Sunshine, with a Good Chance of Spunk

After three decades of news anchoring and reporting, Doreen Gentzler delivers all the right elements.

After three decades of news anchoring and reporting, Doreen Gentzler delivers all the right elements.

By Helen Mondloch

With about a minute left in the broadcast of NBC News4 @ 6, Doreen Gentzler is wrapping up the evening with a lighthearted look at a new fashion innovation for shoe lovers: something called “modular shoes.”

Video footage shows a woman assembling the rubbery product on her own feet while Gentzler’s voice-over explains that the 16 shoe components—thermo-plastic blocks held in place by rubber bands—can be combined to create 256 different pairs of shoes. Gentzler also mentions the designer’s claim that the shoes can be assembled in 30 seconds. With a few of her colleagues snickering in the background, she adds, “The designer did not say anything about the comfort level of shoes made of plastic and rubber bands.”

After a split-second reflection, Gentzler opines, “That looks horrible! Not particularly attractive, either!”

With her signature blend of elegance and spunk, Gentzler is more than a local celebrity. She is something of a household staple. Since 1989, area residents have tuned in to her top-rated news casts. Fans have always been endeared by her sense of humor and the camaraderie she shares with fellow anchors, especially co-anchor Jim Vance and other News4 veterans, like meteorologist Bob Ryan (now forecasting for Channel 7), and the late, legendary sportscaster George Michael. In his farewell broadcast back in 2007, Michael (who died of cancer in 2009) called Gentzler “a sunshine girl” and joked that maybe he’d always had “the hots” for her.

At 54, the brown-eyed Arlington native with the bright smile and impeccable hair has enjoyed a virtually uninterrupted career in journalism since the late ‘70s. A wife and mother of two, she has juggled the demands of professional life with those of a busy family while accomplishing some pretty amazing personal feats as well. On camera and in real life, she is quick with a laugh but, at times, waxes quite serious. While ubiquitously in the public eye—and ear—Gentzler also knows when to assert the right to remain silent.

Courtesy of Robin Fader, NBC Washington

Local girl

When she stepped into the D.C. news scene, the then 30-something Gentzler had just turned the page on anchoring and working the crime beat in Philadelphia. Prior to that, she had anchored in three other cities, winning a few awards and a wealth of experience in all facets of the news business. Joining the team at the NBC station on Nebraska Avenue was a homecoming of sorts, as she had moved away from a contented childhood in the Metro-D.C. area when she was just 11.

“Arlington was a wonderful place to grow up,” recalls Gentzler, who was born in the District but raised on the other side of the river. “My two younger brothers and I walked everywhere. We rode our bikes on the W&OD trail. We would ride all the way to Grandma’s house in Shirlington.” She also has fond memories of McKinley Elementary School, where she served as a crossing guard and where a “young, cool, stylish” third-grade teacher named Nancy Landreth recognized her budding talent as a writer and nurtured her with extra assignments. In recent years Gentzler joined forces with a few of her old classmates to try and find the teacher on Facebook, a search she regrets was unsuccessful.

When she was in sixth grade, Gentzler’s father, who passed away last June, accepted a job in Charleston, S.C. He had always worked in insurance, while her mom had held various positions with the federal government. Moving away was a rude awakening, Gentzler recalls, as the schools in Charleston lagged “far behind” the positive school culture to which she had grown accustomed in Arlington. Nonetheless, her innate love for learning and writing persisted throughout her school years, and in 1975 she entered the University of Georgia, majoring in journalism with a minor in political science.

Taking on the news world

Just out of college, Gentzler scored her first reporting job at a television station in Chattanooga, followed a couple years later by a stint with a larger television market in Charlotte, N.C. In the mid-‘80s, she landed a position behind the news desk at Channel 3 in Cleveland, where she met her journalist-husband, and where she won an Emmy for news writing.

Two anchor jobs and five Emmy Awards later, she admits to being mystified by the television industry’s most coveted honor. “The Emmys are so hard to figure out. You can work your fanny off and create what seems like the masterpiece of your career, and it will not get any recognition,” she says. She earned that first award by writing a not-so-profound audio piece to go along with video coverage of a local fire. “Sorry!” she laughs, “I’ve done things that I’d consider way more challenging!”

Some of Gentzler’s greatest emotional and intellectual challenges involved reporting from overseas. As a young reporter in Cleveland, she traveled to Israel to cover one of the last Nazi War Crimes trials—that of a Cleveland resident named John Demjanjuk—an experience that immersed her in the horrors of World War II death camps and the intricacies of the Israeli court system. In later years she did correspondence in places like Ecuador and Bosnia. At the start of the war in Iraq, she spent a week reporting aboard the USNS Comfort, a naval hospital ship treating U.S. troops and Iraqi civilian war casualties in the Persian Gulf. Her work included live satellite reports from the ship. “The frightening part,” she recalls, “was being on the darkened ship’s deck at midnight. The Navy doesn’t want to be an easy target in a war zone, and the time difference dictated being out there at that hour to be live on the 6 p.m. news.”

Closer to home, Gentzler’s award-winning medical reports, News4’s “Your Health” segments, continually provide eye-opening experiences. “It’s a big reality check when you talk to someone dealing with a serious medical problem,” she says. The reports send Gentzler into the field, where she interviews patients and specialists about medical procedures like organ transplants and everyday health matters like exercise and nutrition. Occasionally she goes off the beaten path to explore new trends, like fitness classes that combine exercise with trivia games.

