Photo courtesy of NBC
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.
Photo courtesy of Ursuline AcademyShirley Gaede Speaks, executive director of Ursuline Academy, greeted Vester when she returned to her former high school last December.
Photo courtesy of NBCVester 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
TO LINDA VESTERS WAY OF THINKING, news doesnt 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 worlds 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. Vesters 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 hometowna Cincinnati Reds baseball jersey with her name on the back, a University of Cincinnati mug and other local reminders.
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 werent necessarily
the most polite questions. Vester says that her family
is sort of spread all over, but were pretty close.
Her parents and one brother remain in Cincinnati, while her
other brothers live in Connecticut, upstate New York and San
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 dont get in her way, and dont stay too
some point during the day, Vester recalls, I was in
the middle of the newsroom and something was going on. I dont
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.
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 shes right.
Photo courtesy of NBCVester (center, rear) rode with Navy SEALS in 1994 off the coast of Croatia in the Adriatic Sea.
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
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.
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 sofakind of like Mary Tyler Moore,
Vester recalls. She was so alarmed that I did not have
a bed....But it was fun in an Im taking chances
kind of way. I didnt want my parents to support me.
I wanted to prove that I could do it by myself.
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 Rwandas capital and report on the civil war.
describes what she saw in Kigali, Rwandas 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.
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 couldyour ankle, your
trousers, your sleeve, whatever they could get to get your
attention because they were desperate.
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 didnt 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
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? Whats the point? What are
humans supposed to learn out of that, that we cant 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
cant say that I totally understand whywhy that
is allowed to happen.
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 Vesters 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.
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 Ive never anchored before? but I thought, Im not going to do that. Im 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 doesnt 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 days 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, theres some sort of Murphys Law that kicks ina tape wasnt ready, the wrong tape was rolled, Ill 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 sicknessat least in the case of one friend, Vester says with a smile.
Following the first taping, Vester and Sunrises 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 papersThe Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The New York Daily News, USA Today, The Washington Post, The New York Postto 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.
Photo courtesy of NBCVester 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 its 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 havent 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. Id go on assignments for a week and come home to these crispy critters. Finally, I get to have houseplants and they stay alive. Its 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 dont 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 friends ordination.
But Vester says that, even though I dont always get to go to a Mass in a traditional church, theres 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 theres always a Mass. Its not a formal Mass at all. Were sitting around her dining room table with wine and Eucharist and holding hands. Its very informal and small, but to me thats 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 Newss 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 its 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 Shabazzs death (Malcolm
Xs widow), Rwandan civil war, genocide in Bosnia, and
not say, Its 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 Lindas project from a community service
course. Linda worked at St. Ritas School for the Deaf,
and for her final project brought in different machines from
St. Ritas and explained them and their functions for
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 goodyou
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
Seeing Linda and what shes accomplished, Sister Mary
Ann says, As an educator, this is what its all
aboutto provide my students with a context where they
can learn and also flourish. I just enjoy it to no end to
see who shes 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.
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 wasnt necessarily convinced at
the outset that I could be a writer. Pollack also served
as Vesters forensics (dramatic interpretations) coach.
I was a typical high school sophomore and junior, and
I didnt always feel like practicing my dialogue,
confesses Vester, and, boy, did she ride me! At the
time I didnt see the wisdom in it, but now as I look
back on it, Im 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 newsbecause television news anchoring
isnt always just reading the story. Its interpretation,
meaning your voice level and the expression on your face.
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, youre not likely to find a JonBenet
Ramsey story in her newscast unless theres a break
in the case, or its closed....
Vester admits that she sees TV news falling more toward the
sensational in some instances, but says she doesnt know
how to change it. Many news executives think that thats
what Americans want, so thats what they give them. But
then it becomes this self-reinforcing cycle: If thats
what they want, thats what we give them, so they think
thats what they should have. I think its 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 Rwandas 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. Thats the main target
for the Iraqis....That freaked my parents out, too, because
theyre watching it all happen, and they know exactly
where I am.
Previous anchors of NBC News at Sunrise include Connie Chung, Deborah Norville, Faith Daniels, John Palmer and Ann Curry. Vester says she hasnt really thought about how Sunrise helped launch the careers of her predecessors, though. Shes still too busy learning and thinking about her current job.
So where does she see herself in five or 10 years? I dont 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 dont have a really clear idea of what the next stops are.
This is a concept that both excites and scares her. I think Id like to stay anchoring because, number one, Im learning a lot, and I love it when Im learning. And number two, I also have the luxury of a stable life. And since I just turned 32, Im thinking about getting married, having a family, and thats very difficult to do on the road as a correspondent. Its 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, Vesters newscast carried the news of Betty Shabazzs 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 didnt 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 theres still inhumanitymans inhumanity to man. Were not as civilized as we think. And I wanted with my coverage really to drive that point homebecause theres 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.