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Lester Holt is NBC News' go-to guy

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

Steve Johnson

Tribune reporter

3:17 PM EDT, May 24, 2013

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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.

“I liken it to how I think a firefighter would view it,” says Holt. “You don't sit there and wish for a five-alarm fire, but, boy, if there's gonna be one, you want it to be on your watch.”

And although his Chicago tenure was not the storybook tale of a new anchor coming in and capturing a city's heart (and, through ratings, its advertisers' dollars), it did teach him to view reporting as an essential part of an anchor's job, he says.

A native Californian who had worked in Los Angeles and New York, Holt started in Chicago in 1986 after the Operation PUSH-led boycott of WBBM, over issues of minority representation and coverage, seriously damaged its standing among viewers. So did subsequent management stabs at a more tabloid-style newscast.

Holt teamed with Linda MacLennan to front the flagship 10 p.m. news in 1995. While they were a polished, professional team, nothing the station could do would improve the ratings.

“It was a perfect storm for Channel 2,” says Jay Levine, WBBM's chief correspondent and a 38-year Chicago TV news veteran. “It was almost a cursed time with a number of mistakes that were made by various management teams here.”

Holt, though, was always a “consummate professional,” says Levine, one whose gifts made him even better suited to a national than a local job: “He can internalize material that he's given in a chaotic fashion and then put it together so it comes out smoothly and succinctly. Lester's always been like that.”

Holt's last general manager at WBBM was Hank Price, who says that when he started there in 1996 his bosses in New York wanted him to fire the whole news team, including Holt.

“I chose to keep him,” says Price, now the president and general manager at NBC affiliate WXII-TV in Winston-Salem, N.C. “I believed there was a greatness within him, which I think is now showing up on television.”

After four years, though, Price made a different choice: He let Holt go, bumping him from the 10 p.m. newscast in favor of what would be a brief, Carol Marin-led experiment in a more in-depth newscast.

Rather than accept a demotion to an earlier newscast, Holt decided, he says, that it was time to move on.

“I was hurting a little bit,” he says. “You try to have a thick skin and understand the business. But, you know, there's a part of me that says on some level, I'd failed.”

With doubt growing and just a few weeks left before his contract ran out, two offers came in. He could anchor the news at the NBC station in the San Francisco Bay area, where he was from. It would have been a comfortable role in a comfortable place. Or he could join then-fledgling MSNBC as an anchor.

He rolled the dice on the cable station and, he hoped, its ties to the network operation. To say it worked out is an understatement. Right away at MSNBC came a national profile for Holt and praise as he anchored coverage of the 2000 Florida recount, the Sept. 11 attacks and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

The network and “Weekend Today” came calling in 2003, and, as noted, Holt's role on the biggest of stages has only grown since. He's not a lead anchor, like Brian Williams on “Nightly” or Matt Lauer on “Today,” but he is in a 1A position and, to hear colleagues tell it, widely admired for his work ethic, collegiality and lack of drama.

“Literally 20 minutes ago,” Thomas, his “Weekend Today” producer, says, “one of my colleagues walked by and said, ‘You know what, Lester is a rock star.' They had just seen him on the ‘Today' show,” fronting a report about children hurt in the storm. “That is the sense that pretty much everyone who works with him has. He is just so effortlessly good and gracious and smart.”

Price attributes Holt's national success in the format to letting his personality come through.

“Lester is a genuinely nice human being,” Price says. “He would never do something to hurt somebody else. That's what I always wanted to see on television. That's what we do see on television now, and that's why he is successful.”

While Holt's age puts him — he notes — at the top end of TV news' desired 25-54 demographic, he remains young for a network anchor.

“I'm slipping into that other group,” he says with a laugh. He seems to enjoy himself, too, whether playing the bass or tuning in to his son's morning telecasts, also via Slingbox.

But don't doubt that there's ambition inside the nice-guy exterior: “I'd be a liar if I didn't say that at this point in my career, I would have hoped I'd be anchoring a Monday-to-Friday national broadcast of some sort, but it hasn't come to pass,” Holt says.

“On ‘Dateline' the last couple of years, I've really enjoyed working a story that may take months to do. And I have this vision of maybe going the way of Bill Kurtis and, I think, Tom Brokaw, to a certain extent — the ability to not be tied to the desk anymore, but to do projects that are meaningful to you.

“I expect to be continuing my role at NBC for a little while longer, but we'll see. You never know what doors are going to open up and why they are going to open up. You've got to be ready to walk through them.”

sajohnson@tribune.com | Twitter @StevenKJohnson