My colleague Bo Emerson wrote this farewell to John Pruitt, who leaves the 6 p.m. anchor desk for Channel 2 Action News for the final time today.
After 46 years in the business, John Pruitt will anchor his last news broadcast Friday. He still remembers his first story.
A new arrival at WSB-TV in July, 1964, the 22-year-old Pruitt was sent to help haul equipment to a cover a speech by Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett. Barnett’s white audience, assembled to protest the Civil Rights Act, suddenly discovered a group of black counterprotesters in their midst, and began beating them with feet, fists, and folding chairs.
The untrained Pruitt was tossed a camera and told to get film of the audience. His disturbing footage of the beating made the network news that night.
“In a strange way, it was exhilarating,” Pruitt said Tuesday as he sat at his modest cubicle in the cavernous newsroom for Channel 2 Action News at WSB’s Midtown headquarters. “You’re there. You are the instrument that brings that scene to so many others.”
With that experience, the Davidson graduate was hooked. “I thought I had found a job I could love,.” Pruitt said.
The job has kept him on the front lines of Atlanta and Georgia news and politics, from the race riots of 1964 to the Republican Revolution of 2010. In 1978 he left WSB to become the evening anchor at rival WXIA-TV, but he returned to WSB in 1994.
For many Atlantans his long tenure has made Pruitt, 68, the face of television news in Atlanta, the calming yin to his co-anchor Monica Pearson’s colorful yang.
“He was a protector for me,” Pearson said as she sat in the makeup chair before Tuesday’s broadcast, and recalled the negative reactions to a black female news anchor sparked by her arrival in 1975.
In awe of Pruitt’s ability, Pearson (then called by her married name Monica Kaufman) tried to emulate his style, which she and Pruitt agree was the worst thing she could have done.
“She was always dynamic and very spontaneous, and spontaneity has never been my long suit,” said Pruitt dryly.
Pruitt’s even, unhurried style has probably tempted some news directors to double his daily dose of caffeine, but he has refused to act like anyone other than himself, a bookish Southerner with a degree in history and sleepy eyes.
“I come from a long line of dull white guys,” a joking Pruitt said, adding that was the even-keeled anchors such as David Brinkley and Walter Cronkite that he and his generation emulated.
When Pruitt rejoined WSB in 1994, Pearson was confident enough to be her excitable self, and the chemistry worked. “She hasn’t made me flamboyant, and I haven’t turned her sober-sided,” he said.
Pruitt has covered 12 political conventions, chronicled the rise of peanut farmer Jimmy Carter and watched Newt Gingrich transform himself from an obscure college professor into a national political force.
He has also narrated some of the city’s most agonizing experiences, from the missing and murdered children crisis of 1979-81 to the bombing at Centennial Olympic Park that brought Atlanta’s 1996 Olympic euphoria to a skidding halt.
Somehow, he said, Atlanta recovered and put on a great Olympics. “I love the way, when the chips are down, we seem to find a way to pick ourselves up and move ahead,” he told Condace Pressley during an interview with his sister radio station, 750 AM and now 95.5 FM. “I’m an unabashed fan of Atlanta. Now that I’m retiring I don’t have to be objective, right?”
Pruitt will continue to produce “Georgia’s Hidden Treasures” specials, in which he profiles the state’s undiscovered gems — or gems that newcomers may not have visited — such as the Okefenokee Swamp, Fort Mountain and Cumberland Island. He also has a string of speaking engagements planned and the possibility of a memoir on the horizon.
“I hope he writes a book,” said Channel 2 Action News meteorologist and fellow fly fisherman Glenn Burns. “He has seen it all. … When he came back I thought it was the best thing that could have happened to us.”
His colleagues emphasize that Pruitt has always had a rich life outside the newsroom, and they predict he will make a seamless transition to his second act.
“That man goes too bed at 1 a.m. and he’s up in the morning making pancakes for his grandchildren,” news director Marian Pittman said.
Pruitt said he is eager to try some traveling, starting with a trip to Chile and Argentina early next year with his wife, Andrea, but he knows that he will long for the energy of daily deadlines.
“There are several things I will miss,” he said, “but what I will miss most is walking into this newsroom every day.”
The newsroom is a large complex machine, and most of its workings are invisible, Pruitt said.
“It’s been an honor to be the tip of that iceberg.”
In his 46 years as a television reporter and anchor, John Pruitt has seen, in historian Barbara Tuchman’s phrase, “history by the inch.” The stories he covered included:
By Rodney Ho, firstname.lastname@example.org, AJCRadioTV blog