WTOL ending is new beginning for PetersonWritten by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | firstname.lastname@example.org
Chrys Peterson must feel a bit like Tom Sawyer listening to his own funeral. Since the Jan. 2 announcement that the WTOL-11 anchorwoman is leaving the station after 20 years of service, she has received scores of testimonial goodbyes on Facebook, through emails, phone calls and just about every place she appears in public.
But Peterson isn’t going away; she is embarking on a new path that will focus on family — particularly her teenage daughter, Riley — and more stable hours than electronic media allows.
At 48, Peterson remains a captivating physical presence. But it is her intellect and force of personality that have made her as much a part of the Toledo landscape as a Mud Hens game or a trip to the zoo. She has earned viewer trust through a calculated alchemy of informed news delivery and dedicated community involvement. She can speak of the pope with deep reverence one minute and tell a scatological “Star Trek” joke the next, with the same warm smile that suggests a brain one step ahead — and eyes that are keenly aware of where the camera is.
Longtime WTOL co-anchor Jerry Anderson has clear memories of his first meeting with Peterson, on April 24, 1994.
“It’s one of those moments that is very, very clear,” Anderson said. “I started there just a month before Chrys did so I was quite new at WTOL. Word had gotten around that, ‘Hey, the new anchor is coming in; the boss is going out to the airport to pick her up.’ I was back in makeup; it’s one of those things where you’re kind of bent over looking in the mirror with a sponge in one hand, compact in the other, but peripherally, I looked out the door of the room and I knew right away it was her.
“I looked up and here comes this person and I’m thinking, ‘OK, that’s her, what are you gonna say?’ and I didn’t have to say anything. Before I could, she said, ‘Hey, Jerry, hi, nice to meet you, I’m Chrys Peterson.’ She had done her homework and knew who I was. What struck me about her was her confidence and outgoing nature. She was bold and it turned out it wasn’t a charade — that is who she is.”
Who she is
Her full name is Chrys Peterson. Chrys isn’t short for anything; that is her given name. She does not have a middle name.
“My mom figured when I got married I would just have another name and not really need a middle name so she and my dad didn’t give me one,” Peterson said.
She grew up in Alexandria, Va., living in the same house from when she was 8 years old to when she left for James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., where she graduated in 1987 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in communications. She worked at a local TV station for four years.
“They hired me — they started weekend news in 1986 when I was a senior in college. I had been interning there at WHSV, the ABC affiliate in Harrisonburg, and they asked me if I would like to be their weekend reporter,” Peterson said. “So all though my senior year I was the weekend reporter. I shot my own stuff, edited my own stuff, carried around a three-quarter-inch tape deck on one arm and a camera on the other.”
When the time came to move on, she said she had no idea she would land in Toledo — and become a Glass City mainstay for two decades.
“I sent a resume and a tape to a blind post office box, answering an ad that said, ‘We’re seeking a main anchor to complement our male anchor,’ which is the way they tell you they’re looking for a female, without saying it,” Peterson said. “I sent the tape and had no idea where I was sending it to; it just said ‘medium market.’ I got a phone call a few weeks later and the man said, ‘I’m from Toledo; I’d like to talk to you about our job,’ and I said, ‘Did I send it to you?’ I didn’t know anything about Toledo.”
The man who received her 1994 audition tape was C.J. Beutien, who served as WTOL’s news director; he had recruited and hired Anderson just weeks before when the station started a 5 p.m. newscast.
“I watched hundreds of tapes, and there was something about hers; a lot of people are very good but they just don’t pop. She really popped. I was so excited I ran to the general manager, Mel Stebbins, and I said, ‘I think we got her,’” said Beutien, who is now the news director at WNDU in South Bend, Ind. “She had no idea where she had applied. She told me later if the ad had said ‘Toledo’ on it, she would have said, ‘No way!’”
Peterson interviewed for nearly two days, but Beutien said one moment “sealed the deal” for her hiring.
“We had a male, old-school journalist anchor, Jeff Heitz, who thought the newsroom ought to be all men,” Beutien said. “He was respected but he had a reputation for being a chauvinist. And there was an age difference; he was in his 50s and Chrys was in her 20s.
“During the interview I told her, ‘Jeff has been around a long time and he has some strong views. He might be rough on you. How do you see yourself handling that?’ She said, ‘I know that I will not be successful unless I make Jeff Heitz look good.’ That was a home run.”
