did not fully realize it.
Nearly one decade, two cities, and three jobs after being wowed by Brokaw, I took my first steps into the newsroom at WXIA-TV in Atlanta. I arrived with a blend of anxiety and ambition, ready to prove myself in a Top 10 television market while wondering if I could.
Thus, when I met my co-workers, I was more consumed with my day-to-day footing than their experiences and backgrounds.
And that was how I initially overlooked the greatness of Brenda Wood.
A legendary and history-making journalist, Wood has been in the Atlanta market for more than a quarter-century. She has served as our station’s main anchor since 1997, the reliable face of our 6 and 11 pm newscasts.
That is how she was presented to me. I knew nothing of her history beyond her tenure at 11Alive, and I initially did not bother to look much deeper. I simply thought of her as the bedrock that she was, which was no small feat either but did not encapsulate just how much she had already accomplished in the business.
In a way, I looked at Brenda as an Atlanta version of Brokaw: I understood on some level her legendary status but never questioned how she obtained it.
And, much like when I spoke with Brokaw, I was too consumed with my own legacy to truly understand what a TV news legacy really looks like.
Fortunately, the more time I spent at WXIA, the more present-day examples I saw of how Brenda Wood built such a reputation. She anchored newscasts, some of which dealt with the most delicate of topics, with grace and insight. She pursued her own stories, even traveling to Ethiopia last year for a half-hour special. And she provided a glowing representation of our station; she was our most famous name, and everyone who knew that name spoke highly of it.
I watched her, learned from her, and had numerous conversations with her throughout my first five years at Channel 11.
And I still didn’t know the half of her legacy in this business.
Two icons were in the room, and we all knew it.
Earlier this month the Atlanta Press Club inducted the newly selected members into its Hall of Fame. The APC honored four journalists, including Claude Sitton, who documented the civil rights movement of the Sixties for the New York Times, and Celestine Sibley, who busted barriers and became a household name for the Atlanta Constitution, later the AJC.
The other two newfound Hall of Famers?
Brokaw and Brenda.
And for many like myself, the evening was an education into both.
I learned that Brokaw, in addition to his litany of accomplishments with NBC News, covered the civil rights movement himself during an early-career stint in Atlanta. I learned that Wood, on her way to becoming the present-day dean of Atlanta news anchors, fought through her own barriers, of both race and gender, in her early years as a black female journalist in the South. The tribute videos that preceded each broadcaster’s speech gave an illuminating window into the breadth of their accomplishments.
That breadth — and that sustained strength — is what creates a legacy.
We are often trained to look at the world through a myopic lens, but the big picture always means more than a million small ones. The small ones are filled with moments and memories, but those moments take on greater meaning when put in a larger context.
And in that moment, on that evening, I felt truly proud of my profession … and the icons who drive it.
Matt Pearl is the author of the Telling the Story blog and podcast. Feel free to comment below or e-mail Matt at firstname.lastname@example.org.