New WFAA anchor Chris Lawrence on John McCaa, war stories and caddying for an MLB legend

John McCaa teaches Chris Lawerence the ins and outs of WFAA

Evening and night news anchor for WFAA, John McCaa tells his replacement Chris Lawerence about the Channel 8 news staff. McCaa's last day will be March 1.
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Evening and night news anchor for WFAA, John McCaa tells his replacement Chris Lawerence about the Channel 8 news staff. McCaa's last day will be March 1.

Chris Lawrence, who will officially start co-anchoring WFAA’s evening and late newscasts on March 4, has done TV work in a lot of places — Iraq, Afghanistan, Rome, Detroit, Tuscaloosa and much more, including his most recent gig at WRC-TV in Washington, D.C.

Pretty good for a guy who entered college not really knowing what he wanted to do with his life.

In the early ‘90s, Lawrence was attending the University of Maryland, and making frequent nearly six-hour drives to Upstate New York, where his girlfriend was attending Syracuse University. He wanted to spend the summer in the Syracuse area, so he started looking for internships, and found one at the CBS affiliate in Syracuse.

That’s when he knew what he wanted to do with this life.

“Man, it was like a thunderbolt,” Lawrence says in a phone interview. “Every night, I was going out with a reporter. We covered something different every night. We weren’t stuck to a desk, we were out meeting people. One day, it was a janitor, the next day it was the head of the company at some big law firm. It just kind of opened up my eyes: What an amazing job, to just go out and tell stories.”

When he got back to Maryland, he changed his major to broadcast journalism and finished up his last two years there. Since then, he’s been around the world, but it looks like he’ll be coming in for a landing in DFW, where he will succeed the retiring John McCaa as co-anchor with Cynthia Izaguirre.

“It’s a big daunting, coming in for John,” Lawrence says in a post-interview email. “John. I mean, a lot of folks here have grown up with him as the guy they could count on to give it them straight, someone to trust. It’s a pretty big honor, and I don’t think anyone can really fill those shoes.”

Lawrence adds that McCaa (whose last day is March 1) has been helpful in showing the ins and outs and tricky spots of the job. “And even giving me a few shortcuts to work, so I don’t get stuck crawling along [U.S.] 75 like I did on my first day,” Lawrence adds, already adapting to the familiar Dallas woe of dealing with Central Expressway traffic.

WFAA has also been going out with reporters, through a series of “Chris Crossing DFW” segments, including one in which Fort Worth reporter Lauren Zakalik takes him around Cowtown and introduces him to Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price and Fort Worth Stockyards “Mayor” Steve Murrin.

“I love the idea of letting me get out with the photographers and the reporters, because the anchors don’t get a chance to interact with them out in the field very often,,” Lawrence says. “You get an idea of where their beat is, and if they’re married, if they have kids, where they live, where they came from. Driving around with Jobin [Panicker], I found out our three kids are almost exactly the same age. Being down in south Dallas with Demond [Fernandez], I found out that we both graduated from the University of Maryland. Lauren [Zakalik] and I are both originally from Michigan. You start to find these connections with people.

“And then, getting out and meeting people — I’ve lived a lot of places, but I’ve never, never seen people as friendly as they are here,” he says. “I call back to my wife every week and I go, ‘You just won’t believe how welcoming these people are here.’ “ (His wife is still in northern Virginia with their three children — a 5-year-old boy and two girls, one 7 and one just about to turn 3.)

We welcomed Lawrence to DFW with this edition of “Meet the Anchor.”

What he did before TV

“I had a ton of jobs. When I was in high school, I worked the whole time. I was a caddy at a golf club. I was a busboy at a restaurant. My last job in high school, I was working at a hardware store. When I got my financial-aid package for college, they try to match you with a job on campus because working is part of the aid package. I guess because I had worked at this hardware store, they assigned me to the facilities department. All my friends were getting these great jobs, like in the student union, socializing all day, all this stuff. And I’m working with the repair guys, going to fix screen doors. It was about the most unsocial college job you could have.”

That time he caddied for an MLB Hall of Famer

One time, [Kansas City Royals star] George Brett came to town for some charity event. He came and he played a round. Just randomly, I happened to show up early that day. We would all sit in this little pool, it was just a bunch of benches off to the side. That’s how we’d get picked up. The caddymaster would come by and say, ‘OK, you, you’re going out with this group.’ That day, there weren’t that many of us, and he said, ‘You’re going out with this foursome.’ I got to carry George Brett’s bag, I got his autograph, and he gave me the biggest tip I had ever gotten up to that point and any time since. It was pretty cool.”

First paying journalism job

It was in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. I still remember, I made $12,000 a year. I was a reporter, I anchored a couple of times, we shot all our own stuff on Hi-8 cameras. We’d have to go out, shoot a package, do [voice-overs]. The funny thing I remember now is — talk about changing times — the news director did not let the women to shoot their own stuff. Only the men. So you would shoot your package but also shoot one of the female reporters’ packages. That obviously would never fly today.

“One of my friends from Maryland, who worked at a competing station, she was the main anchor, and she would work at Barnes & Noble on the weekends. But I appreciated it because I’d always shared with a lot of roommates, and now I had my own car that I owned, it was an old car, and my rent was like 300 bucks a month. You could go out and have a beer for a dollar, so you could actually afford to live on your own. Couldn’t do much, but I really appreciated walking into that little apartment and saying, ‘This is mine.’

