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Deborah Norville: Today's rising star.


Among those who knew her when, there was little doubt that this bright, blonde beauty from a small Georgia town would make it to the top.

It would have been a tough story even for a seasoned professional reporter. The U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare had issued an 87-page report in the spring of 1979. The report detailed what the University of Georgia must do to comply with federal Title IX requirements governing spending for women's athletic programs. Ponderous, rife with complex legal jargon, the document was a challenge for skilled lawyers. It certainly wasn't fodder for a college journalism class.

But journalism professors Bill Martin and Al Wise knew it was crucial to the 30-minute documentary on the Title IX controversy their students were producing for an advanced TV reporting class. There was a problem, however: the report was released on Friday, and production of the show began Monday. Which student would devote a weekend to studying and analyzing the complicated document and be ready with a script Monday morning?

The assignment went to Deborah Norville, an uncommonly bright and intense young woman whose broadcast skills had been honed reporting on the Georgia General Assembly for the state public-television network. Although still a senior, she was already a weekend news reporter on Atlanta TV station WAGA. If any student could wade through the report and come up with an understandable explanation. Martin and Wise felt, it was Norville. When filming began Monday, Norville introduced the Title IX piece with a three-minute stand-up. Cogently and precisely, she explained the background of the controversy, summarized the major points of the HEW report, and led deftly into the documentary. It was a gem of concise, crisp reporting.

"She had no legal background, but she analyzed the report and got the gist of it perfectly," Martin remembers. Wise saved the tape and shows it to his classes today. "Deborah did that piece in one take, all from memory, and it was perfect," he says. "When I show it to students, they think it's beautiful. They are stunned."

With that knowledge of Norville's talent, Martin, Wise, and other journalism professors weren't surprised last September when their former student was named news anchor of NBC-TV's "Today" show. Nor were they shocked several weeks later by the announcement that Norville would succeed Jane Pauley as cohost of the popular morning program. Anyone who knew Norville as a student, they say, could have predicted her success. "Deborah was the kind of student a professor never forgets," says Martin, who taught advanced courses in broadcast news before his retirement. "She absorbed and retained everything she was taught. She certainly stood out as the best of the reporters and anchors in my classes."

Adds Dr. William Lee, who taught Norville communications law at the university. "She was exceptionally hardworking and had a determination to succeed. She had a bearing and a self-confidence that set her apart, but she did it without being smug or conceited. If I could clone her attitude toward learning, and her willingness to work hard, life would be much easier for me as a teacher."

The star of the country's most widely watched morning news show, Norville received her journalism degree in 1979. The Dalton, Georgia, native maintains a strong allegiance to her alma mater, as she demonstrated shortly after joining the "Today" show. Following a segment on college mascots, Norville's cohost, Bryant Gumble, asked her if she had attended the University of Georgia. "My blood runs red and black," she responded, adding that she considers Georgia's bulldog, "UGA," to be the most famous college mascot in America.

Norville had originally planned to become a lawyer, but while competing in Georgia's Junior Miss pageant (which she won), she became intrigued by the TV coverage and decided to go into journalism.

Norville says that although academic work was important (she was in the honors program, was elected to Blue Key and Phi Beta Kappa, and graduated summa cum laude with a perfect 4.0 grade point average), the most valuable part of her student days was job experience. As an intern reporter for the public-television program "The Lawmakers," she covered two sessions of the Georgia General Assembly. In her senior year she reported for WAGA's weekend newscasts. "I'd leave the university on Friday afternoon and drive to Atlanta, and sometimes I had a place to stay and sometimes I slept in my car in the parking lot," she recalls. "I worked Saturday and Sunday; Sunday night after the 11 o'clock show I'd drive back and go to class Monday morning."

Between covering the legislature and anchoring the news show, she worked 90 to 100 hours a week during one three-month span. Professors weren't the only people she impressed in those early days of her career. The first legislator she interviewed for "The Lawmakers" was state Sen. Paul Broun, then chairman of the appropriations committee. "She asked me about the budget, and her questions were very perceptive," Broun says. "I was very much surprised that someone so young would ask such fundamental questions and get to the heart of the matter." Norville's demeanor, Broun adds, "almost made you feel that it was your responsibility to tell her what she wanted to know."

When Norville graduated, at age 20, she went full-time with WAGA as a reporter and weekend anchor. She covered major stories, including Atlanta's missing-and-murdered-children case, Andrew Young's election as mayor, and Jimmy Carter's defeat for a second term. Popular and respected, she appeared to have a bright and secure future in Atlanta. But after 2 1/2 years, she accepted an offer to become an anchor and reporter for WMAQ, the NBC affiliate in Chicago.

Norville says she made the move to prove something to herself. "I knew I could report in Atlanta. Chicago had the reputation, and still does, of being the toughest local news market in the country," she says. "Also, Chicago is known for producing the best network journalists in the country. Probably three-quarters of them have done time in Chicago. I had to prove to myself that I was in the right profession. I figured if I could go up there and keep my nose above water with the rest of the reporters I'd be working against, then maybe I'd chosen the right field."

Any doubts about her ability were quickly erased. She had been in Chicago less than a year when the tainted-Tylenol deaths occurred. She covered the story, and she later reported such stories as the Mexico City earthquake, the rededication of the Statue of Liberty, and the Middle East hijacking of TWA flight 847--for which she won a local Emmy Award. She won a Chicago Film Festival Silver Plaque for a documentary on missing and abused children, and she was a national Emmy finalist for a documentary on domestic violence.