Beutien said Peterson was “very bright” and knew she would have to prove herself “as a young woman that people might think was just a blonde bimbo.”
“She just did it,” he said. “What set her apart was that, whereas some anchors might have become involved in a sponsorship like Race for the Cure with a story and then move on, Chrys gets into it. She lives it.
“She goes beyond the story. She wants to tell the story and then fix the problem.”
Peterson said she immediately liked Toledo but did not plan to stay.
“I thought I would be here two or three years, get my experience and move on. My goal was to move back to Washington, D.C., to get a job near my family,” she said. “I am here all these years later because I chose to stay. I love it here and my life is so much richer for all of the people that I’ve met on stories, viewers that have extended themselves to me over the years.”
Peterson’s philanthropic work has deeply integrated her into the Toledo community, but colleagues stress her talent for journalism. She has won four Emmy awards, the most recent in 2012 for Best Newscast. She has also won numerous Women in Communications Crystal Awards, an award from the Ohio Associated Press for enterprise reporting, two Edward R. Murrow Awards and a Public Children Services Association of Ohio Journalist of the Year citation.
Anderson stresses Peterson’s dedication to her craft as a primary reason for her success.
“Her journalism skills are not fully appreciated by the public,” he said. “Within the building, within the newsroom, it is fully appreciated. She can go out and report with the best of anybody. She understands what a story is and why viewers should care. When you go out with Chrys, it’s going to be a thorough interview. She is going to make those people that she interviews feel that they just want to open up with her and she has the great sense of how to put it all together in a story that is compelling for the viewers.
“And when it isn’t her story, when it’s a newscast, we are the last filter out there, so catching the errors in fact, catching the verb tense, whatever, we want to get it right and she’s a stickler for getting it right. Chrys can be tough, that’s a side people don’t see, but you know if there’s an issue in the story, Chrys can absolutely draw a line in the sand and say, ‘Wait a minute,’ and she will make her point.”
Beutien said Peterson is a “good writer who knows how to tell a story well. She has empathy and understands the human condition. She is an excellent journalist.”
Emilie Voss, evening anchor for FOX Toledo and WTOL, said Peterson has been a journalism mentor to her.
“Personally and professionally she took me under her wing,” Voss said. “I know I am better behind the anchor desk because of her. And it’s not just me; she works with a lot of the anchors and reporters in our newsroom. She gives us all feedback and constructive criticism and she does it on her own time. Watching her anchor, she is a model of professionalism. There’s a reason Toledo has fallen in love with her. Sitting next to her, you see that the caring and genuine person she is on TV is who she is in life.”
Voss, who has been with WTOL for nearly two years, said Peterson has guided her on integrating her reporting and community involvement.
“I was asked to be the honorary celebrity chairperson of the Old Newsboys Goodfellow Association this past year for their paper sale. I was talking to Chrys about it and she really pushed me to do a story taking a look back at their 83 years and find people who have been directly impacted by the organization to air the week of the paper sale to drum up awareness and support,” Voss said. “That’s the thing about Chrys; it’s not enough just to go emcee an event, she takes it to the next level. That often means more work for her, but she’s willing to put in that time if it helps support a cause she believes in. And that kind of attitude is definitely contagious.”
Peterson said while she has clear memories of jumping out of a dentist’s chair to get to the station to anchor the breaking news events of Sept. 11, 2001, her most cherished news story was covering a papal visit in 1999.
“I went to St. Louis to cover Pope John Paul II when he had the youth conference there and that was an amazing opportunity,” Peterson said. “I’m not even Catholic but to me, he’s a world leader and what he symbolizes and the type of person he was, it was just special. He was not in the best of health but when he was there, you would have thought he was a rock star. There was a twinkle in his eye and there was the parade and the Popemobile and all that stuff. We had a lot of local people that had made the pilgrimage to St. Louis so that was very cool.”
Peterson said electronic journalism has changed dramatically during her 20 years at WTOL.
“We just have access to so much more now, because we have our CBS affiliation and we get video and stories from CBS; we have a CNN affiliation so we get video and stories from CNN. Because we are a Raycom station we get video from any of our Raycom network of stations, so it doesn’t even have to be a CBS station,” she said. “And of course there’s a lot more news time to fill now.”
She said the added resources are great tools for journalists, but not all the changes are positive.
