For Bruckner, Time to Chase a Dream
Wednesday, October 4, 2006; 3:09 PM
That would be Wally Bruckner, for 16 years the ying to sports director George Michaels' yang at WRC-TV-4, Washington's highest-rated station for news and sports.
At the moment, Bruckner is living large in small town America, taking his kids, 12-year-old Ellie and 8-year-old Hunter, to school every day, watching their soccer games and music recitals and helping his wife Dawn at her 44-seat restaurant in East Lyme, Conn., hard by the Long Island Sound.
Better yet, he insisted that he does not miss the high anxiety, Type A existence of a television sportscaster in a very big-time market, and has absolutely no regrets about his decision to take his life in a new direction.
Bruckner's last day on the air at Channel 4 was July 16, and he said in an interview this week that he doesn't think he's watched a TV sportscast since. Contrary to some previously published reports, he also insisted that his departure was truly amicable.
Bruckner described his decision to leave television and the Nation's Capital as a classic "perfect storm" situation. He'd been in the business for more than 20 years, fulfilling his wildest childhood fantasies of growing up to be a sportscaster in a major market. He was about to turn 50, and very much concerned that all those weekends in the studio for the 6 and 11 o'clock shows, all those days and nights on the road reporting all the best stories in sports were making him far too much of an absentee father and husband.
In August 2005, Bruckner sold his house at the height of the local real estate boom. He'd always made top dollar at WRC and also been smart with his money, and he and Dawn, a long-time personal chef with a number of high profile clients, moved the family to Connecticut and also purchased a small restaurant about 15 miles from Mystic.
That had always been Dawn's long-time dream, and the Bruckners relocated to New England that September so the children could start school in their new hometown. For most of the next 11 months, Bruckner commuted back and forth to Washington, hardly an ideal situation for his work, or his home life.
Bruckner's contract was about to run out this past August, and there also were changes coming at Channel 4, an NBC owned-and-operated station.
Money was getting tighter, travel budgets were shrinking and Bruckner wasn't all that certain he wanted to stay in the first place. He had several long conversations with Michael, who has dominated the local TV sports market for most of the past three decades and counted on Bruckner as his right-hand man.
Michael said in an interview that he did have concerns about Bruckner not always being immediately available if there was a scheduling problem or a major story broke, and expressed those reservations to him. But Bruckner said that in no way did Michael push him out the door, because he already was leaning toward knocking down the door himself. The commute was becoming a grind. There were too many times when budgets wouldn't allow him to report on stories he'd always covered in the past, and he was growing weary of constantly having to argue his case. When Michael offered him a generous severance package if that would help him make his decision, Bruckner said that essentially sealed the deal.
"I wanted to be absolutely sure we parted as friends," Michael said. "He said great, and we agreed he'd be free to do whatever he wanted to do with his life. It had nothing to do with his contract. It was all positive, all very good. And it was a tearful goodbye. But when something has run it's course, it just runs its course. We parted friends, and life goes on."
"It was a great parting, and I mean that sincerely," he said. "For nearly
16 years, I had the privilege and the pleasure of working at one of American's finest TV stations. George is a giant in the industry, and to be his lieutenant all those years was great fun. I had a seat in the front row of sports history. It wasn't like I was just the weekend guy. I covered everything, all the big stories, Super Bowls, NBA finals. I truly believe I had the greatest job in America, and I left on the best of terms."
Bruckner has been replaced by native Washingtonian Dan Hellie, a Magruder High School graduate who was working as a sportscaster in Orlando when Michael offered him a chance to come back home. Hellie has a likeable on-air presence and has seemingly slipped seamlessly into Bruckner's former role, although he still needs to get tougher with his frequently softball questions to athletes and coaches, one of Bruckner's greatest assets.
Bruckner, meanwhile, is loving life. He describes himself as the "beverage director" at "La Belle Aurore," the restaurant's name taken from a scene in the movie classic "Casablanca."
"That means I get to taste all the wine," he said.
He's also giving himself until January before he starts thinking about resuming his own career. He's already started work on developing pilots for several children's shows involving sports, travel and music that he hopes to shop around the cable universe, and perhaps he might even get back in the sportscasting business at some point. After all, ESPN headquarters are in Bristol, Conn., and not far away at all.
"Do I miss what I did?" he said. "Yes. Was I good at it? I'd like to think I was pretty rock solid. It was just time to try something else and be somebody else. This was a leap of faith for our whole family. It was a situation where we said, 'If not now, when?' Do we owe it to ourselves to try it? Why not?"
And by the way, Bruckner added, "if anyone's really worried about what Wally's doing, tell 'em the stripers are running on the Sound later this week."
Gone fishing, of course.
Leonard Shapiro has covered sports on television and radio for The Washington Post for more than 25 years. His Sports Waves column will now appear on washingtonpost.com, and he'd love to hear what you like and don't like about local or national sports coverage.