Moments after Monica Pearson announced she would be retiring a month shy of her 37th year on the air, WSB-TV’s Facebook page and email were flooded with messages from well-wishers and fans who wanted the TV legend to know how much she would be missed. One fan wrote, “There will never be another anchor, broadcaster and communicator like Monica Kaufman-Pearson!”
On the air, co-anchors Jovita Moore and Justin Farmer also voiced their admiration. “It’s hard to imagine Atlanta and WSB without seeing you every single day,” Farmer said. “We’re going to miss you a lot.” This sentiment was echoed not only by viewers, but also by her co-workers, peers and managers as they all gathered in the newsroom to help her make the official statement. Ever humble, Pearson accepted their words of praise and congratulations but reassured her co-anchors by saying, “You two will do fine without me!”
As for her audience, many Atlanta natives grew up watching Pearson on TV with their parents and have continued the tradition with their own children. She has spanned generations and for many, watching the news without her will certainly be a different experience.
WSB-TV altered Atlanta television forever in 1975 by making Pearson (then known as Monica Kaufman) the first woman and the first minority to anchor the evening news in our city. While there is no doubt she excelled in her position, Pearson admits that a career in journalism was not her first choice. “My degree is in English and Philosophy,” she explains. “I planned to teach, and chance encounters got me to where I am.”
After two years of college, she got married and went to work at a bank across the street from The Courier Journal and The Louisville Times, where she was eventually hired to be a newsroom clerk.
Following the riots after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination in 1968, she was accepted to a summer program developed by Columbia University and the Ford Foundation to get more minorities into a predominantly white newsroom.
“I was accepted for the program and came back to The Louisville Times as a reporter. I tried for a job at WAVE-TV and was turned down, so I went to work for Brown Forman Distillers in public relations, but knew it wasn’t for me,” she recalls. Next she took a modeling and charm course to learn how to do hair and makeup and dress for the job she wanted. “I got the job at WHAS after informally modeling at Hurstbourne Shopping center for Bycks department store,” she says. “I met June Dorsey whose husband was the news director at WHAS and I interviewed and got the job.”
WAVE-TV then sent a tape of Pearson to Dick Mallary, a consultant for WSB. When WSB called, Pearson remembers being hesitant to go to the interview because another station, (WAGA) had shown interest in her talent as well.
“WSB called me to literally change the face of Atlanta television at 6 p.m. because, until I came along, only white men did the evening news,” she says. “I think God wanted to see in both instances how I would handle disappointment. I learned where I needed to change to fit what news directors wanted, and I had faith that if it was meant for me, it would come. And it did.”
From there, Pearson left the Bingham family, then owners of The Courier Journal, The Louisville Times and WHAS radio and TV, to join the Cox family in Atlanta. “It is important to give praise to Don Elliott Heald and the Cox family,” she says. “They decided it was time for the anchor desk to mirror their audience, even though it could have lost them viewers, big time.”
But instead, viewership only grew. Pearson not only reported groundbreaking news, but was also witness to many changes within the broadcasting field. She says the biggest change she’s seen in the news industry is going live. “We now have the ability to go live from anywhere in the world, and not always using a satellite, but using something as small as a computer,” she explains. “Instant news, instant everything means the reporter truly has to be observant and in tune.”
Over the next 36 years, Pearson interviewed everyone from Oprah Winfrey to former president Jimmy Carter, and she did it with the same sense of honesty and professionalism, drawing out their stories and presenting the unbiased facts to her audience. As a result, she has been consistently recognized for her efforts and has garnered numerous awards, and this year is no exception. On June 23, The National Association of Black Journalists will honor her at their annual NABJ Convention and Career Fair in New Orleans with their 2012 Legacy Award. “To say I am honored to receive this award, sounds like a cliché, but I truly am honored humbled and grateful to NABJ,” Pearson says.
Honored and grateful are also words her fans and co-workers have used to describe how they feel about Pearson. “She is an icon, not just here in Atlanta, but across the country,” Jovita Moore says. “Few have impacted local news the way Monica has.” As for Pearson, she wants her fans to know how much respect she holds for her colleagues at WSB-TV. “Jovita, Justin, Linda, John, Erin, Carol, Fred and Craig and all the other anchors will continue in the tradition of quality news reporting and anchoring and community involvement that defines WSB-TV Channel 2 Action News. John Pruitt and I have long been the faces of action news, and we have a place in WSB history, but now it is time for the next generation to add to that history.”
While much has been said about her departure, Pearson shows no signs of slowing down. During that February 6 broadcast where she made her official statement about her upcoming retirement, she also talked about going back to school and starting her own travel blog. Pearson has represented so many different things to people over the years – trusted news broadcaster, trailblazer, community advocate – however there is one thing she hopes her audience will remember above all else. “I hope they remember my smile and my attempt to talk to them and not read to them. I hope they know I cared about what we covered and how what we covered affected them,” she says. “I hope they will remember my close-up interviews because that nosey person truly is me. But if I have to say just one thing, it is that I hope they remember me as their friend.”