“You don’t have the luxury of spending as much time producing pieces as you used to, so maybe the quality’s not what it might have been had you had a few days to work on it,” she said. “And a lot of stations are hiring less experienced reporters and photographers and so they’re still gaining their experience and getting their feet wet and so maybe their quality, because of their lack of experience, isn’t quite up to what it was. It used to be the average age in our newsroom was around 30. And now the average age is probably, I don’t know, 24; there are just a lot of younger people.”
As a woman in a society that values youth, in an electronic medium that favors youth, has Peterson felt pressure regarding her appearance as younger women have entered the field?
“No, no,” she said. “I see in the mirror and I know that I’m not what I was 20 years ago, but I also think that because I’ve stayed here and because people have watched me age, they’ve been with me through my wedding and through my daughter’s birth and through her growing up and the Race for the Cure growth, I never had any qualms about my age or trying to look younger. I’ve never felt the pressure.”
Peterson’s philanthropy work has set a standard other local media people scramble to emulate. She is a two-time Jefferson Award winner and has worked with charities including Big Brothers Big Sisters, Girl Scouts, Girls on the Run, American Red Cross and Make-A-Wish. There are many more, most notably the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure.
An accomplished vocalist, she sings at the annual Red Cross Oscar Night event, has performed the National Anthem to open a Mud Hens game and has recorded songs for two local holiday CDs benefiting Make-A-Wish Foundation.
“The thing I get really jazzed about is what a difference it makes to be able to fund a couple of wishes for children in that vulnerable time in their life. And the money that goes to the Red Cross is actually helping people in their most vulnerable time, whether it’s a disaster or reaching a military member,” she said. “And with the Race for the Cure, I know we saved lives with our breast cancer campaign. I know there are women who never did self-breast exams who did them because they heard about it from us or got mammograms because they heard about it from us.”
Peterson said she is particularly proud of a long-running series on local children looking for homes.
“With the Home For Keeps stories we did for 17 years where we highlighted foster children, hundreds of children were featured on our air looking for adoptive families and they found them in many cases,” she said. “I’ve received several emails and Facebook messages saying, ‘I was featured on your Home For Keeps and now I have children of my own.’ It’s just remarkable to look and see what a platform television has been for changing their lives.”
Anderson said Peterson’s philanthropy work has been key to her finding a place in Toledo.
“There can be this motive of, ‘It’s good promotion for you, it’s good visibility for you,’ or ‘If the community gets to know you, the better it is for the station.’ And that’s not a bad motivation for starting, but people will see through that and figure that out eventually, and that can’t be sustained,” he said. “I know that in Chrys’ case, I know that in my case, we try to be the two most involved, active anchors out there and you’ve gotta feel it. You’ve got to feel it. It helps so many organizations out there but you can’t fake that or they’ll see it, ’cause you have to be all in on that, and in charity after charity after charity, Chrys has shown that. She’ll start out as ‘I’m going to emcee an event,’ and next thing you know, she’s on their board. So yeah, she really does invest herself, deeply.”
Tim Yenrick, CEO of American Red Cross of Northwest Ohio Region, has witnessed that investment.
“Chrys is a Toledo institution and we’re very lucky to have her as part of the American Red Cross family,” he said. “As a dedicated board member, she has helped raise awareness of our mission and support efforts during times of disaster. Of course, we cannot thank her and Jerry enough for emceeing our annual Oscar Night! Her infectious smile and warm personality make the evening special for all our guests.”
Peterson’s mark on WTOL will not be fully measured until there has been time to adjust to her absence.
Bob Chirdon, WTOL’s general manager, said via email, “It is just not possible to summarize all that Chrys has meant, done and given to this community and to WTOL 11. I couldn’t do that in a couple of sentences so I won’t try. We will miss her. She is a huge reason WTOL 11 has enjoyed the loyal viewership of so many people for so long.”
Even media people at competing television stations recognize Peterson’s role in Toledo.
“Chrys is what every television news anchor should aspire to be: caring, compassionate and always professional,” said WNWO News Director Jim Blue. “She will be missed by her many viewers and by all of us in the broadcasting community. She is truly irreplaceable.”
Diane Larson, news anchor at 13abc, said, “Competition is always a good thing and WTOL and 13abc have been worthy competitors over the years. It’s like playing tennis against a strong opponent: it forces you to raise your level of play. I wish her only the best in all her future endeavors.”
