By EDWARD HUSAR
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
Les Sachs has been a fixture in Quincy broadcasting for 35 of the past 39 years as a reporter, news anchor and public affairs director for WGEM. His face and voice have become familiar to TV viewers and radio listeners throughout the region.
Sachs' tenure at WGEM is now coming to an end. The 62-year-old broadcast journalist plans to sign off for the last time Wednesday and begin easing into retirement.
Sachs' final half-hour newscast will air at 6 p.m. Wednesday. It will feature a series of video highlights from his WGEM career, which began in November 1973.
Sachs said it's going to take time to get used to the idea he'll no longer be under the gun to prepare for the newscast each weekday.
"It will be nice to find out what the rest of the world is doing at 6 o'clock," he said, noting how after Wednesday he'll be able "to have dinner at 5:30, walk the dog and visit with the neighbors -- and not have to run in to work when there's a bad storm or a bad fire. I'll be able to live like normal people."
Sachs realizes news anchoring is a rare job in any community, and he's grateful for the opportunity to have such a high-profile position all these years.
"This is a very unusual occupation -- to sit in front of a camera and talk to people, to make yourself that visible," he said. "But I think after 40 years, it's time to take a break and do something part time and start to wind things down and to move on to whatever exists in Phase 2 of life."
Fascinated by news as kid
Sachs' affection for the news business started at an early age while he was growing up just outside Wentzville, Mo. His parents were avid newspaper readers, and the family tuned in each day to watch Walter Cronkite anchor the evening news.
"I had this fascination about news. I was a big news fan early on in grade school and high school," Sachs recalled.
He would clip stories out of the newspaper and paste them into scrapbooks, and he'd do mock newscasts in his basement.
While in high school, he got a part-time job at the weekly Wentzville Messenger. He covered stories and took pictures with a Polaroid camera.
When it came time for him to enroll in college, Sachs had no doubt where he wanted to go and what he wanted to do. He headed straight for the University of Missouri-Columbia to study broadcast journalism.
"I wanted to be a news guy," he said. "And broadcasting had more appeal than print for me."
Upon graduating in May 1972 -- 40 years ago this month -- Sachs went to work for WHMT, a radio station starting up in Humboldt, Tenn. "I was the news department," he said, cracking a smile.
After about eight months, he moved to WJAK, a larger radio station in Jackson, Tenn. He then noticed an ad in a trade publication about a reporter opening at WGEM in Quincy. He decided to apply.
"I really wanted to get into TV, because I felt like TV was the future of broadcasting," he said.
Sachs came to Quincy for an audition and met with news director Charlie Griffith and general manager Joe Bonansinga. He was hired in November 1973. He started out reporting and co-anchoring the 6 p.m. news three weekdays each week, and he did radio and TV work each weekend.
Sachs will never forget the first time he co-anchored the 6 p.m. news with colleague Ron Price.
"I came off that first 6 o'clock newscast, and I was sweaty and shaking," he said. "I came downstairs, and I just knew that I was going to get fired because I was so uncertain about my performance. But Charlie and Ron both said, ‘You did fine for your first time out. Just keep doing it and you'll get better.' I said ‘OK.'
"I don't know how much better I got, but I guess I did get better because I stayed around for quite a few years after that."
Going and coming
Sachs held various positions with WGEM. In addition to serving as a reporter and news anchor, he's been a news producer, news director, radio show host and public affairs director.
Sachs left WGEM in 1989 to take a job as news director at WHOI-TV in Peoria. Two years later, he moved up to an even larger market when he became news director at KGAN-TV in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
"There's a thinking in broadcast news that in order to be successful, you need to move up the ladder to bigger markets to prove your success and value as a broadcast news person," he said. "I was obsessed with this idea that at some point I was going to leave WGEM and move. So (in the late 1980s) I thought, ‘I'd better try now before I get too far along.' So when the opportunity in Peoria came along, I took it."
Sachs said Peoria and Cedar Rapids were fine places to work, but he and his wife, Linda, and their two children, Jennifer and Matthew, maintained a strong affection for Quincy. He heard that his old job at WGEM was becoming available. After conferring with his family, he decided to put in a bid for the position and was welcomed back in April 1993 as news director and news anchor.
"Quincy was just right for us," he said. "We love the town. We love the community. And WGEM was always very good to me."
A ‘major, life-consuming event'
Shortly after his return, one of the biggest stories of Sachs' career broke out. It involved record-setting flooding along the Mississippi River -- an event that transpired over a period of weeks, culminating with the catastrophic breaking of the West Quincy levee on July 16, 1993.
"There was water everywhere until September," he recalled.
