Thirty years ago, if you knocked on someone’s door in the early evening and asked them what they were watching, the answer nearly half the time would be Wendall Anschutz.
With the passing of the longtime KCTV anchor early Thursday morning, Kansas City lost a tie to an age when most of the community considered the nightly local news to be essential appointment viewing.
Anschutz, 71, had been in failing health in recent days following unsuccessful surgeries to curtail metastatic throat cancer. He died at the University of Kansas Medical Center surrounded by family members and his longtime on-air partner, Anne Peterson.
There was a time when Anschutz, an anchor for most of his 35 years at KCMO-TV (later KCTV), commanded more eyes and ears than any man. Combining a serious approach to news with and a restless mind, Anschutz projected a folksy on-screen presence that belied the pressure he put on himself to stay competitive in the TV news business.
“Over time I believe he became the Walter Cronkite of Kansas City,” said a colleague, Stan Cramer. “He had the same character, the same integrity, the same believability. He stood for journalism ethics, and that’s something we don’t see enough of today.”
A native of Russell, Kan., Anschutz dreamed as a teenager of being an airline pilot. A stint in the Navy’s flight training program took care of that ambition, and he went to the University of Kansas. After graduation he joined KCMO in 1966, where Cramer soon arrived from the Omaha station that the Meredith Corp. also owned.
“We were cub reporters, and frankly, I was a little jealous of Wendall because he matured a lot quicker than I did,” said Cramer.
Early on, Anschutz began to produce special reports that examined everything from the state of public transit to little-known local treasures that he found hiding in plain sight.
He became an anchor in 1969, but that didn’t last long. A new general manager, unimpressed by Anschutz’s farmboy build and hard-to-spell name, kicked him back to a reporter’s job. Anschutz said later that he had contemplated moving on to a larger city, but decided to stay put. He later told The Star, “I started developing my life here, bought a house, eventually got my airplane and established a circle of friends. All those things made me want to stay here. I don’t like to move.”
He redoubled his efforts and worked his way back to the anchor desk, first on KCMO’s weekend newscasts and then, in 1977, paired with Jim Steer on the nightly news.
On July 16, 1979, he was paired with a new co-anchor, Anne Peterson, and the two quickly became a sensation. They averaged 40 percent of the audience for their newscasts by year’s end, sometimes peaking at 50 percent — a figure more than twice that for today’s top-rated local newscasts. Not even the reappearance of Larry Moore at KMBC was enough to dethrone Anschutz-Peterson.
“It was instantly a match,” recalled Peterson. “Even though I was the new kid on the block, and Wendall was a seasoned veteran newsman, he was a mentor to me.”
They stayed together on-air for 22 years, forming one of the TV industry’s most durable anchor teams, until Anschutz opted for retirement in 2001.
In 1980, Anschutz, who had divorced before joining KCMO, married Nita Kline, a records clerk for a local police department, after an introduction by her brother, Channel 5 photographer Iabil Garza.
As he became a “senior journalist” in Kansas City — Anschutz said he preferred that description to any other — honors began to come his way. He flew to Washington with President Carter in 1980 and interviewed him aboard Air Force One.
In 1994, he was tapped to moderate a national town hall meeting from Kansas City with President Bill Clinton, who was urging action on his health care reform bill.
But he never sounded overly impressed by his achievements.
“I think the problem for a lot of people getting into TV today is they want to be a star,” Anschutz said in 1988. “I don’t like that approach too much. You either like the news or you don’t. If you don’t, television is not going to be enough to carry it.”
Though he never projected it on the air, or in the newsroom, the pressure inside him took a toll. Anschutz, whose family had a history of heart problems, took pills for his blood pressure and was a heavy smoker.“I think I tend to feel more stress than most people,” he told The Star in 1979. “I just look for something to worry about. Most of the stress is before we get on the air.”
“I never saw Wendall upset about anything,” his friend and news director for 13 years, Jim Overbay, said Thursday. “He was a calming influence in the newsroom.”
Whatever was building inside of him, it took its toll in 1989, not long after a revitalized Channel 9 swept past Channel 5 to first place in the ratings. While installing batteries in a weather radio, he recalled later, “the radio became very heavy in my hand ... I was weak on the right side. It was very sudden.”
As a result of his stroke, Anschutz was forced to start wearing glasses, and he lost his airman’s medical certificate. His doctor ordered him to slow down. As part of his recovery, Anschutz began oil painting. Eventually he sold his works to galleries. His most popular paintings featured enormous, tidal-wave-shaped clouds looming over the prairie.
After accepting Meredith’s buyout in 2001, he turned to civic activities, working with stroke victims, the Salvation Army and civic efforts to build a modern-day area transit system.
Anschutz is survived by his wife of 29 years, Nita, and their children Serena and Curtis.
Visitation will be from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday at McGilley Memorial Chapel, 12301 State Line Road. A funeral Mass will be at 10 a.m. Monday at Cure of Ars Church in Leawood. Private burial will follow.