The wife and mother
Peterson is married to Tom Runnells, the bench coach for the Colorado Rockies Major League Baseball team. They have one daughter, Riley, who is 13. As Peterson approached her current round of contract talks, she said she discovered family was driving her plans more than her career. She said it was November when it first occurred to her that she might be ready to make a major change.
“The station started talking to me in September and my contract was up at the end of the year, Dec. 31,” Peterson said. “My intention was to re-sign another contract there, but the more that I thought about it, the more I really thought about Riley and Tom and his job away. That’s another spoke in the wheel because he leaves home in mid-February and he doesn’t return home until October. It’s not like he’s in and out, where he’s here for a few days and gone for a week; he’s gone every single day, and so when I can’t be someplace with Riley she’s really kind of an orphan.”
Peterson said the time commitment of electronic media conflicted with her responsibilities as a parent.
“There are certain times of the year you can’t take off because it’s ratings period in February, May, July and November. And holidays,” she said. “My two-person family’s at home while I’m at work. I work almost every holiday except for Christmas; I’ve had that off since Riley was born.”
As Riley enters her teenage years, Peterson said she knows her role as mother will be more demanding.
“When children are older they need you more than when they’re younger. When they’re younger you meet their basic needs, and a babysitter can do that for you. They can feed them and make sure they get to bed on time, check their homework, that kind of thing,” she said. “But when they’re older they’re making choices and decisions about things that are really helping them to become the people that they’re going to be. I just don’t think I can do that over the phone effectively, and basically that’s what it comes down to. She’ll call me with issues or drama that’s going on at school and we’ll talk about it on the phone or talk about it over breakfast the next day before I take her to school and that’s the only time during the week that we really have together.”
Peterson said she and Runnells worked hard to provide stability for Riley, so the absence caused by her WTOL job has been challenging.
“When I met Tom when he was managing the Mud Hens, he was from Colorado and I was from D.C. and when we married and we had Riley we just decided we were digging in for a while, so that’s what we did,” she said. “I went to seven schools growing up. So I think it’s pretty cool that she’s able to go to high school with the same kids she went to kindergarten with. I think there’s some value in that.”
As contract talks progressed, Peterson said she knew she could not reconcile her job commitment with her family’s needs.
“Talking about it with Tom, that our daughter is growing and we don’t have her for very much longer, I did start to think, well, maybe they would let me work another shift. So we talked about that for a little while but we just didn’t find a schedule that made sense for both of us,” she said. “And I thought to myself, ‘OK, Riley’s going to be a senior in high school at the end of that next contract and what have I missed out on, looking back?’ and I just don’t want to regret.”
Peterson and Runnells are confident in the decision.
“It certainly gives us more flexibility to be together during the baseball season, but more importantly, I’m excited that Chrys is able to be home more with our daughter,” Runnells said.
Riley is clear about her admiration of her mother’s role in the community.
“My mother should be an inspiration to everyone. She is such an amazing woman,” the 13-year-old said. “All she does is give and give to everyone in the community and asks for nothing in return. Her impact on the area is massive; she has changed lives and so many people respect and look up to her as a public figure. It makes me proud.”
How will life be different with her mother around more?
“I think when my mom is home in the evenings that homework will go a lot faster. She’ll help with my study habits and exercising habits. I think it will also make me feel good to have her at my basketball games, and to know she won’t have to leave at intermission during my plays!” Riley said.
The impact may turn into a legacy. Riley said while she prefers acting, a career in broadcast journalism is something she is considering.
How do you tell your on-air partner of 20 years — your “TV husband” — that you are leaving?
Not all at once.
“My desk and Jerry’s are right next to each other. I don’t know how it came up one day; he was looking ahead to the vacation schedule and talking to me and I just finally said, ‘Jerry, I just don’t think you’re going to need to coordinate the schedule with me,’ and he said, ‘What do you mean?’” Peterson said. “For a couple of weeks he was really, truly in denial, like he really thought, ‘Oh, they’ll work something out, whatever,’ because he would not talk to me about it when I would bring it up. But then he realized at some point that it was really true, and it’s hard. I think we both thought that we’d go out together.”
Anderson said he is still in denial about Peterson’s departure; her last broadcast is scheduled for Feb. 28.
