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Tom McGee makes case for redemption

Kenny Kemp
A law degree and state Supreme Court credentials hang prominently on the wall in Tom McGee's office at Mark Hunt Associates. The documents symbolize a fresh start for the popular but beleaguered TV anchorman who has turned his life around after three highly publicized DUI arrests.
Kenny Kemp "I've had my failures,...
Kenny Kemp ...enough to know...
Kenny Kemp ...there are certain mistakes you pay dearly for."
Courtesy photo Growing up in Huntsville, Ala., Tom McGee lived in housing projects. At one point, the family lived in a one-room subsidized apartment.
Courtesy photo In the press box at a high school football game, 24-year-old Tom McGee enjoyed calling the plays over the PA system, a precursor to his eventual first career as a television broadcaster.
Courtesy photo In Vietnam, Tom McGee (center) was in the thick of things as an infantry platoon leader.
Courtesy photo In 2009, Tom McGee was a proud graduate of the West Virginia University School of Law. He enrolled in 2006.
Courtesy photo After Vietnam, Tom McGee avoided flying for years. Finally, a former World War II pilot, Ray Ritch, reintroduced him to the wild blue yonder. McGee stands with the plane that got him back into flying.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Everybody knows his name, his face, everything about him. They followed him for years on TV. They know all about the three DUIs, the jail time, the thudding fall from grace.

At 65, a repentant Tom McGee tries hard to put the past behind him. Fueled by lessons learned, he strives daily for redemption.

In 2006, after 35 years as a television anchorman, he took that now-or-never plunge and enrolled in law school, a dream that had nagged him for decades.

Now a lawyer with Mark Hunt Associates, he concentrates on personal injury and criminal cases, many of them DUIs. He wants fervently to keep them from repeating the same mistakes he made. It's his way of making amends.

In his first real interview since his turnaround, he talked openly about his early life, his television career, the drinking problem that bedeviled him and his new settled life in the world of law.

 

"Mom and Dad came from the lower middle class. My dad was from down near Huntsville, Ala., a country boy. They got married in the Depression years. He was manager of a clothing store.

"We had a pretty humble upbringing. We lived in subsidized apartment buildings. When I was a boy, they gave me a second-hand train for Christmas. They showed me this little thing on it that was broken. They said Santa broke it when he came through the window. Can you believe it? I think about that now and it gets to me.

"I didn't have much focus on what I wanted to be, but I did pretty well in school. Looking back on that 35-year television career, I had no notion of wanting to do that. It was not planned. I tried to plan things. I'm going to do this. I'd like to do that. But everything was as if I were being put here and nudged there. And I didn't have a thing to do with figuring that out.

"When I went to games in high school, at halftime I would ask them in the press box if I could make the announcements. In Vietnam, a lieutenant went out of his way to come up to me and say, 'Tom, you have a voice like the guy who does the Campbell's soup commercial. Stick with that.' Funny how things like that can become significant later on.

"I started at the University of Alabama in the late '60s. My parents scraped together everything they could. In the '70s, coming back from Vietnam, I went back to college on the G.I. Bill. My degree was in political science with a minor in communications.

"I was in Vietnam a year. We were all scared to death, and it was worth being scared about. I was an infantry platoon leader. We were in areas of the country where there was a lot of threat from the enemy. I feel very lucky, if you want to call it luck. There had to be a higher power looking out.

"I got to work in television as soon as I could. When I got done with the military, I had a portfolio of photography. Photography started as an intense hobby after high school.

"I decided I would take these pictures around to see if I could get a job. Three weeks out of the Army, I had an offer from a newspaper and a television station. All I had ever dreamed of was having a job as a photographer at a newspaper. But there was something about television, just being in the studio and around those cameras.

"I took the job at the TV station in Huntsville. I was a photographer and worked in production and news and worked in the studio every morning running the camera for live shows and producing commercials. One day, a news director at a competing station -- there were no contracts in those days -- said he liked the stuff I did on TV. He wanted me to be a weekend anchor and a weekday reporter.

