A Farewell to Phil Witt
Gayle King, Cynthia Smith and Harris Faulkner reminisce about Phil Witt as he retires this month from 38 years in the anchor chair at WDAF-TV.
Professionalism that looked effortless, smoothness in delivery, with a reliable gift for putting stories in a proper perspective, Phil Witt has had an enduring relationship with Kansas City. He came from a small town called Winside, Nebraska, between Norfolk and Wayne in the northeastern portion of the state. But here, on either side of the state line, the man and the city are inseparable.
For 38 years at WDAF-TV, Witt has been an anchor par excellence, primarily on the 6 o’clock and 10 o’clock weeknight newscasts. He is synonymous with Fox 4, respected and admired by viewers and co-workers alike. On March 24, Witt announced his retirement, and his final newscast will air in the middle of this month. But he has no intention of leaving the city he loves. Before he steps aside, 435 talks to those who have shared the desk with him at some point in their careers.
Gayle King, co-anchor; worked at WDAF-TV from 1978-1981, currently on CBS This Morning
For me, it was my first TV job. I was just thrilled to get a job in TV. I had looked at a map of the United States and decided that I wasn't going to go past the Mississippi River. I wanted to stay on this side in the East Coast. There were 212 TV markets, and I thought I could do markets 20 to 30, so that's what I focused on. But then, I went from that to, I want to go to cities that had sports teams, because I think sports brings an energy to the city. Basketball's my favorite sport, so I was hoping to get basketball, but football would be great. Kansas City had baseball, football and basketball [with the Kings], so I was really thrilled when I got a job there. They made me weekend anchor and reporter, and Phil and I did the weekends together.
He was always very, very strong. I thought I had a learning curve, but I never thought he did. He was my first TV co-anchor, and he was, to me, strong from the very beginning. I always thought he was a great writer with a really great on-air presence. I think I might have been the looser of the two of us, but I thought our pairing worked very well. Our "marriage" was three years, and I think we've both learned and both grown a lot. You get more experience, you get more seasoned, and you get more confident. Although I don't remember Phil ever having a lack of confidence, to be honest!
think his next chapter can be whatever he wants. And that's good. It's great that you can have a reputation and maintain it without a whiff of scandal or a whiff of whispering. There are no "alternative facts" with him. There is no "fake news." He really is a gentleman in every sense of the word … After all this time, the impression is still one of an A-plus-plus person. I can't say that about everybody that I've worked with. But I can say that about him.
Cynthia Smith, co-anchor; worked at WDAF-TV from 1977-1992
I think what made us so good, and what the viewers appreciated, was that it wasn't just: I read a story, he reads a story. I read a story, he reads a story. We handed stories off to each other with a flow. What I mean by that is, after he'd write a story, I would say, "Read me the last line in your story." And I would pick up a word or phrase or an emotion, and I would start my story off with something that tied it together so it was a flow.
I always saw him fight for stories. When we'd have a 2 o’clock editorial meeting, I think he was one who could maybe see the importance of a story before everybody else could and fight for its placement in the newscast. I remember one of the first things that he did that I recall was when he covered the Hyatt [Regency skywalk collapse]. I was back at the station, thank God. He and another news anchor were there all weekend, and I don't know how they did it, but he was just really tremendous. When you have somebody that's calm, collected, and knows all the players, it gives you a feeling of, when he tells me something, I know that he knows what he's talking about.
It's nice that we've stayed close, because there's not that many people who understand what you go through and how you can have a routine day, and all of the sudden, all hell breaks loose. You become a family, because you share your life. I was there 15 years, and he was there more than twice that amount. In 15 years, you get married, you get divorced, you have children, you have your second child. I remember his brother was dying of cancer at the same time my mother was dying of cancer. You share these intimate things with each other that can't help but bond you.
We thought maybe when he left as a news anchor he'd run for governor. Because he just knew everybody. In fact, we called him that. I don't know if he knew that we did! He made everybody feel important, and he really is entrenched in the community, and he's worked hard to get there.
Harris Faulkner, co-anchor; worked at WDAF-TV from 1992-2000, currently on Fox News Channel
What I needed at that time, because I was joining an established team, were patience, graciousness and humor. And Phil had that in droves. He is one of the funniest people I've ever worked with. And he never changed in the nearly eight years we were together at the anchor desk. When he spoke at the rehearsal dinner at my wedding in Arizona — I just celebrated my 14th wedding anniversary — I specifically remember everybody talking about him after his speech. They just said, "Oh, my gosh! He's hilarious!"
We covered a lot of hard news together, but we also covered a fair amount of sports. We had interesting things to cover, like when we had Joe Montana come play for the Kansas City Chiefs. Sports were a big part of our connection, and I had an occasion to do sports specials with Phil, Frank Boal and Mike Thompson. And those are some of my richest memories of being in Kansas City. I love the NFL, so those times were really special. We sometimes went on the road, and we covered the AFC Championship Game in Buffalo [in 1994]. It was so cold that I had battery-operated socks on underneath my snowsuit. We had the best time during that travel, because we were covering all sorts of things that were happy stories, and stories about the human condition in the worst weather. That time on the road with the team was really, really cool, and Phil was fun; I had never seen anyone eat that many Buffalo wings.
He just wanted to get it right. I have a mantra around Fox News Channel that being first is great when you can get it, but being right is everything. Your accuracy is what defines your integrity in the business. I foundationally got a lot of that from Phil Witt, just working around him by osmosis, really. The one thing I really loved about Phil, too, was he had more experience than I did when we first started together. But he never made me feel like I needed to catch up. He would challenge me on some things and he would say, "You know what? I think you can do that better." Or, "I think you can know more about that." But it was never any condescension. He was always a partner. And I hope that has made me a better anchor and co-anchor and co-host when I'm called to be.
I had been doing the weekend news for just a heartbeat. And I filled in during the week, and I remember losing an earring as we were going to air. It hit the desk and I didn't have a choice but just to keep on going. We got to the commercial break and he's like, "Yeah, this is gonna work out. You're a pro. You didn't even let that really distract you." I said, "I actually did. I don't know if you were listening." He's like, "Did I miss something?" This story was about obscenity in, I believe, Johnson County, and I spit out the word "obesity." And there was a bill afoot, or some sort of rule or legislation that was trying to push out obscenity in public spaces. I said, "You didn't catch that?" He goes, "No, I caught it. You corrected it. I have faith in you!" Wow, and the earring too? I'm a mess! But he said, "No, I believe in you. You can do this." Every now and then something will be going technically awry, even now, all these years later. And I will say, "Phil Witt believes in me. He said I could do this."