“I was in denial; to a point, I still am,” he said. “I just couldn’t picture it, because in two decades of a relationship, this isn’t just a TV person but someone who I worked real hard with and have also become a friend with. When they asked me to write the announcement for the website, I think at that point it sunk in.”
Did it occur to Anderson to leave the station when Peterson does?
“Yes,” he said, “it does cross your mind, that maybe that would be a fitting way, but I’ve made a commitment to these folks.
“I truly believe Chrys will be back. It’s probably Jerry in denial, but Riley’s not going to be in high school forever, and so my thought is, ‘She’s still going to be around, she’s still going to do stuff for us.’ The relationship doesn’t end, it just changes.”
The last broadcast
What will that Feb. 28 broadcast be like? There will undoubtedly be a taped tribute, but Anderson said the key will be allowing Peterson to say goodbye her way.
t’ll be an emotional evening, no doubt about it, and for her last few minutes on air, Chrys will speak and the rest of us will listen,” he said.
Peterson said she has not yet thought about what she might say.
“My feeling is that it’ll probably be ‘thank you.’ My feeling is just one of gratitude,” she said. “My life is so much richer for having worked at WTOL. The emails and hugs in the mall really mean so much to me and I just have to thank everyone in this area.”
Peterson is deflecting questions about her next role, but said she can see herself working for a local nonprofit.
“As much as I would love to be a woman of leisure, I kind of laugh when people say, ‘You’re retiring,’ because I’m not old enough to retire. I will work, I’ll have a job; I don’t know what that is,” she said. “I went to Lourdes and got my master’s degree a couple of years ago in organizational leadership. That gave me a really good business background that I think will prepare me for pretty much anything that I want to do.
“But,” she added quickly, “it needs to be more of a day shift.”
Peterson said she is not dwelling on leaving as she wants to enjoy her last few weeks at WTOL.
“Working someplace for 20 years, next to my at-home family, my family at WTOL has been the most important thing in my life. I take my relationship with my coworkers and my relationship with my viewers very seriously,” she said. “I love when people come up to me and hug me at the grocery store or say hi to me, people that don’t know me, just because they know me from television. I truly loved that over the years, so there’s a lot of sadness in my heart because I’m very sad about leaving WTOL but at same time I don’t think I’ve heard anything but encouragement and support from my viewers.
“Everyone’s saying to me, ‘We will miss you so much but you’re making absolutely the right decision for your daughter and your family,’ and so that makes me feel good. They know I’m not abandoning them, I’m not abandoning the station, I just have to do what the right thing is now for my daughter. When I got in this business, I always wanted to make a difference in some way either through my storytelling or my community service, and I feel like we’ve accomplished a lot of that in those 20 years that I’ve been here. But if I have to look back and say to myself I didn’t make the biggest difference to my own daughter, then I didn’t really accomplish what I should have accomplished.”
Does Peterson have advice for the person who will take her place beside Anderson?
“Just to be themselves, and to be giving and generous of spirit, because people here are so generous,” she said. “You come in and they want to like you. I immediately felt that when I came here and I didn’t really know how people would accept me. I think all you have to do is open yourself and they will let you in, and I think that’s the best advice. I was successful because I invested in the community … and they invested back in me.”
What does Peterson hope people will remember about her?
“I hope it’s not a case of out of sight, out of mind,” she said. “I was here for a long time and I hope people will still think of me as a person that made a difference. And I will still be involved; I still want to make a difference.”
So it’s not goodbye, not really. After all, many of Tom Sawyer’s greatest adventures occurred after the fleeting sadness of his “funeral.” The Maumee River ain’t the Mississippi, but there should be plenty of stories for Chrys Peterson to tell — and there will always be a Toledo audience eager to hear her tell them.
Tags: ABC, Alexandria, American Red Cross and Make-A-Wish, anchorwoman, Big Brothers Big Sisters, CBS, Chrys Peterson, CNN, co-anchor Jerry Anderson, Colorado Rockies, Edward R. Murrow Awards, Girl Scouts, Girls on the Run, Harrisonburg, James Madison University, Major League Baseball, Maumee River, Mud Hens, National Anthem, Ohio Associated Press, Old Newsboys Goodfellow Association, Pope John Paul II, Public Children Services Association of Ohio Journalist of the Year citation, Red Cross Oscar Night, Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, Tom Runnells, Tom Sawyer, Virginia, WHSV, Women in Communications Crystal Awards, WTOL-11