"I have the vintage LSAT [law school aptitude test] from the late '70s. I was already in TV, but I still had those materials. So law school was already in my mind.

"When I was about to make the decision about law school, I got an offer from Buffalo, N.Y. I was on the Canadian border for six years with snow up to my eyeballs. It was different, ethnic, a good experience. That's what took me away from that law path. It was a good offer, and I had to go.

"I went to Buffalo, Detroit, CNN in Atlanta and then here. At CNN, I was on the air constantly. I was in a sea of three dozen anchors at CNN. I worked overnights, worked at TBS and CNN Radio. It was a pretty wearing job.

"Dick Cantor, a news director at Channel 8, called and said he would make me the main guy here if I wanted to get back into local television. I wanted to get back to my local news roots.

"I came here almost 30 years ago. I started at CHS in October of 1984. I thought I would stay a year.

"I was at Channel 8 for 10 years, went to Channel 13 for seven years, went back to 8, lost that job and eventually came back and did a WB network startup with Mark Hunt.

"At Channel 13, I had a hostage situation happen in the middle of a live broadcast. The guy who had taken some people hostage in Nitro wanted to talk to me. We hooked up that link. He had the TV set on in the living room where he was holding the people. The SWAT team and helicopters were already in place.

"The guy's concern was that police were familiar with him, and he was afraid he would be harmed. He wanted to get things out in open where everyone could be seen. After about 30 minutes, he finally came out. This was covered by 'Hard Copy' and 'Geraldo.' The Geraldo show flew me to New York.

"There are so many stories here. Government is always fascinating. There is a lot of police activity, things that keep news organizations running. It makes the business interesting. I liked my time in it.

"The overall highlight was going to Channel 13 when it was the doormat of television here. We brought it up. To have something like that happen is a great reward.

"I was a stupid drinker. I got charged three times with DUI. I pleaded guilty twice. It took a whipping for me to understand what was going on. Some overnight visits to the regional jail is enough to know that's not a place you want to be.

"After some years without being in a solid relationship, I was just a guy whose social life depended on roaming around with buddies in bars.

"Now I'm married to Julie, a West Virginia girl. We've been together 16 years, married for 10.

"I had developed a habit of abuse. In '97, incident No. 2, I went to a substance abuse center. In 2003, after incident No. 3, I had to retrace some of those steps. I've had my failures, enough to know there are certain mistakes you pay dearly for.

"I've been given great opportunities. I have much to be thankful for. I'm not bitter about the past. It just took me too long to learn. I don't want others to make that same mistake.

"My area is criminal law and personal injury. I do a lot of DUI cases. I instinctively want to help the people who are going through the same things I went through. It's kind of like trying to fix the past.

"I don't have a chemical dependency or physical addiction. I thought I did, because I wanted that to be an answer. I took tests from experts who said that doesn't seem to be it. But it didn't matter. People said to me, 'If you have social and legal problems as a result of drinking, you can call that being an alcoholic.'

"I've tried to make a mark in some productive areas. I know people haven't forgotten about it, and I haven't either. I don't want to forget it. I continue to remind myself.

"When the WB network station folded in 2006, I went to law school. A lot of stations around country were starting to downsize and consolidate. I thought it might be the time to make a change. It was a great decision.

"Law school was tough. If you make a snap judgment about going to law school, that isn't going to work out. You've got to be pretty dedicated.

"I can't say I don't miss a career I've had for 35 years. You miss some of it, and some parts you don't miss. Life is like that. Some of it is good, and some of it is not. But broadcasting on balance was a great career for me.

"I've had a great life. I've got a 10th-floor window here. That's not so bad. I had to take some risks to get this stuff on the wall, but it all worked out.

"It took a lot to get this degree on the wall, but it's been worth it. I think it would have always haunted me because I wanted so long ago to do it.

"You know what my kicker is? It's a crummy day out there right? Spring will be here soon. And then summer. I used to want to rush that. Now I say, maybe I'd better slow this down and try to enjoy where I am."

Reach Sandy Wells at sandyw@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5173.


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