Tony Debo remembers his first evening on the air at WTVD television in 1987. Along with the I-hope-I-don’t-screw-up jitters that everyone has on their first day at a high-profile job, he knew he was sitting next to veteran newscaster Larry Stogner – already a respected 10-year veteran at the station.
“You know, you’re just sitting there nervous, hoping you don’t mess up, thinking, ‘I’m sitting here next to Larry Stogner,’ ” Debo recalled of his first day when I spoke with him Monday. “And he goes, ‘So, Deebs. What’s up tonight in sports?’ You don’t expect anyone to use your nickname on the air. I didn’t even know he knew my nickname. That really made an impression on me, like, wow! Because this guy was already an institution, and for him to do something like that meant a lot.”
Debo, who said Stogner’s casual manner helped “put me at ease,” also recalled the time very soon after he arrived at the station that he was sent on a far-away assignment – to Fayetteville – and got lost.
“I called into the newsroom and I was panicking and Larry answered the phone. ‘I’ve been driving forever and I’m in some place called Apex,’ I said, and I asked, ‘How far do I have to go?’ Larry just burst out laughing and said, ‘You’ve got a long ways to go,’ and he gave me directions.
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“From that day on, he was my go-to guy whenever I needed directions or needed to know something about an area,” Debo said.
My pal Dwayne Ballen, who worked with Stogner and Debo at WTVD, said he, Debo and George Mallett – who also worked there with them – had dinner together for the first time in about 20 years last week. He wasn’t aware Monday of Stogner’s death until I called.
“Don’t tell me that,” Ballen said, shock and disbelief registering in his voice. “We had talked about going to see him this week.”
Then he didn’t say much of anything else, and he hung up so he could miss his friend in peace.
Debo was a sports reporter at the station for 20 years, Mallett is a news anchor in Milwaukee, and Ballen is doing college football play-by-play for CBS Sports.
All three were young whippersnappers when they joined WTVD, while Stogner was already the face of the station, along with co-anchor Miriam Thomas.
Debo did get to see him, briefly, during the Olympics in August. Even then, Debo said, “you could tell that every breath was precious, but he spent two hours with me. He said, ‘I can’t talk’ and I said ‘That doesn’t matter,’ and for two hours, a guy who couldn’t speak – he had a board that he wrote on – we sat there. ... He was just rooting really hard for USA basketball, because Mike (Olympic coach K) had spent some time with him.”
Debo’s heartbreak over losing a mentor gave way to astonishment for a moment as he spoke of “the magnitude of that, for someone going through what he was going through, to spend two hours with me? I was floored.
“People need to understand,” Debo said, “how fortunate they were to have someone like him on the air every night at 6 and 11, the years he put in, the hours he put in, just to be there on your TV sets. That was a tremendous responsibility. He didn’t take that responsibility lightly. He was just as happy to be there as they were to have him there.
“When you sit there in the newsroom and listen to his stories, who he was with, who he’s learned from – you just don’t get that opportunity now. I’m so blessed, I’m so fortunate that I got to know him and work with him. There’s a big void in my heart right now. I’m having a lot of difficulty with it.”
That was evident in the halting, reverential tone in which he spoke of his late colleague.
“I got to work with him for about 20 years, got to play a lot of golf with him, got to know him really well. He was always the same guy. ... I hate the term ‘old school’ ” because people think it has a negative connotation, he said, “but Larry was ‘journalism,’ the way we were taught it should be.”