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Waking Up With NBC’s
Linda Vester
[Feature 1 Photo]

Photo courtesy of NBC

Interview Excerpts:

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Prior to becoming anchor of Sunrise, Vester reported for NBC on worldwide events. In these television photo stills, Vester is seen reporting on (top) the Persian Gulf War and (center and bottom) the mass exodus into Zaire following the Rwandan civil war.
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Photo courtesy of Ursuline Academy

Shirley Gaede Speaks, executive director of Ursuline Academy, greeted Vester when she returned to her former high school last December.
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Photo courtesy of NBC

Vester shares a moment with Hillary Clinton during a reunion at the White House of the "gang" that traveled with Mrs. Clinton to South Asia.

First as a traveling correspondent for NBC News and now as anchor of NBC News at Sunrise, Linda Vester has found that reporting the news can be exciting, dangerous and inspiring. It can also, she says, challenge her faith. By Susan Hines-Brigger

 A Career Discovered

 Early to Bed, Early to Rise

 Benefits of Catholic Schooling

Facing the Dangers to Get the News

The Road Ahead

TO LINDA VESTER’S WAY OF THINKING, news “doesn’t have to affect your IRA or pension fund or how you buy groceries” to be important. “Sometimes stories are inherently important whether or not they have a direct relation to your life.” It is a lesson she learned as a correspondent for NBC News covering events such as the Persian Gulf War, the Rwandan civil war and the ensuing mass exodus of refugees into Zaire.

While these days Vester is no longer traveling to the world’s hot spots for NBC, she is still reporting on them. Since last fall, she has been anchorwoman of NBC News at Sunrise, which airs Monday through Friday at 5 a.m. Eastern Time (ET).

This past June, Vester discussed her road to the anchor desk with St. Anthony Messenger in her office in Rockefeller Center, home of NBC. Vester’s Manhattan office is a testament to her career. An Iraqi flag, torn and bullet-ridden, hangs on one wall. Vester says she found it lying in the road after the liberation of Kuwait by U.S. forces. The other walls hold pictures from her travels and a sign from the Persian Gulf War indicating a shelter location in both English and Arabic. The office also displays signs of her hometown—a Cincinnati Reds baseball jersey with her name on the back, a University of Cincinnati mug and other local reminders.

A Career Discovered

The road to anchoring Sunrise has been a long one for Vester. She grew up east of downtown Cincinnati, in Milford, Ohio, where she says she and her four brothers “were all Curious Georges. All of us asked questions that weren’t necessarily the most polite questions.” Vester says that her family is “sort of spread all over, but we’re pretty close.” Her parents and one brother remain in Cincinnati, while her other brothers live in Connecticut, upstate New York and San Francisco.

It was during her senior year at Ursuline Academy High School in Blue Ash, Ohio, that Vester says she discovered her love for broadcast journalism. Since Vester was unsure about what college to attend or career to pursue, her father, Dr. John Vester, suggested that she shadow some of his friends in their professional jobs. At the time, her father was the medical expert for WKRC-TV. He told Linda to shadow his producer, but “don’t get in her way, and don’t stay too long.”

At some point during the day, Vester recalls, “I was in the middle of the newsroom and something was going on. I don’t remember what it was, but it was just pandemonium. People were shouting and running with tapes. It was adrenaline central. Instead of leaving in a couple of hours, I stayed until the station signed off that night.”

The revelation “was literally, as corny as it sounds, a lightning bolt, an epiphany, a blessing,” Vester says. She says her mom, Joan, “likes to say that a platter fell on my head in the kitchen. Sometimes I think she’s right.”

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Photo courtesy of NBC

Vester (center, rear) rode with Navy SEALS in 1994 off the coast of Croatia in the Adriatic Sea.

After that day, Vester says she has never looked back. She enrolled at Boston University to study journalism. During her sophomore year of college, Vester studied for a semester at the Sorbonne in Paris. While there, she worked for the CBS News Network Bureau. After returning to Boston University to finish her studies, Vester continued to work for CBS News part-time. Following her graduation in 1987, Vester traveled to Cairo, Egypt, where she studied Middle East affairs on a yearlong Fulbright Scholarship.

Vester landed her first professional job in Kearney, Nebraska. “I was the cameraman, I was the tape editor, I was the producer, I was the TelePrompTer operator, I was everything,” Vester says. “The job was such an education....I would go home bone-tired, as everyone did in that newsroom because we worked so hard.” At the time, she was earning $11,000, sharing a $125-a-month apartment with a friend, driving a ‘77 orange Chevette she referred to as “the great pumpkin,” and eating a lot of macaroni and cheese.