Just as in Atlanta, Norville was a favorite of Chicago viewers. Part of her popularity stemmed from her involvement in fund drives for the heart association and the cancer society and her work in the fight against arthritis--work that had a deeply personal basis. Arthritis afflicts 43 million Americans and strikes one family in seven. Norville's family is one of those: her mother, a victim of rheumatoid arthritis, died during Norville's senior year of college.

Norville served on the board of directors of the Arthritis Foundation of Illinois and hosted fund-raising telethons. "I felt that was really important, because it gave attention to a disease that didn't get a lot of press," she says. "People knew who I was, and I thought that if I got involved, they would see me and say, `If she has found some time to donate to this worthy cause, maybe I can find time to do likewise.' Whether it's to sit with an old person or volunteer at the hospital or deliver meals to shut-ins, everybody can do something. I really felt like it was an opportunity for me to be an example."

Her civic work also grew out of a strong belief that local newscasters have an obligation to their communities. "When you are a local television journalist, you are so much a part of the community," she says. "God has given me an awful lot. He didn't have to let me have the kind of success I've had as a broadcast journalist. A big part of the credit goes in that direction, and I feel real strongly that one way I can give back is to give my time."

One day while Norville was in Chicago, she was called by a man named Karl Wellner, the head of a fine art auction house in New York. They had mutual friends in his native Sweden. In town on business, he asked her to dinner. She didn't have time, but she did meet him for a drink. They hit it off, and soon they were conducting a weekend courtship by airplane.

Meanwhile, Norville had been periodically submitting stories from Chicago for the "Today" show, and her work caught the attention of network executives. When the "NBC News at Sunrise" anchor position came open, she was invited to fill in for a week as a substitute. Three weeks later, she was offered the job of permanent anchor. "I had a beau in New York that I was madly in love with, and my contract in Chicago was coming up, so the timing just worked out really well and I was able to accept the job," she says.

She joined "Sunrise" in December 1986, and for the next 2 1/2 years she was the only woman to anchor a daily national newscast solo. When she departed last year, "Sunrise" was the top-rated early-morning newscast in the country. And though the schedule required her to leave for the studio at 2:30 a.m. and sometimes work until 6:30 p.m., Norville could at least see Wellner more often. A year after she came to New York, they were married.

Norville's move to the "Today" show last fall set off a cacophony of clamorous press reports, criticized by many for focusing improperly on Norville's beauty-queen good looks and for trumping up a non-existent spat between her and Pauley. Norville branded much of the reporting "sexist," saying the change would not have drawn so much attention if she were a man. The uproar quickly played out, and Norville adroitly moved into her role as cohost.

Critics objected most to suggestions that--despite an impeccable academic record, a sterling performance in three of the nation's largest TV markets, and impressive work as a network anchor and reporter--Norville somehow lacked the professional credentials for the "Today" post. She points with pride to her 12 years of solid journalistic experience, beginning with those hectic 12-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week stints as a student. "When people now say, `Oh, you had it all handed to you,' I think back to those days when I didn't have a place to sleep, and didn't get a chance to sleep anyway, and I think, `Well, yeah, right,'" she says sardonically.

Among those who expected her rise to the top are her former professors. "There was always something about Deborah that the other students never had," Wise says. "Not just raw talent, but a drive. Most students do just enough to get by, but she did more. She was the kind of person you always knew would be successful." Martin says he never doubted Norville would fulfill her intention to be a network newscaster, and in fact he once predicted to the newswoman Judy Woodruff that Norville would one day be on the "Today" show.

An expert seamstress, Norville sews many of the clothes she wears on camera. She even made the bridesmaids' dresses for her wedding at St. James' Episcopal Church. She is also an accomplished cook who has treated co-workers to homemade cookies and cheese grits. Nowadays she leaves her New York apartment about 4:30 a.m. to go to work. After each day's show, she spends hours preparing for upcoming programs. She reads voraciously--five daily newspapers, the weekly news magazines, several foreign affairs journals. She tries to prepare equally for each guest but says interviews with such people as the President, the Vice President, and cabinet members are particularly difficult because of tight time limits.

Her job is not made easier by the knowledge that what she does could have serious consequences. When she learned that her first interview on "Today" would be with a Soviet arms negotiator, she remembers thinking, "Oh my God. If I ask the wrong question, I could start World War III. That's when the enormity and import of the program hit me. It has such a high viewership and is watched by all the people who are decision makers in this country." Norville would seem to be at another peak in her career. She is famous, rich, influential, happily married--and only 31 years old. Where does she go from here?

"Who knows?" she answers. "If someone had told me a year ago that I would have my current job today, I would have laughed. I've had such wonderful good breaks that I've given up trying to predict where my life is going."

She says she lives by two cardinal rules. One is not to set precise goals, because that can create blinders to other opportunities. The second rule is "no what-ifs." "The only two things in life you can't undo are having a baby and suicide," she says. "Every other act you take in life is rectifiable if it turns out to be a mistake. So why not go for it? Why not give it a shot? The worst thing you can say later is `If I had done this or that, I wonder what would have happened.' There is only one way to find out."
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Title Annotation:The Today Show
Author:Dendy, Larry B.
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Article Type:Biography
Date:Mar 1, 1990
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