An un­par­al­leled con­nec­tion

By be­ing him­self, the pi­o­neer­ing an­chor broad­cast straight into the heart of the District

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - JIM VANCE 1942-2017 BY MATT SCHUDEL

In a city of news junkies and scores of high-pro­file fig­ures in pol­i­tics and the me­dia, the most-watched jour­nal­ist in Wash­ing­ton may well have been Jim Vance. For more than 45 years at WRCTV (Chan­nel 4), he was the re­gion’s long­est-serv­ing tele­vi­sion news an­chor. He presided over the area’s top-rated news­casts and be­came a pub­lic fig­ure in his own right. He gained broad sym­pa­thy for his open­ness about his strug­gles with drugs and de­pres­sion.

Mr. Vance, who was 75, died July 22. The death was an­nounced by WRC-TV, where he had worked since 1969, but no fur­ther de­tails were pro­vided. He an­nounced his di­ag­no­sis of cancer ear­lier this year.

Af­ter three years as a re­porter for Chan­nel 4, Mr. Vance as­cended to the an­chor’s chair in 1972, putting him in the first wave of black news an­chors in ma­jor news mar­kets. In ad­di­tion to read­ing the news, he also de­liv­ered pointed com­men­taries, of­ten on sen­si­tive racial top­ics.

Mr. Vance sat along­side a re­volv­ing

cast of co-an­chors and was of­ten sec­ond or third in the lo­cal rat­ings un­til he teamed with Doreen Gent­zler in 1989. To­gether, with sports­caster Ge­orge Michael and me­te­o­rol­o­gist Bob Ryan, they vaulted Chan­nel 4 to the top of the lo­cal rat­ings and stayed there for more than 25 years.

In the na­tion’s capital, Mr. Vance’s 11 p.m. news­casts with Gent­zler reg­u­larly drew more view­ers than the prime-time shows of the three ma­jor ca­ble net­works — CNN, Fox and MSNBC — com­bined.

Mr. Vance, who won or shared more than a dozen lo­cal Em­mys, rose to promi­nence at a time when home rule and self­gov­er­nance opened doors for a new black elite in the District. He de­fied the staid stan­dards of broad­cast­ing with his bushy Afro hair style in the 1970s and by re­fus­ing to wear makeup on the air.

Other Wash­ing­ton news an­chors, such as Gor­don Peter­son and Mau­reen Bun­yan, had long ca­reers, but none had a longer ten­ure at a sin­gle sta­tion than Mr. Vance. His suc­cess — and frail­ties — be­came in­ter­wo­ven with the city’s life.

“When co­caine al­most killed me and I left here in 1984 to go to the Betty Ford Cen­ter,” he told Wash­ing­to­nian mag­a­zine in 2011, “I got boxes and boxes of let­ters from peo­ple say­ing lit­tle more than ‘I’m pray­ing for you.’ ”

He re­ported from Wash­ing­ton’s grit­tier neigh­bor­hoods, yet he also be­came a fish­ing buddy of Pres­i­dent Ge­orge H.W. Bush. He was one of the first peo­ple embattled D.C. Mayor Marion Barry sought for ad­vice af­ter be­ing ar­rested in 1990 for smok­ing crack co­caine.

“Why did he ask me?” Mr. Vance told his view­ers at the time. “Be­cause what he, like ev­ery­one else who’s been around Wash­ing­ton for a while knows, is that for more than four years I have been in re­cov­ery. The mayor thought that I might be able to ad­vise him. I did so.”

With a re­ported an­nual salary well over $1 mil­lion and a closet full of tai­lored suits, Mr. Vance nev­er­the­less re­tained an air of street-smart savvy. In his com­men­taries, he openly scolded both the priv­i­leged classes and what he called dis­re­spect­ful “punks.”

Mr. Vance ban­tered on the set with sports­caster Michael, one of his clos­est friends, and he aban­doned jour­nal­is­tic im­par­tial­ity when it came to Wash­ing­ton’s sports teams. Yet in 2013, he called on the Wash­ing­ton Red­skins to abol­ish their nick­name.

