In a city of news junkies and scores of high-profile figures in politics and the media, the most-watched journalist in Washington may well have been Jim Vance. For more than 45 years at WRC-TV (Channel 4), he was the region’s longest-serving television news anchor. He presided over the area’s top-rated newscasts and became a public figure in his own right. He gained broad sympathy for his openness about his struggles with drugs and depression.
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Vance, who was 75, died Saturday. The death was announced by WRC-TV, where had worked since 1969, but no further details were provided. He announced his diagnosis with cancer earlier this year.
After three years as a reporter for Channel 4, Vance ascended to the anchor’s chair in 1972, putting him in the first wave of black news anchors in major news markets. In addition to reading the news, he also delivered pointed commentaries, often on sensitive racial topics.
Vance sat alongside a revolving cast of co-anchors and was often second or third in the local ratings until he teamed with Doreen Gentzler in 1989. Together, with sportscaster George Michael and meteorologist Bob Ryan, they vaulted Channel 4 to the top of the local ratings and stayed there for more than 25 years.
In the nation’s capital, Vance’s 11 p.m. newscasts with Gentzler regularly drew more viewers than the prime-time shows of the three major cable networks — CNN, Fox and MSNBC — combined.
Vance, who won or shared more than a dozen local Emmys, rose to prominence at a time when home rule and self-governance opened doors for a new black elite in D.C. He defied the staid standards of broadcasting with his bushy Afro hair style in the 1970s and by refusing to wear makeup on the air.
Other Washington news anchors, such as Gordon Peterson and Maureen Bunyan, had long careers, but none had a longer tenure at a single station than Vance. His success — and frailties — became interwoven with the city’s life.
“When cocaine almost killed me and I left here in 1984 to go to the Betty Ford Center,” he told Washingtonian magazine in 2011, “I got boxes and boxes of letters from people saying little more than ‘I’m praying for you.’ ”
He reported from Washington’s grittier neighborhoods, yet he also became a fishing buddy of President George H.W. Bush. He was one of the first people embattled D.C. Mayor Marion Barry sought out for advice after being arrested in 1990 for smoking crack cocaine.
“Why did he ask me?” Vance told his viewers at the time. “Because what he, like everyone else who’s been around Washington for a while knows, is that for more than four years I have been in recovery. The mayor thought that I might be able to advise him. I did so.”
With a reported annual salary well over $1 million and a closet full of tailored suits, Vance nevertheless retained an air of street-smart savvy. In his commentaries, he openly scolded both the privileged classes and what he called disrespectful “punks.”
Vance bantered on the set with sportscaster Michael, one of his closest friends, and he abandoned journalistic impartiality when it came to Washington’s sports teams. Yet in 2013, he called on the Washington Redskins to abolish their nickname.
“Back in the day,” he said in an on-air editorial broadcast, “if you really wanted to insult a black man, an Italian, a Jew, an Irishman, and probably start a fight, you threw out certain words. They were and are pejoratives of the first order, the worst order, specifically intended to injure. In my view, ‘Redskin’ was and is in that same category.”
He concluded: “That name sucks.”
On television, Vance projected a sense of casual ease, with his comforting, no-nonsense delivery. He seemed unflappable under the most trying circumstances, including the Hanafi Muslim siege of 1977, in which a radical sect seized three buildings in D.C. and took almost 150 people as hostages. Two people were killed, and others — including Barry, then a D.C. Council member — were shot and wounded.
Vance won a local Emmy for his coverage and was named Washingtonian of the Year by Washingtonian magazine.
He won an additional local Emmy for anchoring Channel 4’s live newscasts covering the January 1982 crash of Air Florida Flight 90 in the freezing waters of the Potomac River. The crash killed 78 people. The same day, a Metro train derailed, leaving three passengers dead.
Vance spent hours calmly marshaling field reports and live images while delivering an unscripted narrative of the day of disaster.
“I was on the air all day,” he told Washingtonian in 2011. “It was one of those days when you don’t have scripts, you don’t have rundowns, you don’t have anything except ‘Let’s do some good television.’ “
For all his on-camera self-assurance, Vance admitted to a deep-seated lack of confidence. Even after decades in the anchor’s chair, he nervously smoked cigarettes until moments before each broadcast. Whenever he contemplated retirement, he found fresh inspiration from his mission as a reporter.
