WASHINGTON — Perhaps the most beloved man in Washington, D.C. is gone.
On Saturday, our news partner NBC Washington announced Jim Vance, the longest tenured anchor in the market, had died at the age of 75. Almost immediately, anyone with a Twitter account around D.C. turned the social networking site into a memorial of the man whose run at the anchor desk began in 1970 and didn’t end until after his cancer diagnosis was announced in May of this year.
Surely people both inside and outside the broadcast business can appreciate that kind of longevity. This business is rough and often unforgiving, so anyone capable of lasting that long is rare in its own right. But Vance did something even more rare: He held the same gig at the same station over five different decades. That kind of run is practically unheard of.
And the quality of those years were just as remarkable as the quantity. Vance was an award-winning anchor with a great backstory, but others have already written that obituary.
What stands out to me is how this black man — whose look went from afro to bearded to gray goatee — transcended the anchor desk. He wasn’t just some polished broadcaster reading the news; he was a part of the family in every home tuned to Channel 4.
His smooth, easy-going delivery was a perfect fit for any story and also let the viewer know he was one of them.
That was never lost on me as a kid. My family settled in the D.C. area in 1991, and one of first things I noticed here was this sharp anchor on Channel 4 that reminded me of a cross between my dad and Shaft. Growing up, we just didn’t see a black man that cool anchoring the news. But there was Vance, and it awakened something in me that I’m not sure would have been otherwise activated.
Seeing Vance and then-ABC-7 anchor Del Walters (who I’m now fortunate to call my colleague at WTOP) deliver the news made preteen me believe I could do it too. And I know I’m not alone in that; many broadcasters and personalities of color that hail from this area can point to Vance as their inspiration as well, like my friend and colleague Clinton Yates.
“He was my favorite newscaster of all time,” Yates told me. “The sound of his voice will always signify the D.C. I’ll remember and ultimately, the D.C. I love.”
I love Jim Vance. If you're from D.C. in my era, he's your everything in local news. His loss is staggering even if we knew it was his time.
— Clinton Yates (@clintonyates) July 22, 2017
Yates spent his morning tweeting about his own experiences with Vance.
I was fortunate to meet Vance on two occasions; both encounters happened earlier this year, the first of which took place at a retirement party in January. I knew Vance would be there, and I looked forward to meeting him with great anticipation. Admittedly, I even rehearsed what I wanted to say to the man I’ve idolized since I was 12.
When he entered the room, he briefly and inadvertently stole the show. The party wasn’t far removed from his 75th birthday, so well wishers came to him from every angle. I’m very rarely nervous, but just being in his presence gave me butterflies. When I finally worked up the nerve to approach him, I told him how much I looked up to him and what an honor it was to meet him.
Now this is where the story can turn either epic or really disappointing. When meeting someone you’ve idolized, there really is no in between.
I’m happy to report in this case, it was the former. Vance made me feel like the honor was his, and even gave me one of the best offers of my life.
“If you ever need anything, you call me. I mean it.”
That last sentence gave me the confidence to take him up on his offer. I reached out to him a month later to grab a drink and pick his brain — to see if knowing him personally as an adult would be as inspiring as seeing him on television as a kid was.
Once again, Vance was beyond my reasonable expectations. He met me after his evening newscast and we talked about life, love and the business we’ve chosen. He had a charming and funny anecdote for virtually every topic, and even told me one of my great gripes about doing television reminded him of his good friend and former roommate — a guy by the name of Ed Bradley.
Perhaps equally as impactful, seeing Vance relate to his fans was a lesson unto itself. He shook hands and took pictures with people who told him tales of how they grew up watching him. One woman even told Vance he spoke at her graduation. He truly was the proverbial people’s champ.
Never was that more evident than last month, when Vance was added to the mural outside the iconic D.C. eatery Ben’s Chili Bowl. It was a symbolic gesture that cemented what we already knew: Jim Vance’s name is every bit as synonymous with D.C. as Chuck Brown and Marion Berry (whom Vance personally counseled over his cocaine addiction).
Vance’s struggles with substance abuse were well-known but they didn’t define him. We’ll remember him for his unique blend of personable and authoritative, his swagger before swagger was a thing and how he was one of the few examples of someone universally loved in a town defined by polarizing figures. Vance was a shining example of what a man could both achieve and overcome. That means more than any Emmy ever could.
Sadly, Vance’s last public appearance would be the mural unveiling at Ben’s. During his brief address, Vance famously said “My blessings continue to flow.”
Jim, you were the blessing to us all. Here’s hoping you and George Michael are somewhere sharing another hearty laugh.