CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Something big is happening in WBTV reporter Steve Ohnesorge’s life in October. Something that sounds an awful lot like retirement.
One month from now, the longest-running on-air presence in the history of Channel 3’s news operation will put down his microphone and walk away, perhaps forever, from the station he’s worked at since Gerald Ford was president of the United States. On his own terms.
“I think I can still get around and do things,” says Ohnesorge, who turned 67 on Wednesday, referring to the nimbleness that’s required of reporters chasing a big story. “I can still move around with the equipment, and I can still do the job. What I don’t want to happen, is to get to a point where I can’t do the job, and then probably let the situation force me out.
“So that’s what makes it —” he pauses for a second before continuing “— tough.”
Equally tough, then, has been getting Ohnesorge to utter the word “retirement.” In fact, he conspicuously omitted the word from the resignation email he wrote to his bosses — which he also sent to them in hard-copy form after printing it out on yellowed letterhead that bore the name of long-ago WBTV owner Jefferson Pilot Broadcasting, stationery he’d been saving since the ’70s.
Instead, in a nutshell, he basically just told them: “After 45 years, it’s time.”
Most of those 45 years were spent as a “one-man band” based in Morganton and charged with covering western North Carolina, although he also circled the globe covering wars and natural disasters for WBTV, and even took a detour in the 1980s to work a network job for CBS.
His soon-to-be-former boss Scott Dempsey describes Ohnesorge as both “a classic” and “an icon,” with a “very matter-of-fact” way of presenting himself on camera that will be missed. “He’s what the definition of a journalist is,” says Dempsey, who is vice president and general manager at WBTV.
High praise for a guy who has never taken a journalism course in his life. Although he may yet still enroll in one...
CARVING OUT A NICHE ON HIS OWN
Ohnesorge grew up in Florida, between Miami and Homestead, and from a young age he wanted out of there, badly.
“My dad didn’t believe in air conditioning, it was hot and humid, and plus I wanted to see what was around the next corner,” he says. “And I already knew what was around the corner down there.”
His escape ended up being Belmont Abbey College in Belmont, where he planned to study to be an accountant, but after the first day of his first accounting class in 1972, “I walked out and I went, ‘Nope, that’s not gonna happen.’”
A couple weeks later, someone talked him into checking out Belmont Abbey’s radio station. He ended up on the air and was hooked, eventually taking a job at a station in Tallahassee, Florida, before coming back to Charlotte in 1975 to work at WBT as a producer and a reporter.
Not long after that, a job opened up on the other side of the Jefferson Pilot Broadcasting building, at WBTV, and in February 1976, he officially and permanently became a TV guy. Since then, he has been on the air for WBTV for each of the past 46 calendar years. (He says it took him seven years, by the way, to ultimately get a degree from Belmont Abbey — in business administration, not journalism, in 1979.)
The only gap came in 1980, shortly after he helped open the western bureau in Morganton that January: In August 1980, he was hired away by CBS in New York, and over the next 10 months he worked for CBS in New York and Chicago. But while Ohnesorge says “I liked the job to a certain extent ... there were too many layers at the network ... and I was there also during the switchover from Cronkite to Rather, and that was a very weird time with the network.”
So in June 1981, he returned to WBTV, initially in Morganton again, then in Charlotte as a reporter and editor for a couple years, before taking another assignment in Morganton in 1985. For most of the ’80s, he had company in that western office. Since 1989, however, he has been out there all alone, doing both the reporting and the camera work all by himself.
He says his situation worked to his advantage: When his bosses decided to send someone to cover U.S. combat operations in the Middle East, or to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, or to Hurricane Katrina, they often tapped Ohnesorge due to his deep experience working as a one-man band.
In total, he went to the Middle East six times post-9/11, and he was said to have had a knack for quickly building strong relationships with members of the military.
“He could develop an instant rapport with a Humvee if need be,” says former Observer reporter Mark Washburn, who was on a tour of Iraq in 2005 and overlapped with Ohnesorge for a week at a base near Baghdad. “He just had the right touch — people trusted him instantly, and he was respectful even when asking hard questions, to which he usually got straight answers. ...
“You don’t send just anyone into a situation like that. It takes seasoning, situational awareness, technical expertise, a level head in a tight jam and a knack for story-telling. That’s why WBTV would choose its Morganton correspondent for such duty.”
But Ohnesorge also loved finding stories in his own backyard. One of his proudest, he recalls, came in 1983, when — for the 20th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination — he persuaded former Secret Service agent and Waynesville resident William Greer to be interviewed about being the driver of the vehicle that was carrying the president that fateful day. It was the only on-camera interview Greer ever gave, according to Ohnesorge.
And he’s found excitement in the little things, too.
“That’s one of the advantages here at the bureau,” Ohnesorge says. “You will be driving around or heading to a story and you’ll go past a place and you’ll see this road going off that looks like it’s going to nowhere. You go, ‘I wonder what’s back there?’ So at some point when I go by, I’ll drive down the road and see what is.”
He’s never stopped wanting to see what’s around the corner.
Which brings us to his reti — er, the next chapter in his life.
‘I’M OPEN TO OTHER OPPORTUNITIES’
His last official day at WBTV is Oct. 31, although he says he’ll finish out by taking some time owed to him, and that tentatively his last day on the air will be Oct. 22.
He sounds excited about the prospect of having more time to spend with his 18-month old grandson Henry in Knightdale near Raleigh; and about the idea of delving deeper into his passion for still photography; and about getting back to traveling the world with his wife once the pandemic lets up a bit more; and he even says, chuckling, “maybe when I’m all done with this I’ll go take a course or two in journalism — ’cause it does kinda interest me.”
When you talk to Ohnesorge, you can tell. He’s more than a little conflicted about his decision.
Asked what the number one emotion is that he feels when he thinks about signing off for the last time, he answers quickly: “I’m gonna miss a big story.”
He’s not even gone yet, and he’s already got FOMO.
“Yup,” he says. “It will — I’m not gonna say destroy me, but if something big were to happen in this area and I’m not covering it right afterwards, I’m gonna be pacing, and I’m gonna be hard to live with. And I may still go out there and take a few shots, with my cameras.”
“I mean ... I don’t want bad things to happen,” he explains. “I don’t like bad news. But if something’s gonna happen, I want to be the one to be there covering it.”
So perhaps you haven’t seen the last of Steve Ohnesorge on TV. He even dropped a hint that he may try to find part-time work in broadcasting, if for no other reason than to hit 50 years on the air in Charlotte.
“I’m open,” he says, chuckling, “to other opportunities.”
“I still don’t know what I want to do when I grow up. That’s why I didn’t use the word ‘retire,’ because I don’t know what’s coming around the corner. There’s still stuff around the corner that I haven’t been to yet, and I don’t know what it is. But it’s around there — and maybe I’ll find my way there.”