BILL HEMMER-A 040 BESTThe Journey Continues

By Greg Hoard

Most mornings he is up before five, dressed and out the door of his Greenwich Village apartment before six. He makes a quick stop at Starbuck’s for a Grande Latte, and then hurries up Sixth Avenue to Fox News headquarters at 1211 Avenue of the Americas between 47th and 48th streets. All the while, he studies his BlackBerry, immersed in the latest news from around the country and the world, the morning madness of Midtown Manhattan offering little distraction.

Shortly after six, he is ensconced with producers and writers pouring over the latest stories and dispatches from field reporters—in Europe, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Israel, Pakistan, China, and, of course, the campaign trail. There is a show to stack—much to know, more to digest.

In three hours, he will be on the air, hosting Fox network’s America’s Newsroom with Megyn Kelly. They are on the air from nine until 11. Seven hours later, Hemmer and Kelly suit-up again and host America’s Election HQ.

Politicians know him. World leaders are aware of what he has to say. He’s part of the worldwide information avalanche, the 24/7 cable news network deluge—nothing happens or moves around the world that isn’t reported, or so it seems.

Bill Hemmer has traveled a long way from where it began, modestly, on a lark with an LP under his arm and a nod to WEBN and Frog Mountain.

Vincent and Regina
The Starting Point
It started at Elder High School in the turreted tower that surveys Price Hill and looks down on the school’s legendary football stadium, “The Pit.”

“Yep, the top floor of the tower, way up in the attic with the bats,” he says. “That’s where I got the bug. My senior year, we started a radio program. We played bad rock n’ roll before classes began. It was bad, really bad.”

From seven in the morning until first bell at 7:50, Hemmer and Doug Lutz rolled out REO Speedwagon, Molly Hatchet, Styx, Rush and “The Boss,” Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band. The tunes blared through the public address system, rocking Elder from top to bottom. “It was a good way to start the morning and it was fun,” Hemmer says, smiling. “You know what it’s like when you are 17 and 18 years old. You know two things: sports and music, well, three, girls, too. But something about it, something about broadcasting just clicked with me. That’s when I first had the idea that broadcasting might be what I wanted to do with my life.”

He thought he might be a disc jockey or maybe a sports reporter. Those, after all, involved two of the three things he knew. He had experienced the halcyon days of The Big Red Machine and the more modest success of the Bengals in the 1970s. He was a starter on Elder’s football team and a devotee of Classic rock n’ roll: The Stones, Bob Seger and The Who. Janis Joplin had taken a little piece of his heart. He even liked Dylan. “Love Dylan,” he says.

Disc jockey or sports reporter—either position, he figured, would be fine because both met one important requirement.
“I could never see myself sitting behind a desk working nine-to-five,” he says. “I don’t know why. Maybe it just seemed too ordinary, too typical.”

He was born on the West Side of Cincinnati, the middle child of five. His father, William, was a mattress salesman, who later opened two mattress stores; his mother, Georganne, was a homemaker. Back then life on the West Side was comfortable, predictable. People didn’t lock their doors. They knew their neighbors. But even in high school, Hemmer found himself yearning for something more and different—just what, he didn’t know.

The Crossroads at Oxford
In the fall of 1983, Hemmer enrolled at Miami University and began studies in mass communications, but it was a German class that shaped his future—that and a subsequent elevator ride in Cincinnati.

“As a freshman I had the wisdom to take a German class that met at 8 o’clock in the morning, five days a week. Real smart on my part,” he says. “But it turned out to be one of the most influential things in my life.

“The class was taught by Dieter Stroinigg. For the first five minutes of class we spoke German and then he proceeded to spend the remainder of the class talking in English about his philosophy on life. He had many opinions about American life, but he convinced me of the importance of exploring other cultures, of travel, broadening horizons and tearing down the walls around you, walls you didn’t build necessarily, but came with your native culture.”

Hemmer had never been out of the country, never owned a passport. His family had traveled some, but primarily to see his brother, Andy, play football for Boston College. Under Dr. Stroinigg’s influence, Hemmer began to see his life as somewhat pedestrian, patrimonial. “Stroinigg was a great professor,” Hemmer says. “He opened my life…His influence took me beyond this world of sports, music and girls. He started the process of introducing me to countries, religions, people, cultures and places that I would never have experienced had it not been for him.”

Dr. Stroinigg told Hemmer about the Miami University European Center in Luxembourg (now the Miami University Dolibois European Center, in recognition of John Dolibois, a longtime Miami staff member and former United States ambassador to Luxembourg, his native land). For an entire semester, students lived with Luxembourg families and were free to travel throughout the continent. Hemmer was eventually accepted to the program, but not before another door opened.

Opportunity at Ninth and Elm
During one of his communications classes at Miami, Hemmer learned that WLWT-TV had started an intern program in the sports department. “It was tedious, boring work,” Hemmer recalls. “Here I was in this little, cramped, dark office—no windows—logging baseball games, every pitch; every play in a football game. It was far from glorious, but my foot was in the door.