More from Monica:
What do you remember most about the day you announced your retirement?
Being shocked at how many important people came from corporate, such as Doug Franklin and Bill Hoffman, just to name a few, and then all of the staff from all over the building. I was touched by what everyone said about me. It was surreal, like being at your own funeral. And then the viewers started calling and emailing, and I thought how blessed I am to have people care about me, in ways I did not know.
Describe how you felt the first time you were on camera.
The first time I was on camera was on a children’s show in Louisville, Kentucky, and I loved it. My mother had me in dancing school, Jewell McNair’s Dancing Dolls, so I loved to entertain and be on stage. I look back at those pictures and scream with laughter because the smile was there but the sassy stuff was there too. I also sang on Hayloft Hoedown in Louisville, a country music show, and was bitten by the singing bug. But the first time I saw myself as a reporter and then an anchor, I cringed. I still do cringe when I look at my old stuff - that tinny voice and very contained, trying to be someone other than me. Of late, I’ve been in shock over how skinny I used to be. Right now, I’m seeing a nutritionist to get my eating right and take off some pounds before I leave, so I will at least look a little more like I did back then.
How did you arrive at your decision to retire?
My daughter is 31 and my 89-year-old mother is happy at Sunrise, so I knew now it was time for me to do what I want to do versus what I have to do. And, I’ll admit, over the last two years with Chuck leaving, John leaving, it felt right to go. Plus, Jovita was in place and ready and we have a group of strong women anchors behind her, so I truly am not needed anymore. Simply put, you know what you know when you know and it was time for me to go!
Can you share with us any of your plans for after you retire?
I am retiring but I’m not tired. In September, I will begin working on my Masters in Telecommunications at the University of Georgia. It will take two years to complete. Then, I hope to teach on the college and university level. I’ll see how the Masters goes before I think about trying for a Ph.D. I am also launching a website, www.atoeinthewater.com.
People choose their vacation sites based on where they have been, their friends and family have been and seldom jump out on faith to a new location. I will visit places in the north that southerners haven’t tried, such as Maine and the Poconos and for northerners, places like Barnsley Gardens down here. The point is I’m trying places all over the country, sticking a toe in the water to see if it is just right for vacation. I’ll shoot still pictures and video and write a short narrative about the pros and cons. And last but not least, I want to write a book, using my mother’s favorite statements, aimed at teens and their parents.
My mother’s mantra to me is: “It’s what you do with what you have that makes you what you are.” On a side note, the line is used in a cartoon (Kasha & the Zulu King) that will premiere on BET on July 28 where I’ll voice the main female character. I took a course last year to learn how to stretch my voice and do other voices, so I plan to do some voiceover work as well.
What advice would you give people who are just beginning their broadcasting career?
Remember it is not about you. It is always about your true bosses, the viewers. Be a great storyteller, providing good content and context and memorable moments that make people care. Tell the story through the people who will be affected most.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve had to face during your career?
Trying to be all things to all people. I had to learn to accept who I am and distinguish between constructive and destructive criticism. I learned I needed a life that defined me away from TV, a community, a family. I also had to learn to say “no” and not try to stretch myself to get to every speech or appearance because someone would say; you owe it to the community.
Who gave the most memorable interview?
That is a tough question because I loved Dolly Parton, Paul Newman and early Oprah Winfrey, (because I had more time with her), James Earl Jones, Sean Connery…each one had something special that made the interview stand out in my mind.
Who are the people, both personally and professionally, that help you be your best self?
My mom, because she keeps me centered. My daughter Claire, because she isn’t impressed with what I do, but is impressed that when she was growing up, I made her games, went on field trips and supported her. My dear John, a man in his own right and icing on the cake. He is a good hearted family man who is very protective of me, in many ways. He spoils me rotten from jewelry to dresses to cooking. He is a take-charge kind of guy and is so good to my mother, who adores him. And his family has embraced me too. His mom, Mama Jo, (that’s what I call her), Josephine Pearson, treats me like her daughter.
Professionally, so many people have influenced me, but the person who changed me greatly was Dick Mallary, the Magid & Associates consultant who eventually became a news director at WSB. When Pruitt left, I thought it was the end of the world. I had tried to anchor like him, be like him. I remember Dick talking to me at a coaching session and he made me tell a story, not read it. He taped it and showed it to me. The difference was amazing. When I let myself show through, the story was better. When I wrote the way I spoke, it became communication. He let me see it was all right to be me and to trust myself.
What will you miss most about your job?
