When the NBC six o’clock news began Saturday evening, July 22, on Channel 4, you knew right away.
There was co-anchor Doreen Gentzler, who normally doesn’t work on weekends, dressed in black, and the music seemed somber.
Jim Vance was gone.
Gentzler and the Saturday regulars looked stricken, but also animated; not in a newsy way, but as people engaged with their emotions.
It was the normal setup for a local six o’clock news half-hour: anchor, co-anchor, weather guy, sports guy, the kind you could see all across the United States. Except that for WRC, there was a gaping hole. Gentzler, his co-anchor since 1989, said: “I hope you bear with us, because we have lost a member of our family. Jim Vance died this morning.”
Back in May, Vance, 75, had announced on the air that he had a “diagnosis nobody wanted to get,” that he had cancer.
Hearing this, listening to this, was like getting a phone call in the middle of the night that someone you loved or cared deeply about had died.
It is the nature of local news broadcasts, no matter where they are, that they become something more than a way of getting the latest news — the murder, the weather, the politics, a sharp rise in school attendance, a neighborhood celebration.
The news is read, there is banter, news of the reporters and anchors themselves. It’s not so much a news broadcast as a nightly gathering of friends you’ve hardly ever met in person.
In Washington, this is a little different — but then again not. The coverage area includes not only the nation’s capital but Maryland and Virginia, where there are elections, tornados and crime.
It’s also different because here there are senators and members of congress. Here is the dome, the White House, the president and the embassies of the world. Here the local news is the national news, often world news. This is a place of ceremony and ritual and tradition.
Jim Vance in most ways fit right in. He handled it all with aplomb, with grace and style, a kinetic sense of living in and knowing the moment. He transcended through his person his anchor role because very little ruffled him. You knew you getting not only the straight scoop, but the man himself. It’s more than trust.
Here’s the thing.
He was with us for a long time, all the while carrying a kind of first. He was a pioneer as one of the first African American anchors, and at a young age, which meant he was carrying not only the burden of a troubled childhood outside of Philadelphia, but pressure in the role.
He didn’t play a role. He owned the job he landed at WRC for 45 years, making him the longest serving broadcaster in the Washington area.
He covered big stories. He came to Washington at a time when it was recovering from the 1968 riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. He won 19 Emmys, including one for his coverage of the Hanafi Muslim siege of 1977 and the 1982 crash of Air Florida Flight 90 in the Potomac River. His performance then — round the clock, with remarkable calm and authority — established him as a kind of rock of trust.
Vance — all his colleagues called him “Vance” — had a unique combination of street cred and authenticity and a shiny class that went beyond race. His hair would change; he carried off an Afro-and-suit combo with great skill and drama, and a salt-and-pepper beard. But he seemed a salt-and-pepper kind of person in terms of people too. In the studio, you could see this was family, friendship, often at the warmest level, filled with laughter that was often uncontrolled.
Not only was Gentzler, a young woman from Cleveland, a perfect fit, his friendship with the late sportscaster George Michael was plain as day and unabashed. It included a video in which the two watched a runway model precariously and finally unsuccessfully navigate her trip, to the point both were laughing uncontrollably.
He shared with the audience — his cocaine addiction, his near suicide staring down the point of a gun, his depression, his rehab and help from others. “I found love, I found joy,” he said.
At the news of his death, tributes flowed from everywhere. Donnie Simpson (“he was Frank Sinatra”), former Mayor Anthony Williams, civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, Tom Brokaw (“he was the forever anchor”), Mayor Muriel Bowser, Caps and Wizards owner Ted Leonsis. He was called a giant, an original, a pioneer.
He had this knack, a way of reaching everybody, the kids in school, where he gave speeches, his charities, going from “street” to “anchor,” sometimes in a phrase or a sentence.
He could dress — oh, man, the hats, the ties, the striped shirts — and then he would be off on his motorcycle, in leather, all the way cross-country to the Super Bowl.
You suspect he had a not-so-secret passion for being a sports anchor. Sportscasters — even Michael — had to watch it; Vance might take over their job. When he did the sports for several days in a row once, you saw a joyful, happy man.
He was married three times, with three children. His honors and accolades are long and deserved.
Impressions are something else. The community, as Eric Holder said, has lost one of its members. We were his family to him, as he was to us. More than that, all of us thought we knew him, and saw him nightly, in the evening, always expecting him to be there.
It is a loss in the family, that killer smile not being there, those straightforward talks on race and our common concerns, which included making a doll for his daughter. He was plain spoken, but not so plain. I only saw him once, standing in line for one of Carol Joynt’s breakfasts with notable folks, looking cool as cool can be, the man whom Gentzler described as “the coolest man in Washington.”
He was asked if he was working. Vance grinned and said, “Oh, hell no. I’m just digging hanging out for this.” Looking at him, you thought of jazz.
His last public appearance came when, already and obviously frail, he appeared at the first glimpse of the new Ben’s Chili Bowl mural on U Street, where he had a high and honorable place.
“When I first came to Washington in 1969, Ben’s is where I spent my first money, and I’ve been coming ever since,” he said, his breath a little labored, the voice a little raspy, the hat familiar.
“Let me tell you, you cannot imagine the joy and pride I feel being up there on this mural,” he said. “Even after all this time my blessings continue to flow.”
A man pointed to his face, wearing a big smile, high on the wall. “There he is,” he said.
Maybe he was pointing even higher than that.