“Back in the day,” he said in an on-air edi­to­rial broad­cast, “if you re­ally wanted to in­sult a black man, an Italian, a Jew, an Ir­ish­man, and prob­a­bly start a fight, you threw out cer­tain words. They were, and are, pe­jo­ra­tives of the first or­der, the worst or­der, specif­i­cally in­tended to in­jure. In my view, ‘Red­skin’ was and is in that same cat­e­gory.”

He con­cluded: “That name sucks.”

On tele­vi­sion, Mr. Vance pro­jected a sense of ca­sual ease, with his com­fort­ing, no-non­sense de­liv­ery. He seemed un­flap­pable un­der the most try­ing cir­cum­stances, in­clud­ing the Hanafi Mus­lim siege of 1977, in which a rad­i­cal sect seized three build­ings and took al­most 150 peo­ple as hostages. Two peo­ple were killed, and oth­ers — in­clud­ing Barry, then a D.C. Coun­cil mem­ber — were shot and wounded.

Mr. Vance won a lo­cal Emmy for his cov­er­age and was named Wash­ing­to­nian of the Year by Wash­ing­to­nian mag­a­zine.

He won an ad­di­tional lo­cal Emmy for an­chor­ing Chan­nel 4’s live news­casts cov­er­ing the Jan­uary 1982 crash of Air Florida Flight 90 in the freez­ing wa­ters of the Po­tomac River. The crash killed 78 peo­ple. The same day, a Metro train de­railed, leav­ing three pas­sen­gers dead.

Mr. Vance spent hours calmly mar­shal­ing field re­ports and live im­ages while de­liv­er­ing an un­scripted nar­ra­tive of the dis­as­trous day.

“I was on the air all day,” he told Wash­ing­to­nian in 2011. “It was one of those days when you don’t have scripts, you don’t have run­downs, you don’t have any­thing ex­cept ‘Let’s do some good tele­vi­sion.’ ”

For all his on-cam­era self-as­sur­ance, Mr. Vance ad­mit­ted to a deep-seated lack of con­fi­dence. Even af­ter decades in the an­chor’s chair, he ner­vously smoked cig­a­rettes un­til mo­ments be­fore each broad­cast. When­ever he con­tem­plated re­tire­ment, he found fresh in­spi­ra­tion from his mis­sion as a re­porter.

“There’s va­lid­ity,” he told The Wash­ing­ton Post, “al­most a no­bil­ity, in pur­su­ing the truth as best we can find it.”

James Howard Vance III was born Jan. 11, 1942, in Ardmore, Pa., out­side Philadel­phia. His fa­ther, who worked in the fam­ily plumb­ing busi­ness, died of com­pli­ca­tions from al­co­holism at 38, when his son was 9.

Mr. Vance’s mother left him to be raised by grand­par­ents, aunts and un­cles. The loss of his fa­ther and sep­a­ra­tion from his mother haunted him for years.

When his mother vis­ited him while he was in a drug re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion fa­cil­ity, Mr. Vance told The Post in 2014, “I sat there a long time, and I said, ‘I don’t ever re­mem­ber you hug­ging me.’ My mother, God bless her, to her credit said, ‘Jimmy, I’m just not the hug­ging kind.’ And those were the only words we spoke for the next 50 min­utes.”

Mr. Vance thought he would fol­low his grand­fa­ther into the plumb­ing busi­ness, but his fam­ily en­cour­aged him to at­tend col­lege. He grad­u­ated in 1965 from what is now Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, where one of his friends was Ed Bradley, who later worked at CBS and be­came a long­time cor­re­spon­dent for “60 Min­utes.”

Af­ter Bradley’s death in 2006, Mr. Vance be­gan to wear a gold hoop ear­ring, as Bradley had done.

Mr. Vance spent three years as a high school English teacher in Philadel­phia, quit­ting out of frus­tra­tion with what he called “the stu­pid­ity of the ad­min­is­tra­tors.” Search­ing for work, he went to an em­ploy­ment agency, which had a list­ing for a job at a Philadel­phia TV sta­tion.

He knew noth­ing about tele­vi­sion and botched his au­di­tion but was hired any­way as a re­porter. “You have to un­der­stand that it was 1968,” Mr. Vance told The Post in 1974. “We had burned Watts, Detroit and Ne­wark . . . . They were look­ing for a black face.”