First time on-air

I had cut my own [report], and it had a big black hole in the middle of it. Back then, it was tape-to-tape and you had to preview your edit, and then you had to actually hit the red button to make the edit. I previewed it, but I forgot to hit ‘edit,’ so it had this huge black hole in the middle of it. And I remember holding my notepad, with every line I was supposed to say written down, and clutching it. I held it with two hands and would not let it go because I was just so afraid the wrong thing, or forget what I was going to say. It was butterflies times 10.”

When he found his on-air groove

“I started working for CBS Newspath. The pace was so relentless. You could do 40 live shots a day for eight, nine, 10 hours, day after day. I felt like that’s when I kind of had to stop having to fake the confidence. You walk into a job interview, you’ve got to act like you’re confident. But that was when I changed from acting confident to just being confident: OK, I know what I’m doing, I know what questions to ask, I know how to write a story. I know how to get to the things that people are interested in.”

Most memorable story

“I guess the thing that stuck with me and that I had to deal with over a long period of time was being in Irag and Afghanistan. And specifically in Iraq, being in a vehicle where we hit an IED. We had just rolled out to this camp, I think it was a day or two before Christmas. This is like 2004, so it was down n the Ramadi-Fallujah area, Anbar Province, when it was just going to pieces. Constant, constant violence.

“The way they’d done Ramadi was the Army controlled half of it, and the Marines controlled the other half. Our embed started with the Marines, and on our first afternoon out with them, we hit this IED. I remember that ripple of energy. I felt it from my toes all the way my head, and feeling like the world had gone a little haywire. It was hard to keep my bearings. I remember the driver gunning that vehicle like straight through, because usually if they’d set some IEDs, they call it ‘the kill zone,’ because if your vehicle gets disabled, that’s where they can attack you, in that zone. So you just gun it and get out of that kill zone. If it had been set 6 inches to a foot over, it would have been right under us.

“We never talked about it, my photographer and I. We were with CNN then, and we didn’t even tell CNN, because we were afraid that they would pull us off the embed. My photographer at the time, he was married, he had two little girls, and he was so worried about upsetting his wife. ... We were just starting this embed. We were going to be out there for like eight weeks. So we just made a judgment call to say, ‘You know what? We’re just not going to tell ‘em this happened.’

“That sort of started, for me, a pattern of not talking about things. It just kind of built up and caused some problems for me later. Just suppressing the things that I’d seen and witnessed. I hit a point where I figured out, I’ve got to talk to somebody about this. I don’t know if I’d call it [post-traumatic stress disorder], but for a while, I looked at situations like being in Haiti or Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, as if that were the real world and being alive, and being back home with my friends and family, that just felt gray and boring and I was not really present. Now I can look back and say, ‘Wow, that’s a really unhealthy way to live,’ but it took me some years to get around to that point and start talking about things.”

Ron Burgundy moment

“I was working in Detroit, and I can’t even remember the specifics of the story, but it was something with a car — protecting yourself and being secure or being aware of your surroundings or winter weather. We were doing a live shot, and they really encouraged us to be very active: ‘Don’t just stand there and tell us what happened; get involved.’ So we came up with a live shot where I would drive up to the photographer, get out of the car, walk around, talk talk talk. I got so wrapped up in what I was supposed to say, I stopped — and I forgot to put the car in park. I get out of the car, it starts rolling forward, the photographer says ‘Oh, crap!’ and yanks the camera over to the left. So I guess on-air, it looked like the camera went flying. I had to run and catch up, jump back in the car, yank on the emergency brake, put the car in park. It was a debacle..”

The “Secret Life” of an anchor

My wife works a lot of hours, so I spend a lot of time with our kids. Sometimes I incorporate them into things that I like. I love history. I’m a big history buff, so back in Virginia, if they had an off day from school, we’d go to the old battlefields at Manassas and places like that. You can retrace the route that John Wilkes Booth took before and after the assassination of Lincoln, where the conspirators met, and [the] Dr. Mudd farm that he went to when he was wounded after the shooting. I love doing stuff like that, so sometimes I’ll just pack up my kids and make them come along. I don’t know how much they get out of it.

“I love being able to see history and not just read a book on my Kindle. To get out and explore. David Schechter took me to [The Sixth Floor Museum] briefly. We were doing one of his ‘Verify’ segments. So I would say I got an introduction to it. I didn’t get to spend an afternoon there by myself, just wandering through. I’d love to go back there and do that. I was in the Naval Reserve, so if I get a chance and I’m in one of the ports, I love to go by and see the different ships. If I’m in San Diego or Pensacola, parts of Florida or wherever they have the ships docked, I like to go by and see ‘em.”

Follow Lawrence at @ChrisLawrenceWFAA on Facebook and @clawrenceDFW on Twitter. The Star-Telegram has a content partnership with WFAA.

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Robert Philpot has been a features reporter for the Star-Telegram since October 1992, and currently covers the Tarrant County (and sometimes more) restaurant scene. He also writes general-entertainment stories and features about DFW TV and radio personalities.