Friends and colleagues are gathering to eulogize former Channel 4 sports anchor George Michael

By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, January 20, 2010

They are coming to town from all around the country -- television station general managers, news and sports directors, producers, cameramen, sportscasters, radio personalities. All once were employed by the late, great George Michael, a man who drove them to be better than they thought they were in a local broadcasting business that may never see his one-of-a-kind come around again.

"I've been hearing from people almost every day for the last few weeks telling me they wanted to come in and be here," said Joe Schreiber, Michael's longtime road warrior of a producer who has helped organize a reunion/wake/celebration-of-life Wednesday night at a Bethesda restaurant to honor the man they once worked for at some point during his memorable 27-year run at Channel 4.

On Thursday, they will gather again to pay tribute to Michael in a memorial service at National Cathedral, four weeks after his death on Dec. 24 at the age of 70 following a two-year, very private battle with leukemia. Former Redskins coach Joe Gibbs and Jim Vance, his old Channel 4 news anchor colleague, will eulogize Michael, but the war stories from all the grunts in the Channel 4 trenches told the night before should be equally memorable.

Wally Bruckner will come down from his home in Connecticut, where he moved in 2006 to begin a different sort of life after 15 frenetic years as Channel 4's weekend sports anchor, frequent substitute host for Michael on "Redskins Report" and "Sports Machine," as well as a crackerjack reporter contributing to every facet of Michael's Nebraska Avenue sports juggernaut.

Michael wasn't at all pleased when Bruckner, arguably the best weekend man in the country, finally decided he needed to take a deep breath, spend more time with his family and help his wife, Dawn, fulfill her lifelong dream of opening up her own restaurant, La Belle Aurore in Niantic, Conn., a 42-seat bistro that recently drew a rave review in the New York Times. And yet, Michael also made sure Bruckner was amply rewarded with a generous severance package when he left, and continued to go to bat for him when he learned about possible broadcasting jobs that might have interested his longtime colleague and friend.

"Last year at this time, George had me in talks with WJFK," Bruckner said of the local radio station that switched to a sports talk format early last fall. "It didn't work out, but even after I left, George was always pitching me to people. That's just the way he was, and not just with me."

Like anyone else who ever worked for Michael, Bruckner eventually came to appreciate the boss's constant quest for perfection in anything he ever put on the air. Michael could bluster, bellow and transform into a fire-breathing beast with the best of them. Occasionally he could even reduce some of his people -- male and female, from intern to lead to producer -- to tears in a Sports Machine second.

He also was never St. George. At times, Michael left himself open to criticism for paying athletes and coaches to make regular appearances on Channel 4 newscasts, a clear breach of journalistic ethics. Whenever I wrote such a thing, the invariable phone call would come the next day or two, with Michael always insisting that if Channel 4 didn't show them the money, someone at Channel 5, 7 or 9 would put up the cash instead. He was not about to lose a Gibbs, a Joe Theismann to the opposition, and journalism be damned.

Anyway, he'd always say, just because he paid them all that money didn't mean he was about to lob softball questions on the air or duck grilling them if they screwed up on or off the field. Michael got plenty of dirty looks and clipped answers from his paid performers over the years, and he always brushed off criticism that he too often got too close to the people he was supposed to be covering.

"He may have been sitting up in the owner's box with Dan Snyder," Sonny Jurgensen, his frequent on-air partner, said in a recent interview. "But let me tell you, George always told Dan exactly what was on his mind, whether Dan liked it or not. I think Dan really respected that."

"The guy always told you what he was thinking," Schreiber said of Michael. "And if he said something about you on television, he'd probably already told that same person the same thing right to his face."

Virtually anyone who ever worked for Michael always said it was an experience that could be equal parts maddening, mesmerizing and illuminating.


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