Coverage of the flood became a "major, life-consuming event" for Sachs and the rest of the WGEM staff, which earned a pile of awards for its reporting work during that period. WGEM Radio in particular won accolades for serving as a communication conduit for area communities and levee districts embroiled in the flood fight.
"This was before social networking. This was before Facebook, before Twitter, before all that," Sachs said. "There were cellphones, but they were as big as shoeboxes. Most people didn't have them, but we used them to communicate back and forth."
Flood fighters would call WGEM Radio to say where volunteers or sandbags were desperately needed, and the message was relayed immediately to listeners throughout the river valley. It was an amazing time and showcased the power of broadcast media, Sachs said.
"This is what we're here for -- to serve the public," he said. "We dropped everything else, and we opened up WGEM Radio to be a 24/7 point of communication."
Another big story Sachs will never forget involved the brutal beating death of Alan Madden, a 5-year-old Quincy boy who died in January 1981. At least 170 bruises were found on the child's battered body. In separate jury trials, the boy's mother and her boyfriend were both ultimately convicted of involuntary manslaughter and were each sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Sachs said the Madden death was "one of the most powerful stories" he covered.
"No one would have ever believed that a child would be killed in our community. Maybe in Chicago, maybe in a bigger city where bad stuff happened, but not in Quincy," he said.
"When that child was killed, that really brought out the community's emotion. It sparked awareness of the issues of domestic abuse and child abuse and things like that. The community outpouring -- and the community grief and reaction to that child's death -- stay with me today. I think it kind of brought us out of a certain innocence, if you will, to face the fact that these sorts of things do happen."
Covering Nixon, Ford, Carter, Bush
Sachs had many memorable moments during his journalism career, including encounters with nearly every president since Richard Nixon.
Sachs covered Nixon in 1973 while in Tennessee. This was at a time when "everybody wasn't so uptight about security" as they are today, he said. The Secret Service allowed him to get surprisingly close to Nixon that day -- in contrast to the time Bill Clinton visited Quincy on Jan. 28, 2000, when "they were welding down the manhole covers and had snipers on the roof."
Sachs also interviewed Gerald Ford on the tarmac of the Springfield airport one year. He was holding a microphone on an extension pole while being jostled by about 50 other newsmen. "It was by the grace of God that I didn't hit that man in the face with the microphone," he said.
Sachs also was involved in covering Jimmy Carter's visit to Hannibal, Mo., in 1979 when WGEM engineers rigged up an innovative system to beam a broadcast back to Quincy in what Sachs describes as "our first live event coverage in the history of the station."
Sachs also conducted a one-on-one interview with George W. Bush in St. Louis; had an opportunity to float down the Mississippi River with vice president Al Gore during Gore's presidential campaign in 2000; and took part in anchoring the news coverage of Barack Obama's visit to Quincy in 2010.
However, some of his favorite stories involved "regular people" in the area faced with interesting issues.
That's what Sachs liked most about his job -- the variety of topics that surfaced in the news.
"Each day was a new day. You walked into the news department, and you didn't know what to expect," he said. "I got to meet a lot of interesting people over the years -- from presidents to people on the streets with everyday concerns."
A trusted resource
Chad Mahoney, news director at WGEM, said Sachs endeared himself to viewers over the years because he became "a trusted resource" as people yearned to find out what was happening in their communities.
"In TV, you have to be trusted to last as long as he has," Mahoney said. "He's one of those guys you can talk to and you can tell that he does care about what he's talking about. He cares about the community, he cares about the people. And I think over the past 35 years that's been clear to the audience.
"He's just so in touch with the community, and he has the depth and perspective that is lost in many newsrooms across the country. We've been fortunate to have him for so many years."
Sachs said he's grateful to WGEM for giving him the opportunity to serve the Quincy area for most of his career, and he's grateful to viewers for their encouragement and support.
"I thank them for letting me into their living rooms for all these years," he said.
WGEM will bid farewell to longtime news anchor Les Sachs as part of his final newscast at 6 p.m. Wednesday.
That broadcast will have some tribute pieces for him," Chad Mahoney, WGEM's news director, said. "We're going to look back on his career and show some of the highlights over the past 35 years and send him off with some well wishes."
WGEM also has established a website to give friends, viewers and admirers a chance to offer comments to Sachs upon his pending retirement. The website is: www.wgem.com/les
"It means a lot to him to hear from regular people," Mahoney said. "We will include some of those comments in the (Wednesday) broadcast as well."
Sachs also is the focus of an extended interview with WGEM's Matt Schmidt, host of WGEM News This Week. The show will air today (Sunday) on WGEM-NBC at 6:30 a.m. and on WGEM-FOX at 5 a.m. and 9 a.m.