Asked if the health beat has an impact on her own lifestyle choices, she answers, “Oh, all the time! I drive my family crazy! I’m always saying things like, ‘We had a story the other day about blueberries.’ Or, ‘Let’s put ground flax seed in those muffins because it’s good for your brain.’” She also admits to giving her doctors a run for their money during routine check-ups. “’I’m always asking them, ‘Don’t you think we need to check for blah-blah-blah?’”

As an anchor, Gentzler has always attributed her success to the positive bond she shares with her colleagues, especially sidekick Jim Vance. After 22 years, the two have been together longer than a lot of couples have been married. Vance praises his partner’s intellect and empathy but also remarks that she can be “headstrong,” and that he “would not want to piss her off.”

Gentzler often muses about the remarks people make when meeting her in person. (At 5’8”, she is taller and thinner than she looks on TV, and fans don’t mind pointing this out.)

Sometimes strangers ask, “Has anyone ever told you that you look like Doreen Gentzler on Channel 4?”

On-the-job demands and heartaches

While she clearly loves what she does, Gentzler laments the way her job has changed over the years. She does only a fraction of the writing she used to do in the early days. The journalism industry as a whole has suffered a downfall, she believes, what with a 24-hour news cycle run amok. “There is less quality control, less oversight, and lower standards,” she says gravely.

Gentzler also bemoans the volatile political climate that has emerged in Washington. “What a mess! We’re so polarized, it just seems insurmountable.” But that’s about as far as she is willing to go with expressing her political views. One thing that hasn’t changed is her conviction that, as a professional, she must remain objective. Asked if she speaks her mind feely about politics when off the air, she resists the bait. “Yeah,” she deadpans.

Would she like to share some of her views now? “No, thank you.”

Any thoughts on who will be elected president in 2012? “Not a clue!”

She does offer this: “I don’t see any new candidates emerging [as of this interview] who are blockbuster stars.” She adds, “And who would want to be president under the current circumstances?” In a recent interview with President Obama, Jim Vance caught the president off guard with that very question, says Gentzler. “It’s a good question!” she quips.

Notwithstanding the excitement of reporting on the national scene, local news is what she and her colleagues do best, the anchor lady asserts. She has always believed that their job is to help viewers better understand their communities—not just to report crimes, for instance, but to shed light on the factors that spur crime in particular neighborhoods. Along those lines, she is frequently asked about how she copes with the steady stream of violence and tragedy that crosses the news wire on a daily basis. “It does wear on me, just as it bothers everyone else—especially the senseless things, or when the victim is a child.”

Gentzler grows similarly pensive when reflecting on personal losses, like the death of her beloved friend George Michael. She makes no attempt to sound wise or resilient, saying simply, “It was awful.”

Juggling career and life

Asked how she does it— how she juggles family life with a busy career—Gentzler shrugs and shoots back with, “I don’t know—How do you do it?” With a swift inhale, she then breaks out in that familiar, disarming laugh—sort of a cackle, only a lot classier. “I never, ever feel like I’m on top of everything,” she confesses.

When her son Chris and daughter Carson, now 20 and 17, were young, she would go home between broadcasts to the family’s Chevy Chase residence for baths and bedtime. The kids grew up believing that everyone’s mom returned to the office at 9 p.m., she says. Nowadays she makes a concerted effort to touch base with them in between their computer chats or over flaxseed muffins at the breakfast table.

Pictures of Gentzler’s grinning family, displayed at her surprisingly unremarkable work nook at the NBC station—just one desk among rows of many others—reveal blond, blue-eyed offspring who look more like Dad. “I had something to do with them, honest,” she says.

Don’t ask her too many questions about the kids. She likes to protect their space. She does say that Chris played football all through high school and is now studying business at the University of Pennsylvania. Carson is a budding writer who entertains the idea of becoming an anchorwoman—a goal Gentzler is not encouraging, given the dearth of writing opportunities bestowed on anchors these days.

Gentzler also demurs a bit when talking about her husband, Bill Miller, a former Washington Post reporter who now works as a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office. “I really should keep my big mouth shut,” she says. That’s because he handles sensitive law enforcement issues related to homeland security. He has to be very careful about what he shares with his news-lady wife, and vice-versa. But the need for discretion is nothing new. After years of working for rival news organizations, they learned to refrain from spilling the beans to each other about breaking stories. “The older we get, the better we get at it,” she notes.

Easing whatever stress is generated by rules of secrecy and crazy work hours is the family’s shared quality time. Over the years Gentzler has planned what she calls “very successful” active vacations involving biking and kayaking in places like Alaska and Yellowstone National Park. A few years ago, she returned from a family biking venture in Italy with her arm in a sling, the result of taking a nasty fall on a steep incline.

Notwithstanding the occasional injury, Gentzler’s athleticism may rank as one of her most remarkable qualities. She started running in her 20s, working up to her first race on Mother’s Day 1992, a 9K, some nine months after the birth of her son. Since then she has run two Marine Corps Marathons and several half-marathons, including the 2009 run over the new Wilson Bridge. She also plays tennis and regularly bikes.

All of which lends plenty of credence to Gentzler’s role as community spokesperson for the annual D.C. Health and Fitness Expo. Just as befitting is her active embrace of the Washington Area Women’s Foundation, an organization she cherishes for its success in empowering local women.

After more than 30 years in the never-a-dull-moment world of news media, Gentzler could certainly write a book. As the time approaches when she and Bill empty their nest, she will definitely consider the idea.

For now, the seasoned anchor lady will continue delivering the evening’s top stories and the latest health trends with just the right mix of professionalism and personality. It’s a combination that clearly comes naturally.

(January 2012)

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