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Remembering Jessica Savitch, 30 Years After Her Death

SavitchJessicaIn the early 1980s, with cable in its infancy and network anchors dominating the airwaves, one of the most identifiable, and beloved, was NBC’s Jessica Savitch.

A pioneering woman in broadcasting, Savitch was only 30 when, in 1977, fresh from local TV news jobs in Philadelphia and Houston, NBC News hired her to cover Congress.  Savitch went on to be the first woman to anchor a weekend newscast for NBC, and perhaps was best known for her highly-visible primetime ’news capsule’ updates. Her rocky personal life made headlines too.

But it all came to an end on a rainy autumn night in 1983, when the car Savitch was in plunged into a Bucks County, Pennsylvania canal, killing her and the car’s driver, 34-year-old Martin Fischbein, a vice president at the New York Post.

As we approach the thirtieth anniversary of that day – October 23 – TVNewser reached out to friends, family, and colleagues for their memories of Jessica Savitch, who was just 36 when she died.

NBC’s Andrea Mitchell: “Jessica Savitch was a warm-hearted, caring person and a pioneer in broadcasting who lost her life tragically just as she was soaring to new  heights. She was my friend at KYW in Philadelphia and my office mate at NBC in Washington. I was privileged to know her and mourn her loss, along with friends and family, so many years later.”

Former KYW Co-Anchor Mort Crim, who delivered the eulogy at Savitch’s funeral: “Her untimely passing was a loss to me, personally, and to the world of TV journalism. I’ve worked with many talented people, but none who could surpass Jess for a combination of ability, sensitivity and drive…An agent for Will Farrell contacted me a few weeks ago as Anchorman II was nearing completion to remind me that Jess and I had been the inspiration for the first Anchorman movie…Jess was 25 years old when we first shared an anchor desk.  But the years fly by swiftly and she would now be 65, something I can hardly believe. I still miss her.”

NBC’s Tom Brokaw: “It was such a sad, even tragic ending, to a life that was the classic American success story. Jessica had a wide following of admirers, first in Philadelphia and then on the network – and just when she seemed to have found personal happiness, the untimely end.”

After the jump, thoughts from Sue Simmons, Fred Francis, and Linda Ellerbee…plus Lori Savitch on the journalism scholarships that honor her sister thirty years later.

Longtime WNBC anchor Sue Simmons: “I met Jessica when I was very new in the business, working in Baltimore [at WBAL], and she was [anchoring at Philly's KYW and] the girlfriend of my news director, Ron Kershaw. When I got to know her, she was very warm, and very dedicated to her job. We became friends. I was always impressed by how un-rattled she was on the air. I never saw her stumble…

“When the books and the movie came out [after her death], they made her out to be this troubled character. Nobody ever talked about her big heart, her loyalty, her sense of humor, and her fabulousness as a person… She had this wonderful combination of credibility and a beautiful smile.”

Former NBC Newser Fred Francis: “When a big breaking story came with her about to go on air she was always totally pumped. If she had to ad lib – more the better – no safety net for Jessica… She was a great colleague, always quick with a kudo and always asking a keen question to learn a bit more than what her 30-second lead-in copy offered the viewers.”

Former NBC Newser Linda Ellerbee: “Her death was a tragic accident. I think of ‘what might have been’. So many possibilities lost. If she were alive today, I’d tell her what I should have said to her back then: that she was a good human being, a talented woman, whose fame was no accident. She deserved it… So hard to believe she’s been gone 30 years.”

Lori Savitch, one of Jessica’s two sisters, and the force behind www.jessicasavitch.com: “Gender-based discrimination wasn’t the only hurdle Jessica faced in pursuit of a broadcast journalism career. College tuition was practically unaffordable because our widowed mother still had two more children at home to raise and educate. This was the genesis of the Jessica Savitch Scholarships at her alma mater, Ithaca College, as well as Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania [in Savitch's native Philadelphia]. To date, there have been 163 scholarship recipients of almost $700,000.  Each one of them are sources of pride and comfort to my sister and me. They are her living legacy.”

The Savitch family also established The Jessica Savitch Distinguished Journalism Lecture Series at Ithaca College.  Recent speakers have included ABC’s Sam Champion and NBC’s Lester Holt.

[Quotes have been edited for length and clarity.] 

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