“I can remember my mom and dad coming to visit me in Kearney. My mom was horrified because I was making so little that I was sleeping on a sofa—kind of like Mary Tyler Moore,” Vester recalls. “She was so alarmed that I did not have a bed....But it was fun in an ‘I’m taking chances’ kind of way. I didn’t want my parents to support me. I wanted to prove that I could do it by myself.”

After Kearney, Vester hooked up with NBC in 1990 as a researcher and producer based in New York. Stints in Tampa, during which she covered the Persian Gulf War, Washington, D.C., and London followed. While in London, Vester was sent to Rwanda. She was one of the first American network television correspondents to reach Rwanda’s capital and report on the civil war.

Vester describes what she saw in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, and Zaire, where the refugees fled, as “profoundly upsetting. I saw not just my own team, but other journalists melt down because it was death magnified and multiplied....We all were scarred by that.”

She recalls one incident where a man “crawled up outside our tent in the middle of the night and died. When we opened the tent door in the morning, there he was.” When the crews went into the refugee camps, she says, “People would be lying on top of each other because there was no space. They would be packed in and many of them were dying and they would grab onto anything they could—your ankle, your trousers, your sleeve, whatever they could get to get your attention because they were desperate.”

The crews, however, were helpless because the cholera and dysentery were so far advanced that anything the crews gave the sick people would put them in further danger. What they needed was the saline solution provided by the aid organizations. Not being able to help really affected Vester and others. “We didn’t have it [saline] to give, and it was very upsetting to walk among those people and have them grab onto you and then not be able to help them,” Vester recalls with emotion.

Her experience in Rwanda, Vester admits, was a real challenge to her faith: “I thought, How could God let people do this to each other? Why? What’s the point? What are humans supposed to learn out of that, that we can’t learn through some much less expensive lesson? Why does it have to be so brutal, so savage? In my rational mind, I know...that is a very simplistic way of looking at it, but when there is violence of that kind, it challenges my faith. I still can’t say that I totally understand why—why that is allowed to happen.”

When the United States decided to send a military airlift of food to Rwanda, Vester received word that a U.S. general said it was because of Vester’s coverage that the United States had decided to act. Vester says she was amazed. “That never happens. I never expected it to happen then, and I never expect it to happen again.... I can remember just looking at the sky and saying, ‘Thank God someone listened.’”

Early to Bed, Early to Rise

Upon leaving London, Vester went to Chicago to work as a correspondent. Shortly before her contract was up, she got a call from one of the senior vice presidents of the news division at NBC. She asked her if she would come to New York and fill in on Sunrise for two weeks. “I wanted to say, ‘Do you realize I’ve never anchored before?’ but I thought, I’m not going to do that. I’m just going to go,” Vester says.

Vester says that she knew the anchor of Sunrise, Ann Curry, had moved on to the Today show, but never imagined her two weeks were an audition. “I went through the first two weeks and it was fun. I liked it. And then they asked me to stay a third week and then a fourth week, and then somewhere around the fifth week they said, ‘How would you feel about doing this permanently?’” Vester accepted, knowing that there are only 11 anchor spots at NBC, five for women.

The song “New York, New York” describes New York City as the “city that doesn’t sleep.” Since becoming the anchor of Sunrise, Vester knows that part firsthand. Her day begins at 2:00 a.m., five days a week. She arrives at NBC Studios by 3:15, where she embarks on a schedule that includes stops in front of her computer to go over the day’s scripts, then the hair chair and the makeup chair.

At 5:00 a.m., the show goes live. According to Vester, during the initial 5-5:30 show, “occasionally, fairly often actually, there’s some sort of Murphy’s Law that kicks in—a tape wasn’t ready, the wrong tape was rolled, I’ll fluff a word or one of our contributors will stumble.” When that happens, the crew goes into a second show at 5:30, since the show is being fed constantly to network affiliates around the country.

Vester is still discovering exactly who her audience is at that time of morning. Viewers, she says, range from people working on Wall Street and in other businesses to the Pentagon and military, to parents with newborns, and women with morning sickness—“at least in the case of one friend,” Vester says with a smile.

Following the first taping, Vester and Sunrise’s Senior Producer Tom Bowman meet with Jim Dick, the morning news director, for a “daily rap session.” Following that meeting comes a lull before the next live feed at 8 a.m., Vester says. The live show at eight is for the West Coast because a lot of market or foreign news changes, and “because the West Coast is a large chunk of our viewership.”