The people I work with, and not just those on the air. And I’ll miss viewers. Of course, Twitter and Facebook will allow me to stay in touch, but I will miss the appearances, the tree lighting, the fireworks show, and the specials. I’ll do something for the station, like John. I will miss not being here every day, where I have been for 37 years. But I won’t miss the “uniforms” – my St. John suits – those will be for special occasions, nor the makeup every day, and as for my hair, I can change it daily to match my moods and attire, because hair to me is just an accessory.
What inspires you every day?
The opportunity to make a difference, to change a life, to touch someone through what I do. And to know I am one of very few people who get to do this.
Over the past 37 years, you’ve been on the go, involved with so many different charities and breaking news stories. What do you do to maintain that pace and stay healthy?
Right now I am overweight but working on it. I used to play a lot of tennis to keep my stress and weight down. I would name the balls. Now I am happy on the elliptical, the treadmill and the stationary bike. I love to read and now make time for books and I meditate on the Gospel to keep myself humble and to remind myself that I’ve been blessed to be a blessing to others. I do pace myself better now. There was a time when I was speaking at least four days a week. Now I do 52 events a year. I never get enough sleep, except on vacation, and now every day, looking out my windows, the water makes me feel like I’m on vacation. And John and I love movies and travel, so the anticipation of that next trip keeps me on point.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve received?
From my mama, and the grammar isn’t great, but it makes a great point. “If you is who you ain’t, then you ain’t who you is.” In other words, “to thine own self be true.”
We would be remiss if we didn’t ask about your ever-changing hairstyles throughout the years! What inspires you to change your hair?
I change my hair because I am a Southern girl and I like to match my hair and clothes and purses and shoes and makeup and jewelry. Plus, I am a frustrated beautician. I always wanted to be a stylist.
What have been your favorite and least favorite ‘dos?
My favorite is when it is very, very short and platinum. That’s me! My least favorite was that mushroom hairdo from years ago.
July 25 will mark your last day on the air. How are you feeling about the next chapter in your life?
That will be the toughest day of my life. I must maintain my composure as I say goodbye on the air, knowing it is my last complete newscast. But one thing that excites me about that day is that we are having an alumni cocktail party. People I worked with years ago are coming back that night to celebrate. And it is not just reporters and anchors, but also directors, photographers, behind the scenes people who always made me look good on the air. It will be so much fun to reminisce and also introduce our current reporters and anchors to people who built this station over the years.
Colleagues recall their favorite memories of career days with Monica
My favorite memory will be her laugh and sense of humor. She lights up a room with both of those. I remember emceeing an event with Monica and the audience was having a good time and talking and not paying a lot of attention to what we were saying. Now, that wasn’t what bothered Monica, but we were talking about some special kids and she wanted everyone to hear so she firmly told everyone to listen up! The place went quiet. You could hear a pin drop. It was incredible. Only Monica can pull that off. And once she had them, she smiled and any hard feelings disappeared and we were back on track. That is Monica.
—John Bachman, WSB-TV
When the bomb went off during the Atlanta Olympics, Monica and I co-anchored our coverage for five hours from midnight until dawn. We were both exhausted and running on adrenaline, and I’ll never forget the poise and focus Monica brought to this story of worldwide significance. Monica was the ultimate teammate on that sad night as we tried to help our viewers cope with the disaster that impacted us all.”
—John Pruitt, WSB-TV
No one will soon forget Monica in this newsroom. She greeted everyone with a warm smile and friendly words everyday. We often knew Monica was here—even if we didn’t see her—because we could hear her infectious laugh across the newsroom or down the hallway.
—Jovita Moore, WSB-TV
I have so many precious memories of working with Monica. Picking just one is hard, but I’d have to say our trip to Oslo, Norway to cover President Carter’s Nobel Peace Prize. We were working crazy hours covering the Carter family during the day and doing live newscasts at night from a rooftop in Oslo. We had a great team there including John Pruitt. One night we needed Monica to voice a story so our editor could edit and send the story back to Atlanta for the next day. I had to wake Monica long after bedtime and as a young producer I was nervous but she had no problem walking down the hotel hallway in her PJs and big slippers to get to our production room (a small hotel room turned TV production house). She was cheerful and thankful for her hardworking team. In the years we have worked together she has never shied away from hard work or long hours. I’ll really miss her in the newsroom every day.
—Marian Pittman, WSB-TV - Station Manager
“My favorite memory of working with Monica is just seeing her walk into the newsroom. She immediately lights up the room. Her smile and energy are infectious and her special talent as an anchor inspires everyone to be at their very best. Monica knows everyone’s name, regardless of their position or tenure, and she takes the time to interact with people personally. She sets the tone and creates an environment for success. It goes without saying we will really miss her.”
—Tim McVay, WSB-TV Vice President and General Manager