In 1969, he was re­cruited to WRC as Wash­ing­ton was emerg­ing from tur­bu­lence in the wake of the as­sas­si­na­tion of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Mr. Vance was not Chan­nel 4’s first black re­porter — Max Robin­son, later an ABC News co-an­chor, had joined the sta­tion years ear­lier — but he quickly be­came a strong pres­ence. WRC-TV, owned by the NBC net­work, shared its fa­cil­ity with the Wash­ing­ton bureau of NBC News. Mr. Vance of­ten had lunch with long­time an­chor David Brink­ley, who be­came a men­tor.

Af­ter just one year in Wash­ing­ton, Mr. Vance be­came a week­end an­chor in 1970 and was named a co-an­chor of the sta­tion’s daily news­casts in 1972. The sta­tion eased a white news­caster out of the an­chor chair, re­port­edly seek­ing a younger, more di­verse au­di­ence. Mr. Vance de­vel­oped a pop­u­lar­ity among lo­cal view­ers, par­tic­u­larly in the ma­jor­ity-black District.

“I was just go­ing all over the place try­ing to fig­ure out, what does an an­chor sound like?” he told Wash­ing­to­nian. “I also had to fig­ure out how black I was sup­posed to be.”

When he de­liv­ered an im­promptu com­men­tary in 1974 about try­ing to build a doll­house for his daugh­ter, he un­ex­pect­edly found his voice and a con­nec­tion with view­ers.

“That’s when I first learned what an im­pact tele­vi­sion has,” Mr. Vance told Wash­ing­to­nian. “But more to the point, that is when it oc­curred to me that maybe all I gotta do is just be my­self.”

His mar­riages to Margo Vance and Bar­bara Sch­midt ended in di­vorce. He was mar­ried in 1987 to WRC-TV pro­ducer Kathy McCamp­bell, but they later sep­a­rated. He had a daugh­ter from his first mar­riage and two chil­dren from his sec­ond; a com­plete list of sur­vivors could not be im­me­di­ately con­firmed.

In the mid-1980s, Mr. Vance twice en­tered re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion cen­ters to over­come a de­pen­dency on co­caine.

He hit bot­tom in 1987, he later told The Post, when he put a shot­gun in his mouth and was ready to pull the trigger.

The next day, he said, he joined a down­town sup­port group “full of old-school drunks.” He con­tin­ued to at­tend 12-step meet­ings and later helped found a sub­stance-abuse treat­ment fa­cil­ity in the District.

At a time when lo­cal news­casts were los­ing their au­di­ences, and the def­i­ni­tion of news it­self was changing, Mr. Vance re­tained an en­dur­ing pop­u­lar­ity that seemed to tran­scend de­mo­graphic groups.

He told view­ers about his in­ter­ests in sports, old-school soul mu­sic and mo­tor­cy­cles, and some­times re­ported on his ad­ven­tures rid­ing across the coun­try on his Har­ley-David­son.

He was ac­ces­si­ble in pub­lic and, un­like many pub­lic fig­ures, was ea­ger to shake hands and pose for photos.

“It’s im­por­tant for peo­ple to ac­knowl­edge, ‘Hey, dude — I know you, and you’re wel­come in my house and with my fam­ily,’ ” he said in a 2014 in­ter­view pub­lished in Wash­ing­to­nian.

“I learned that, I swear to God, from David Brink­ley,” Mr. Vance added. “Brink­ley’s no­tion was if some­body sees you on the street and you’re pleas­ant to that per­son, he’s go­ing to tell 10 peo­ple that the en­counter worked out well. If you’re un­pleas­ant, he’s go­ing to tell at least 25. It just math­e­mat­i­cally works out for you to be a nice guy.”

AN­DRÉ CHUNG FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

A con­tem­pla­tive Jim Vance at the WRC-TV (Chan­nel 4) news­room, where he had worked since 1969. Start­ing in 1989, his news­casts topped rat­ings for more than 25 years.

AN­DRÉ CHUNG FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

COUR­TESY OF NBC4

The suc­cess and frail­ties of Jim Vance, above ear­lier in his ca­reer and at left with coan­chor Doreen Gent­zler in 2014, be­came in­ter­wo­ven with the city’s life.

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