If there is bad news to deliver – and there almost always is – WTVD-TV’s Larry Stogner has always tried to give it to people in the gentlest way.
Night after night for nearly four decades, he has come into viewers’ dens and living rooms with a greeting: “Good evening. I’m Larry Stogner,” and gone straight to work. He has aimed those blue eyes straight at the camera, spoken plainly so viewers could understand and warmly so they could stand to listen, and told them the truth as best he knew it.
In a career as long as his, he says, “It starts to hit you that people have accepted you as someone with whom they are intimate, someone they trust. That’s a big responsibility.”
So two weeks ago, when he had bad news about himself, Stogner wanted his people to hear it from him.
“I am sure that in recent months you’ve noticed a change in my voice. My speech, slower,” he began. “As it turns out, I have ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease.
“There is no cure. My career in broadcast journalism is coming to an end.”
Having taken some vacation, Stogner will be back on WTVD-TV news for the 6 p.m. Friday broadcast, his last, when he’ll get a sendoff befitting his long career and give his loyal viewers a more formal goodbye.
It’s a sudden and bittersweet ending to an unusual career for a television newsman who went all over the world for stories but always came back home.
“I’m just a boy from Yanceyville,” Stogner has often said. The son of a radio disc jockey, he spent a lot of time in the studio, but also had a part-time job at a pharmacy in town. After graduating from high school, he went off to UNC-Chapel Hill to get a pharmacy degree.
“A huge mistake,” he realized quickly. Too many courses that ended in “-ology.”
He packed up and came home during his freshman year and told his mother he had withdrawn.
By then, the U.S. had become heavily involved in the Vietnam War, and every county across the state had formed a draft board. Without a college deferment, Stogner figured he would be near the top of the list, and he wanted to choose his service. He volunteered for the Air Force and spent most of 1968 in Vietnam, largely in the back seat of an aircraft whose crew marked targets. Among other things, they flew missions leading planes that dropped the toxic defoliant Agent Orange.
‘Easy to talk to’
At the end of his tour of duty, Stogner went back to UNC. This time he enrolled in the School of Journalism and, on the advice of an airman who had told him he had a voice for television, took the only two courses then offered in broadcasting.
While still in school, he took a job in production at WRAL-TV in Raleigh, and another at UNC-TV, whose studio then was in the J-School building, where he anchored a nightly news show he says nobody watched.
He went to work at WTVD in 1976 after graduating from UNC. Six years later, he was named anchor of the 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. news shows.
Stogner loved being a reporter.
“I especially loved being the only one on a story,” he said this week during an interview at his Durham home. But he covered his fair share of press conferences and often had to join the media mobs that form around a big story. At those, he at least had the advantage of being able to see above the crowd; he stands 6-foot-4.
Though he could do any kind of story, Stogner gravitated toward military news, where he felt comfortable as a veteran, and politics, whose characters fascinated him.
“I always wanted to find out what made them tick,” Stogner said, and it was always one of three things: the desire for power, or for money, or to serve the public interest.
One of the first politicians he covered was Rufus Edmisten, who called a press conference on the UNC campus when he returned to North Carolina from Washington, where he had been a lawyer on Sen. Sam Ervin’s staff during the Watergate hearings. Stogner and others expected Edmisten to announce he was running for public office, but he was just letting people know he would be setting up shop as a lawyer.
“You called a press conference for that?” Stogner asked, annoyed.
They’ve been friends ever since.
Edmisten, who did later serve as state attorney general, says Stogner brought to news coverage a native’s familiarity with the state.
“He understood us,” Edmisten said. “He knew what questions to ask, which made it easy to talk to him. He could always get a good story out of you.”
‘Pushing rocks uphill’
In the news industry, it’s not unusual to work at a half-dozen outlets over a career; to move out of reporting and into editing or producing; or to leave the business for something more lucrative. A Stogner, who stays in the same market – essentially in the same job – over an entire career is a rarity.
“I tell people we didn’t need Wikipedia; we had Stognerpedia,” says Steve Daniels, who took over the 11 p.m. broadcast at WTVD from Stogner years ago. He could put everything in context, Daniels says, whether it was a political campaign, a Supreme Court ruling or a legislative decision.
As a full-time anchor, Stogner did less reporting in recent years, but still chased the stories he liked. He went to Haiti after the earthquake, and reported from Afghanistan and Iraq during the wars there. A few weeks ago, he went to Washington to cover freshman U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis’ swearing-in.
Last summer, it was the people who best knew the sound of his voice – his loyal viewers – who first noticed something might be wrong. His smooth baritone sounded like it was muffled by a cold. Stogner had noticed things, too. Words didn’t come easily.
“It was like pushing rocks uphill,” he said.
Tests for signs of a stroke or neurological issues eventually led him to Dr. Richard Bedlack, who specializes in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis at Duke and at the VA Medical Center in Durham. The degenerative disease, which affects about 30,000 people across the country, is about twice as common among U.S. military vets compared to the rest of the population. It attacks nerve cells and pathways in the brain and spinal cord, causing patients to lose muscle control, eventually resulting in total paralysis.
Bedlack diagnosed Stogner in January. The next day, Stogner told his WTVD family, and two days later, he shared it on live TV, saying he would be retiring.
He had planned to work three more years, but at 68, now says, “I’ve worked long enough. It’s time to get on with living.” He plans to go to movies and out to dinner and travel with his wife, Bobbi, and spend time with their six grown children.
Charlie Gaddy, another longtime newsman and for years Stogner’s competition at WRAL news, called Stogner after hearing the broadcast to offer support. Stogner told him that the day of the announcement had been “The best day of my life,” because of the outpouring of support that followed it.
A video clip of the segment went viral on the Internet, and people have sent emails and posted to Stogner’s Facebook page from all over the world. Stogner says he’s a bit overwhelmed by it all, especially the remarks from people who say they feel like they know him as more than just a voice on their television.
“I would just like to think that I helped people to understand the news in a very conversational way,” Stogner said, “as if I was sitting in their living room.”
To many, he was.