“There’s validity,” he told The Washington Post, “almost a nobility, in pursuing the truth as best we can find it.”
James Howard Vance III was born Jan. 11, 1942, in Ardmore, Pa., outside Philadelphia. His father, who worked in the family plumbing business, died of complications from alcoholism at 38, when his son was 9.
Vance’s mother left him to be raised by grandparents, aunts and uncles. The loss of his father and separation from his mother haunted him for years.
When his mother visited him while he was in a drug rehabilitation facility, Vance told The Post in 2014, “I sat there a long time, and I said, ‘I don’t ever remember you hugging me.’ My mother, God bless her, to her credit said, ‘Jimmy, I’m just not the hugging kind.’ And those were the only words we spoke for the next 50 minutes.”
Vance thought he would follow his grandfather into the plumbing business, but his family encouraged him to attend college. He graduated in 1965 from what is now Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, where one of his friends was Ed Bradley, who later worked at CBS and became a longtime correspondent for “60 Minutes.”
After Bradley’s death in 2006, Vance began to wear a gold hoop earring, as Bradley had done.
Vance spent three years as a high school English teacher in Philadelphia, quitting out of frustration with what he called “the stupidity of the administrators.” Searching for work, he went to an employment agency, which had a listing for a job at a Philadelphia TV station.
He knew nothing about television and botched his audition, but was hired anyway as a reporter. “You have to understand that it was 1968,” Vance told The Post in 1974. “We had burned Watts, Detroit and Newark. . . . They were looking for a black face.”
In 1969, he was recruited to WRC as Washington was emerging from turbulence in the wake of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Vance was not Channel 4’s first black reporter — Max Robinson, later an ABC News co-anchor, had joined the station years earlier — but he quickly became a strong presence. WRC-TV, owned by the NBC network, shared its facility with the Washington bureau of NBC News. Vance often had lunch with longtime anchor David Brinkley, who became a mentor.
After just one year in Washington, Vance became a weekend anchor in 1970 and was named a co-anchor of the station’s daily newscasts in 1972. The station eased a white newscaster out of the anchor chair, reportedly seeking a younger, more diverse audience. Vance developed a deep-seated popularity among local viewers, particularly in the majority-black District.
“I was just going all over the place trying to figure out, what does an anchor sound like?” he told Washingtonian. “I also had to figure out how black I was supposed to be.”
When he delivered an impromptu commentary in 1974 about trying to build a dollhouse for his daughter, he unexpectedly found his voice and a connection with viewers.
“That’s when I first learned what an impact television has,” Vance told Washingtonian. “But more to the point, that is when it occurred to me that maybe all I gotta do is just be myself.”
His marriages to Margo Vance and Barbara Schmidt ended in divorce. He was married in 1987 to WRC-TV producer Kathy McCampbell, but they later separated. A complete list of survivors could not be immediately confirmed.
In the mid-1980s, Vance twice entered rehabilitation centers to overcome a dependency on cocaine. He hit bottom in 1987, he later told The Post, when he put a shotgun in his mouth and was ready to pull the trigger.
The next day, he said, he joined a downtown support group “full of old-school drunks.” He continued to attend 12-step meetings and later helped found a substance-abuse treatment facility in D.C.
At a time when local newscasts were losing their audiences, and the definition of news itself was changing, Vance retained an enduring popularity that seemed to transcend demographic groups.
He told viewers about his interests in sports, old-school soul music and motorcycles and sometimes reported on his adventures riding across the country on his Harley-Davidson.
He was accessible in public and, unlike many public figures, was eager to shake hands and pose for photos.
“It’s important for people to acknowledge, ‘Hey, dude — I know you, and you’re welcome in my house and with my family,’ “ he said in a 2014 interview published in Washingtonian.
“I learned that, I swear to God, from David Brinkley,” Vance added. “Brinkley’s notion was if somebody sees you on the street and you’re pleasant to that person, he’s going to tell 10 people that the encounter worked out well. If you’re unpleasant, he’s going to tell at least 25. It just mathematically works out for you to be a nice guy.”