Lester Holt is NBC News' go-to guy

Since leaving Chicago's WBBM, he has ascended to become 'rock star' for network

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Lester Holt

In this NBC video clip posted on NBC news' website, Lester Holt reports from Moore, Okla. (NBC / May 24, 2013)

On a dusty field at the south end of Lincoln Park, Lester Holt has just finished taking his first-ever swings at a 16-inch softball, part of a report he's planned for NBC's “Today” show on Chicago summers more than making up for the winters.

When hitting that big softball, he discovered, the outfield is a long way from home plate. “Oh, boy,” he said, after one unsuccessful swing. “How can I not hit something that big?”

Earlier in the day, Holt sailed on Lake Michigan, something else he never had a chance to do during his almost 14 years as a reporter and anchor at WBBM-Ch. 2, the Chicago CBS station.

And now — after a chat on the drive over about, among other things, how he often has to remind Chicagoans that it's been 13 years since he left the city — he is across Lake Shore Drive from the baseball field, in the parking lot at North Avenue Beach. On the interview agenda are a retired lifeguard and some beach volleyball players.

After excusing himself to change into shorts, Holt checks his BlackBerry, and everything changes.

There's a message from NBC News, he reports: “‘We may need you in Oklahoma City tomorrow. Are you seeing this coverage?'”

“And my response,” Holt says, “was, ‘I'm shooting in Chicago. I don't have any idea what's going on.' If you don't mind sharing with me for a minute, we'll check out what's going on.”

Holt is a “rock star” at NBC, says Dee Dee Thomas, executive producer at “Weekend Today” — where Holt will soon celebrate his 10-year anniversary — and has buried deep any doubts about his capability and viability after his WBBM tenure ended without ratings success. Not only does he host “Weekend Today,” anchor the weekend “Nightly News” and host “Dateline NBC,” he's made himself into, as he says, “one of the go-to people” when major news events happen.

“People talk about his three jobs. He really has four,” Thomas says. “He has made a decision that he wanted to be one of those people that are on the front lines. He's a reporter at heart.”

But on this Monday in the parking lot, Holt is a reporter who needs to know more. So he tunes his iPhone to the Slingbox connected to his TV back home in New York City and, standing in that parking lot as perky beach tunes play over the loudspeakers, starts watching live pictures of devastation from the tornado that rolled through Moore, Okla., not long before.

As the 54-year-old lifetime newsman soaks it in, mentally preparing to switch from a light feature story to the hardest of hard news, he says things like “wow” and notes that the area looks more densely populated than the one hit by twisters the night before, a report he introduced from the NBC news desk.

“I'm trying to get a sense of where this is,” Holt says. “This is not over yet.”

He calls the NBC office back in New York and asks a staffer to start checking for flights to Oklahoma City that night. Producer Kim Cornett is doing the same thing from the parking lot, on her BlackBerry. Oklahoma City, they learn, is sold out.

But they can get on an 8:10 p.m. flight to Tulsa, about 100 miles away, land, if all goes well, around 10 p.m., and drive to the Oklahoma City area in time to catch some sleep before an appearance on the next morning's “Today” from Moore. Also on his to-dolist: the lead piece on the tornadoes for “Nightly News.”

“The really difficult part is going to be telling my wife, who came with me on this trip,” says Holt. This one, though, won't be the worst for Carol Hagen-Holt, a former flight attendant who's been married to Holt for 31 years. “My son is here,” he says, referring to Stefan, 26, a morning anchor at NBC's WMAQ-Ch. 5. The couple's other child, son Cameron, 23, is finishing a graduate degree at Stanford and will take a New York City financial job.

“She's got friends here,” Holt says of his spouse. “She's got things to do. It's not like the time I left her in Barcelona to go to the tsunami in Japan.”

He is disappointed, he says, in not being able to spend more time in the city. (His feature — when “Today” ends up doing just one hour, instead of three, from Chicago two days later — won't make it to air.) But after seeing the first wave of tornadoes the day earlier and the weather report, he had a feeling he might be headed to Oklahoma and packed his disaster-coverage gear, including boots and a headlamp, just in case.

Earlier, at the baseball field, Holt had done a little trick with three softballs, saying, “When I'm holding these three balls, juggling, that's my life.”

That is not a complaint, he says: “I always kind of bristle when people say, ‘You're the hardest working man in television.' At the end of the day, I'm reading the news. I'm not digging ditches. I'm not fighting fires. It's a long day, and it's a lot of responsibility, and it can be a little bewildering sometimes with the schedule. But, you know, it's a job, and they pay me well to do a job.”

It's the next morning, and he is talking on the BlackBerry from an SUV parked outside Moore City Hall. The plane out of Chicago was delayed three hours, he says, and he is working on only an hour's sleep. Firefighters come up again when he explains why he raises his hand to be at big stories, such as the Boston Marathon bombings or the tornado.

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