NEEDHAM — She calls herself the oldest living anchorwoman in New England, and she says unapologetically that she doesn’t “look like the other women in news in any way” — never has.
Susan Wornick has worked in television news for more than 30 years, but now the 63-year-old WCVB-TV anchor has decided the time has come to turn off the teleprompter.
“I have had an amazing career that has given me the opportunity to meet and work with incredible people, and advocate for those who don’t have the resources to do it for themselves,” said Wornick, a few days before making the July 22 on-air announcement that she would retire in March 2014. “The time is right, while I am still young enough to do something else,” she said.
After the announcement, viewers left Facebook messages. Chari Souza of Plymouth wrote, “[Wornick] has a casual and comforting way of delivering the news . . . with a dash of compassion and humor. She looks like most of us in her audience. Boston is losing a one-of-a-kind reporter.”
WCVB general manager Bill Fine noted that Wornick’s connection with the viewers had contributed to her staying power over so many years, and that besides being “funny as they come, she cares, genuinely, and she has a gift for making people feel special. She knows how to let her personality come through . . . very professional.”
That funny side of Wornick may keep her on television after she officially retires, as she teams up with former sidekick and ex-husband No. 2 Bob Lobel (she’s had four husbands, no children) to “entertain, amuse, and edify the TV audience.” The duo have cohosted charity events since meeting in the ’70s, when, she said, the chemistry was instant, comfortable, and natural — and they made audiences laugh.
Wornick said Lobel, with whom she has remained good friends since their divorce in the mid-’80s, was emcee at an event in her honor last year. “It was our first time onstage together in over 25 years, but it all came back instantly.”
She said Fine was so impressed that he suggested they do a show together, and that if they found a sponsor he’d put them on the air. Wornick said she and Lobel have shot a pilot for a cooking-talk show and are shopping for someone to underwrite it. They are also talking to Fine about other ideas, including a point-counterpoint talk show.
“I hope the best is yet to happen for her,” said Lobel, a former sports anchor at WBZ-TV. “Selfishly, I’m hoping to capitalize on her unbelievable career. I’m going to have to step up my game working next to her.”
Another plan for Wornick’s immediate future: being inducted into the Massachusetts Broadcasters Hall of Fame on Sept. 12.
Wornick’s career in news actually began by accident 40 years ago, with a job selling radio advertising in New Hampshire. Although the Natick native attended Emerson College, “the only reason I went to college at all is that my parents wanted me to be the first in my family to get a degree.“
Her sales job opened a door. “Back then there weren’t many women in radio,” she said. “My news director thought it would be a kick to put a woman on the air, so he challenged me to read a newscast. I started going out to cover the news, moving to different stations as my responsibilities increased. Ed Bell at WBZ Radio hired me as the New Hampshire correspondent, and when he moved to WHDH-TV in Boston, he took me with him. I did news and filled in [as a traffic reporter].”
While at WHDH, Wornick worked part time at WCVB, until the station offered her a full-time job in the early ’80s. “I actually pooh-poohed TV back then. I thought radio was more important and immediate for delivering news. I took the job, and then I realized there was more to TV than I thought — I actually had to do my hair and makeup every day!”
Wornick occasionally filled in on the anchor desk, and then-news director Phil Balboni put her on the noon news with Jim Boyd.
Her longtime coanchor retired from the station several years ago, and called his years with Wornick the most meaningful times of his career. “Susan has had, and continues to have, a profound impact on my life. I admire her professionalism and her dedication, and I am most impressed by her compassion and caring for others.”
Wornick’s career hasn’t been all laughter and love. In 1985 she narrowly escaped being sent to jail after being held in contempt of court for not revealing a source. She was ordered to serve 90 days at Massachusetts Correctional Institute in Framingham but when the source heard that she was actually going to jail, he came forward.
Friend and former colleague ABC News reporter Martha (Bradlee) Raddatz said that story solidified Wornick as a reporter. Afterward, Raddatz was with Wornick when she walked into the old Boston Garden for a Celtics playoff game and received a standing ovation. “That was a turning point for her in her career, but it didn’t change who she was,” said the former WCVB reporter. “There aren’t a whole lot of [reporters] who are totally themselves on air. . . . She makes a community out of TV. One of the saddest things about leaving Boston for me was leaving Susan.”
Wornick also made news as a consumer reporter when the maker of a diet drug sued the station for a story she did on the product’s potential health risks. The company took out a full-page ad in The Boston Globe trying to discredit her, but eventually dropped the lawsuit.
That’s what TV news is about, said Wornick — “making changes and making a difference.”
But Wornick is perhaps just as well known off camera for her frequent charity work, sometimes prompted by stories encountered in reporting. While covering the Haiti earthquake in 2010, she reported on the emotional trauma of the family of Britney Gengel of Rutland, who was killed in the collapse of her hotel while in the country working with children. “Watching the pain her parents suffered in losing their daughter and watching them build an orphanage in Haiti to fulfill their daughter’s dream made me want to help,” said Wornick. Now close friends of the family, Wornick is an advisory board member for the nonprofit Be Like Brit.
Other local charities she has lent a hand to include Rosie’s Place, Catholic Charities, the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, and Rodman Rides for Kids. When WCVB colleague Kelley Tuthill was diagnosed with breast cancer, Wornick created the Kelley for Ellie fund-raiser to benefit the Ellie Fund, enlisting the help of fellow anchors and reporters.
“Susan is truly one-of-a-kind,” said Tuthill. “She has been my newsroom mentor since day one. Charitable organizations all over Boston have benefited from her skills. If more than half of Bostonians have met Mayor Tom Menino, then at least that many have attended a charitable or community event with Susan.”
When Wornick emcees an event, she promises a lot of laughs, she said, because it gives her the chance to be funny in ways she can’t be in the newsroom. She pokes fun at herself, her four marriages, her status as a single woman, her hair, and even her body type. And she tells endearing stories about her 98-year-old mother, Myrna Billian.
“This business is all about the people and helping where we can. I hope to continue being a mentor and finding ways to give back,” she said.
Wornick said she has seen a lot of pain during her career. “After 9/11, I realized it was time for me to start thinking of other ways to help people,” said Wornick. “I spent the week at TJX headquarters in Framingham, where they lost several employees. I connected with them, and made friends that I have to this day. I would do live shots and then sob. I’d compose myself and come back and do it again. These stories became personal, and especially after Haiti, I realized I didn’t want to do it anymore. It became too much.”
Fine, Wornick’s general manager since 2005, said the anchor is leaving behind a “wonderful legacy as a role model for future generations on how to best serve the community and give back. You don’t replace a Susan Wornick; you have someone succeed her.”
She would like to work with a company that has a good reputation in education of consumer issues, and that includes charity work. “Basically what I do now, just not in front of a TV,” she said.
When she signs off for the last time in March, she said she will take away “a lot of pencils and notebooks, and a heart full of love and pride, gratitude, and personal relationships. It will be a very difficult day.
“Then I’ll go home and wait for the call for a new job. Did I mention I’m single?”