“My first day, Steve Physioc, the sports anchor back then, asked me to come up to the studio with him. I remember getting on the elevator and riding up to the third floor. On the way, I ask him if he ever got nervous. He looked at me and said, ‘After doing it 2,000 or 3,000 times, that kind of goes away.’ And just then, the doors on the elevator opened and I looked in on that control room and that beautiful studio.”

It was bathed in blue light and there at the desk, shuffling through scripts, was Cincinnati’s premier broadcast news team of the time: Jerry Springer and Norma Rashid. “I knew, watching them, in that instant, that’s what I wanted to do, working under the pressure of those deadlines, doing it live, doing it day after day. I was hooked.”

He was determined to make broadcast journalism his life. He wanted to be a sportscaster. How cool would that be? Talking to professional athletes and coaches, budding-up. Having casual conversations with people like Pete Rose, Sam Wyche, Boomer Esiason, Dave Parker and Paul Brown. Could it be any better? At the time, he didn’t think so. But that would change.

Differdange, Luxembourg
Job ‘Prep’
On a crisp January night in 1986, 15 MUEC students boarded a train at Gare du Luxembourg headed for Paris. “We had wine and bread and cheese,” Hemmer says. “We were all pumped. Here I am 20 years old, never been out of the country. It’s hard to describe what I was feeling.

“We arrive in Paris and we’re all getting off the train and there is this enormous structure all lit up at night. It was brilliant. I had never seen anything like it. I said, ‘What’s that?’ Someone said, ‘That’s Notre Dame.’ I said, ‘You’re right. It is!’ I couldn’t take my eyes away. At that moment, I was filled with such internal joy and enthusiasm. I knew I was exactly where I wanted to be at exactly the right time. I could not have been happier. It was a seminal moment in my life. That experience—studying in Luxembourg and traveling around Europe—changed my life and the way I looked at the world.”

Every weekend, Hemmer hopped a train and headed for another locale: Paris, Amsterdam, East and West Berlin, Switzerland, Austria, Greece. “I spent Easter in Rome. What an experience,” he says. “I planned a trip to Russia. I found out through a travel agent that if I could get 26 people for the trip – $500 apiece – I could go free. I got a group together and the day before we were supposed to leave, Chernobyl blew up. Nineteen people dropped out. Seven of us went and I ended up paying.”

After six months studying and traveling through Europe, Hemmer determined there was more to life than sports, music and girls. He returned to Oxford and the beckoning blue light of the studio at Ninth and Elm, but something was missing.

During the spring of his senior year at Miami, Hemmer was hired by WLWT as a sports producer. Three years later, he moved to WCPO as a sports reporter, working with Dennis Janson and John Popovich. “I learned so much from those guys, all those guys at (channels) 5 and 9: D.J., ‘Popo,’ Physioc, Ken Broo, Rob Reichley, George Vogel, Scott Simpson—Thom Brennaman was hired at 5 as a reporter the same time I was hired as a producer. The learning curve was very steep and they were all very helpful.

“But all the time I was working in sports, something was eating at me,” he says. “I had that itch and my arm wasn’t long enough to scratch it. I knew there was this extraordinary world out there—a much bigger world—and I wanted to learn about it. I had to learn about it. It was a compulsion.”

Another factor came into play. Hemmer was almost too comfortable in the world of sports reporting. “No offense to anyone, but sports is a limited world,” he said. “You know what I mean. There’s only so many ways you can describe a touchdown or a home run.”

At night, he was watching the History Channel and National Geographic instead of ESPN, sitting there thinking about his experience in Luxembourg. Six months he had been there and six months wasn’t enough. Each night he added another destination to the long list of places he wanted to see. “Somewhere along the way, I adopted this crazy idea that my life was fading fast—at 26 years old—and that I had to travel around the world, and…do it before I was 30 or the whole thing was going to fall apart.”

He was a rising star, making decent money. He was on the air covering major sports stories in the city. He had worked hard to gain his position. People expected big things from him. But after a little over two years on the job at WCPO, he made a decision. “I took my boss, Jim Zarchin, to lunch and I said, ‘I’m leaving to backpack around the world. I have to do this.’ Do you know how scary that was? These people had given me this wonderful opportunity and I’m walking away. That was my midlife crisis. He looked at me and said, ‘That’s great, congratulations.’”

Zarchin not only encouraged Hemmer to make the trip, but in an impressive gesture of largess, he promised him a job in news upon his return. “I didn’t know what his reaction would be, but I certainly didn’t expect that,” Hemmer says, “and I have always been grateful to that man.”

Hemmer’s course was charted. For one year, he would travel around the world.

East of Vanuatu, West of Tonga, South of Tuala
‘Bill’s Excellent Adventure’

His first stop was Fiji then it was on to The Land of the Long White Cloud, New Zealand. He stayed with people he met. He stayed in hostels. He filled notebooks with thoughts and impressions. There were nights he slept under the stars, waves lapping him to sleep. He lived out of a backpack. He went to China and then to Vietnam.

