|Longtime newsman and TV anchor George Sells retires|
Point the lens at George Sells, and he's home.
225 caught up with him in late May during his last week before retirement, before anchor Andre Moreau took over as evening news anchor.
Sells patrolled the newsroom at WAFB, took purposeful steps toward his desk, a jacket thrown over one shoulder. When he put on the jacket, with its generous shoulder pads, he grew a few sizes. He added to that with a steel-straight posture.
Every movement on TV means something.
Pop the eyes to make a story important.
If it's already a mind-boggling report, a horrific series of keening mothers or people slogging through waist-deep floods, maintain a steady gaze.
Sells, 69, is always thinking: How will this come across?
And he's always ready—ready to be translated into a skittering digital signal that will sizzle into crumbling shotgun homes with plastic walls, stone estates, hospital rooms and bars.
At the end of the day, he drives to a tree-shaded cul-de-sac at the far reaches of a gated neighborhood, where a lone cicada tweets. His house looks out at a flower-laden golf course, but he's no club swinger.
He's a teller of tales.
For the past 50 years, Sells has spent his days finding stories to share. He hunts sources and angles. He conjures questions that will sandblast any remaining layer of privacy or protection.
We meet at the end of his 24 years in Baton Rouge. Years that finalized a long, solid news career that took him from his Appalachian home of Kingsport, Tenn., to Northwestern University in Chicago, to Nashville, Detroit, Philadelphia, New York, Houston and Denver. Sells is signing off.
And now so many around him are pinging: “What will you do now, George?”
“I don't know,” he says. “It scares me to death to think about it.”
Sells leans back onto a caramel-colored leather couch, then jumps up, offers anything at all from a wide selection of Keurig coffees. He cusses at an answering machine in the other room. He fiddles with the coffeemaker that sits amid dishes, piles of papers, pens, pots and pans.
The artworks on the walls are courtroom drawings. Remote controls are everywhere.
Sells fears he hasn't added enough milk to the coffee. Sits down. Bounces up again to retrieve a typed, two-page-long series of quotes for this story. He's already thought of what reporters might ask upon his retirement and what he will say. He's covered all the angles.
“I just typed them out of my head,” he says.
In the series of emails it took to set up this interview, he's included lists of sources, ideas for how to photograph this story and facts that nobody has ever presented about him before. All of his quotes on that typed page are perfect in length, exactly what a knowing journalist would hunt for in 14 pages of transcription or two hours of tape.
But to use prepared quotes would be a mistake. Sells must know this. Is it a test? He would never write a story based on ready-made sentiments. Here, in person, Sells is constantly swearing, storytelling, divergent and sweet.
He was born in Kingsport, 14 coal-filled, rolling miles from the Carter Family Fold—Johnny Cash's stomping grounds, where bluegrass bands pop up on porches and Baptist preachers predict the future.
Sells' mother read The New Yorker. His dad was the president of a large brick company.
“Here I am in East Tennessee with these gawd-awful East Tennessee accents all around me,” Sells says, lapsing into a thick Southern drawl—he regularly does all the voices when he's telling stories.
“My parents were both from that part of the country, but they'd swat me if I talked like that.”
By the time he was 8, Sells, the oldest of four, was rigging up croquet mallets as pretend TV microphones. He had a dream, and then, by providence, he grew into a booming voice and a quick intellect.
At Northwestern University outside Chicago, he worked hard to get rid of that “gawd-awful” accent. He dealt the radio announcement telling the campus that JFK had been shot.
At 21, he became the youngest announcer in history at the Grand Ole Opry. He wanted to become a network TV reporter by the time he was 30.
“And I did,” he says.
At ABC News in New York, Sells learned to hit hard.
“He commands a newsroom,” says Haney Howell, a mass communications professor at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., and Sells' former editor at ABC.
“I would just be pounding someone, like Idi Amin's prison minister,” Sells says. “I listen to it now, and I just beat his brains in and got him to confess that he was scared to death of Amin.”
But after five years at the network alongside the likes of Mike Wallace and Charles Gibson, something just didn't click.
“I found that I was writing stories every day about things that did not involve me or my family,” he says. “I was writing about wars 3,000 miles away and hurricanes on the other side of the world, and nothing about where I was. I wanted to get back to local news.”
Houston's KPRC hired Sells to ask the hard questions.
“People were saying, 'Who is this [expletive] from New York?'” Sells says, chuckling.
Sells later told Howell he was making a fourth as much money as he had at the network, but he was having four times as much fun.
Wife Sandra Sells recalls watching on TV once as her husband got chased down the street by a furious, sawhorse-wielding school board meeting attendee.
“We had to throw away the coat, shirt and undershirt he was wearing,” she says. After he was smacked, she adds, George managed to wrest the sawhorse out of the attacker's hands and throw it, to hear her tell it, Superman-style, “about a block away.”
Sandra Sells and her husband share a passion for news. They have two TVs in their family room.
“When there is an election or a big news story, I bring in a third,” she says.
The two met when they both worked at WSMV in Nashville. Sandra was a gutsy reporter herself. She once dressed in uniform and spent several days at the local women's prison to make a documentary.
When son George Caldwell Sells IV was born, Sandra shifted her energy to raising Georgie, making do in the evenings when Dad was away at work.
“That was tough, growing up, because he did work those late schedules,” says Sells' son, also a journalist, who now works at Fox 2 in St. Louis.
But Sells was generous with his time when he was home, and he managed to ignite a passion for good reporting in the younger Sells, who is now willing to drive a hundred miles for one quote, he says. That's how his dad raised him.
TV news people have to be ever-ready to move into another market. So it was with Sells.
“We came down here to visit in Baton Rouge, and I thought we were just coming to Louisiana. I'd never been here before,” Sandra Sells says with a chuckle. “When they started showing us houses, I realized we were going to be more permanent than I thought.”
The Capital City took to Sells' style. The evening news he co-anchored with Donna Britt routinely clobbered competitors in the ratings. Nationwide consultants showed tape of the duo to faraway stations. Shoot for this chemistry, they'd say.
“We've worked together for so long, we can literally finish each other's sentences,” Sells says.
Britt says their chemistry was based on trust.
“If I hesitated for a nano-second, he knew I would pick it up and finish what I had to say, and I would do the same for him,” she says.
During Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Sells worked around the clock. In the weeks after, he walked through houses in New Orleans' middle-class sections, his alert eye capturing a glimpse of humor amid the rubble, then the irony of a perfect, pink, clean little girl's room on the upper floor of a house with a first floor that looked like it'd been hit by a bomb.
“I think Katrina was the story he worked for his entire life,” Howell says. “More people outside of Baton Rouge saw him, because he was the only one on. He owned the airwaves.”
If another massive news event hits Louisiana, Sells says, they'll have to bolt the door to keep him away from the studio.
His last words as WAFB's six o'clock anchor: “Don't forget me.”
Before the next big story, though, there's ordinary time.
Remember to include that his house is messy, he advises. A smidgen of the ugly makes all the other elements of a report ring true.
Sells looks out the window at the rolling greens. Tiny tin cups beckon in the distance, seeming impossible. Maybe he'll get a set of clubs, he says.
“I never really enjoyed the game of golf because I couldn't shear 70 on the first round.”
That reminds him of a man who retired and went on to become a golf star, even though he was in his 70s.
He'll look up the man's name. He's a CEO. Someone should tell that story.
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