Following the second live show, Vester takes time to respond to letters she receives, take phone calls, meet people or read the papers—The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The New York Daily News, USA Today, The Washington Post, The New York Post—to prepare for the occasional anchoring she does at MSNBC and the next day for her own show. Vester says she usually heads for home around 11 or 11:30 a.m.

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Photo courtesy of NBC

Vester takes a break while covering a campaign stop in Dallas, Texas, by Bob Dole during his 1996 bid for the presidency.

Vester watches the NBC Nightly News and the first few minutes of the CNN newscast before going to bed about seven. She admits that it’s not exactly your typical schedule. “Granted, the hours are kind of weird,” she says. “But for the first time in many years, I get to sleep in my own bed every night. I haven’t done that, literally, in years. It seems like such a small thing, but it is so nice.” She also revels in having live houseplants for the first time. “I’d go on assignments for a week and come home to these crispy critters. Finally, I get to have houseplants and they stay alive.” It’s such little, simple things that make anchoring Sunrise really nice, she says.

And despite the odd hours she has with her current job, they are more stable than during her days as a correspondent. In a 1995 interview with Cosmopolitan magazine, Vester spoke of the havoc her schedule played on her social life. “I wonder how long my friends will forgive me for canceling on them. As for dates, they don’t exactly like it when I ask, ‘Can we postpone until after the South African elections?’”

Her semi-regular hours also give Vester the opportunity for a more stable faith life, she says. She points out that she now has a church just around the corner from her apartment. And recently, she and her boyfriend were able to attend a friend’s ordination.

But Vester says that, even though “I don’t always get to go to a Mass in a traditional church, there’s a friend who likes to have book parties at her home in Connecticut. She always invites a lot of priests and nuns because they enjoy the stimulation and are always very well read. But there’s always a Mass. It’s not a formal Mass at all. We’re sitting around her dining room table with wine and Eucharist and holding hands. It’s very informal and small, but to me that’s a wonderful way to have Mass,” Vester says.

Vester credits her Catholic education with teaching her “a fundamental level of compassion.”

Benefits of Catholic Schooling

Vester credits the teachers and administrators at Ursuline with playing a key role in her development and where she is today. (Vester, who graduated from Ursuline in 1983, returned to the school last December for NBC News’s “Going Home” feature.) “I think one of the most important things they did was create an environment where it was absolutely a given that women held authoritative positions,” says Vester of Ursuline. “The school made it very clear that women were entitled to positions of authority. That sense of entitlement allowed us to feel that we have a natural place in leadership in the world. That gave me a mental and emotional confidence,” she says.

Vester also credits the school with teaching her a “fundamental level of compassion. As a journalist, it is so easy to get hardened when you see so many stories that are disturbing. Sometimes it’s just your survival mechanism that makes you hardened to some of it. But there is a fundamental level of compassion and sensitivity that they taught us at Ursuline that allows me to feel and not be too cynical, too jaded. I can still feel acutely Betty Shabazz’s death (Malcolm X’s widow), Rwandan civil war, genocide in Bosnia, and not say, ‘It’s just more killing.’”

Vester says that there were a number of teachers at Ursuline who had a profound influence on her. Sister Mary Ann Jansen taught Vester comparative religion. Vester says that Sister Mary Ann was “probably more of an influence than she knows. When she taught us comparative religion, she made it so fascinating. She also taught us understanding and tolerance for other religions.”

Sister Mary Ann remembers Linda as “your typical teenager,” but points out that she “always went a little bit further beyond the academic requirement.” For instance, Sister Mary Ann recalls Linda’s project from a community service course. Linda worked at St. Rita’s School for the Deaf, and for her final project brought in different machines from St. Rita’s and explained them and their functions for the class.

“I remember sitting there and going, ‘Wow,’” says Sister Mary Ann. “Most kids went to a book, they wrote up something and read it back to the class, or they might have done a skit, which is all fine and good—you can learn from that. But I just remember Linda having such a presence of mind to arrange to get these machines, to bring them into the classroom, to know how they worked and why they worked.”

Seeing Linda and what she’s accomplished, Sister Mary Ann says, “As an educator, this is what it’s all about—to provide my students with a context where they can learn and also flourish. I just enjoy it to no end to see who she’s become. The way I always approach things is to offer the information and then let the student run with it. Some students will take more of an advantage of the situation. Linda did.”