“I went to Vietnam because in 1969 I was five years old and we had 500,000 U.S men and women there and I didn’t understand,” he says. “The only thing I knew was through Hollywood. I wanted to understand and one of the first nights I was there, I found myself sitting at a table in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon…Here’s a man across the table from me. He’s 45-years-old and he had done two tours of duty in Da Nang. Across the table from him is another man, approximately the same age. He had burned his draft card in Seattle and moved to Japan to teach English. The guy who owned the bar called in Recon drops in North Vietnam above the 17th Parallel. Here were these three guys who had come together to talk about their lives from three different perspectives. Those are the experiences and conversations you can not have unless you go out there and give yourself that opportunity…You can’t have that experience at Ninth and Elm or Fifth and Central.”

From Vietnam, he went to the mountains of Nepal to see the Himalayas and the Sherpas, who climb 29,029 feet to the summit of Mt. Everest and do so without oxygen tanks. From Nepal, it was on to India, Egypt and Israel. A devout Catholic, Hemmer was captivated by Jerusalem.

“It was the only place in the world where I had to stop and read and study for days—in the old Arab quarter—to try to understand why that city is so important to whom and why,” he says. “I think it is a must for every living human being. The three major monotheistic faiths (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) claim Jerusalem to be a part of their own faith. Until you go there and explore it, you really don’t have the sense of why it is so significant, and why so many wars have been started over it and, in all likelihood, will continue to be.”

He was on the road alone, but never felt alone. “You are never on that path by yourself because there are so many people out there doing the same thing,” he said. “You meet them, become friends, they tell you about places you have never heard of, but sooner or later, time runs out.”

He rounded out the trip in Europe and another stop in Luxembourg to see friends. Throughout the journey, he filed video reports for WCPO and articles for The Cincinnati Post, “Bill’s Excellent Adventure,” wisely keeping a foot in the working world. Then, the year was gone—and so fast. It was time to come home. He was not tempted to stay. His lure was not that strong. He had done what he needed to do and done so three years before his 30th birthday. He flew home, a changed man.

A Stink in D.C.
Cincinnati Redux

One of the first nights he was back in the states, he stayed with friends in D.C. He was tapped out. He had just enough money to get back to Cincinnati. The trip had cost him all his savings, $15,000, and he was ripe. “My friends in D.C. didn’t tell me at the time, but later they said I really smelled, really stunk,” he says. “No wonder, livin’ in the same clothes for a year, livin’ out of the same backpack.”

He cleaned up, came back to Cincinnati, gorged on Skyline and went back to work at WCPO as a news reporter. “But I found myself doing things differently, things I had never done before…I road the bus everywhere. I found myself going to parts of town I had never visited before: Northside, Clifton Heights, Avondale, Norwood, East Walnut Hills, Newport. I used to go to lunch at the Jerusalem Café, everyday…In a few months, I learned more about my home town than I had ever known before. I fell in love with it all over again.”

For two years, he covered city and county government, the courts, growing crime in the streets, taxes, levies and elections. Everyday there was something new and different; something he didn’t know about and had to learn about—something more vital than a torn hamstring or a six-game winning streak.

He was guided by curiosity and energy. He began to learn that those who succeeded in journalism, were those who were the most curious, most eager to learn. He worked hard all day and shut it down with drinks in Mt. Adams at the Bar and Grill, filling owner Eddie Sheppard’s ear with details on his latest assignment. He loved his job; but he knew he would leave soon.

Atlanta and New York
Around the World, Again
In 1995, just two years after returning from his trip around the world, he was hired as an anchor/reporter by CNN. He spent 10 years with the network, anchoring American Morning, CNN Tonight, CNN Early Edition, CNN Morning News and CNN Live Today. During the 2000 presidential election recount in Florida, Hemmer reported live from Tallahassee for 37 straight days, earning the moniker, “Chad Lad.”

In August 2005, he moved to Fox News where he covered the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the confrontation between Israel and Lebanon in 2006, and the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. He was one of a very few reporters embedded with the Marines in Fallujah.

“But I think the assignment that had the most impact on me,” he says, “was 9/11, to see the amount of sadness in thousands of faces everyday, the amount of uncertainty in the days and weeks that followed; just being there at Ground Zero after the attacks, seeing first-hand how people came together, how this country came together in the aftermath of an event that shook the very foundation of our nation, shook it to its core…

“I think we’re in a period of history our country has not seen before. I don’t know where it goes or where it ends, but we are in it. It started with the recount in Tallahassee in 2000. It continued with 9/11, went into Ramallah in March of 2002. It continues with the Iraq war, continues with the war in Afghanistan. It goes with these elections. It’s why so many people are so interested in what’s happening in this presidential campaign because they know the stakes that are on the line. It’s a helluva time to be alive. These are important times.”

He doesn’t know what lies ahead or where he will be tomorrow, next week or next year; how world events will turn or where he will have to go, and he likes it that way. He keeps a bag packed. Bill Hemmer has always been about the journey.