Another teacher, Nancy Heineman, instilled a love for foreign affairs in her, says Vester. Now that she looks back, Vester also credits her freshman English teacher, Bernice Pollack, with fostering the skills she uses in her career today. “She was tough on me. She wasn’t necessarily convinced at the outset that I could be a writer.” Pollack also served as Vester’s forensics (dramatic interpretations) coach. “I was a typical high school sophomore and junior, and I didn’t always feel like practicing my dialogue,” confesses Vester, “and, boy, did she ride me! At the time I didn’t see the wisdom in it, but now as I look back on it, I’m glad that she made me develop [the skills needed for dramatic interpretation] because part of the performance skills that you use in dramatic interpretation are immediately useful in television news—because television news anchoring isn’t always just reading the story. It’s interpretation, meaning your voice level and the expression on your face.”

Facing the Dangers to Get the News

Vester was in London during most of the O.J. Simpson trial, but admits that she was upset by the coverage of that story: “I found that really disturbing as a journalist.” Likewise, she says, you’re not likely to find a JonBenet Ramsey story in her newscast “unless there’s a break in the case, or it’s closed....”

Vester admits that she sees TV news falling more toward the sensational in some instances, but says she doesn’t know how to change it. “Many news executives think that that’s what Americans want, so that’s what they give them. But then it becomes this self-reinforcing cycle: If that’s what they want, that’s what we give them, so they think that’s what they should have. I think it’s a cycle that can be dangerous.”

Vester believes the chief task of network news is to inform the public. Sometimes, however, that responsibility to inform can place the reporters in direct danger. Vester says her scariest experience was during the Gulf War when her crew, followed by other NBC crews, found themselves in the middle of a minefield in the desert. The crews decided to try to go back out the same way they came in, rather than to go forward.

“It was risky either way,” Vester says. “What upset me the most was not that I would die, but that I was letting down my parents. I felt very guilty for chasing this dream career of mine, at the expense of my parents.”

But that is not the only time Vester has been in danger. While flying into Rwanda’s capital, she and her crew were told to sit on their flack vests because the plane was being shot at from below. Vester also recalls being scared every time there was a SCUD alert during the Gulf War. Vester and her crew were positioned in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, “right next to the military airfield. That’s the main target for the Iraqis....That freaked my parents out, too, because they’re watching it all happen, and they know exactly where I am.”

The Road Ahead

Previous anchors of NBC News at Sunrise include Connie Chung, Deborah Norville, Faith Daniels, John Palmer and Ann Curry. Vester says she hasn’t really thought about how Sunrise helped launch the careers of her predecessors, though. She’s still too busy learning and thinking about her current job.

So where does she see herself in five or 10 years? “I don’t know, and I used to know. This particular stop on the road map was uncharted, it was unexpected. So now my road map has changed and I don’t have a really clear idea of what the next stops are.”

This is a concept that both excites and scares her. “I think I’d like to stay anchoring because, number one, I’m learning a lot, and I love it when I’m learning. And number two, I also have the luxury of a stable life. And since I just turned 32, I’m thinking about getting married, having a family, and that’s very difficult to do on the road as a correspondent. It’s really hard to do justice to your family and I want to give 100 percent to my marriage and family. So being an anchor would allow me to do that.”

Her faith continues to be tried, however, by many of the stories she reports. For instance, on the day of our interview, Vester’s newscast carried the news of Betty Shabazz’s death. Shabazz had been burned in a fire weeks before her death. “When Betty Shabazz was burned in the fire, I kept praying every day, ‘God, let her live. She can do more good alive than dead.’ So every time there would be a story about her, that would jog my memory and remind me to pray for her. When I got home yesterday afternoon and turned on CNN and heard that Shabazz had died, my first thought was, ‘Why?’ Individual cases like that sometimes are challenging to my faith.”

Vester also struggles to deal with cases such as the slaughter she saw in Rwanda. She says she would have liked to interview the late Rwandan President Mobutu Sese Seko and ask him about “how he robbed people who didn’t have much to start with for his own personal gain....I want to know what he was thinking.” She would have asked him, “‘What justification did you have? What made you think that was O.K. to do to other human beings, particularly human beings who relied on you for your leadership in your own country?’”

As a television anchor or correspondent, Vester says she wants to let people know, through her reporting, why they should care about stories not directly related to their lives. The carnage in Rwanda, she says, “showed the world that there’s still inhumanity—man’s inhumanity to man. We’re not as civilized as we think. And I wanted with my coverage really to drive that point home—because there’s something we can do about it.” And that is why Linda Vester, despite the bullets, the minefields and the odd hours, will continue reporting the news.

Susan Hines-Brigger is an assistant editor of this magazine and a graduate of the College of Mount St. Joseph.

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