Lea Thompson's idea was simple enough: A three-week vacation in France with her husband Durke.
It was to be a surpise, a delayed 40th birthday present for him. A little finagling here and there, but otherwise a simple idea.
* She would have to get time off work, a bit of a job when you're the "Live at 5" news co-anchor on WRC-TV, with responsibility for Channel 4's consumer affairs reporting. And her lawyer-husband's schedule would have to be cleared without his knowing. His secretary could take care of that. The trip would be paid for out of their joint account -- if he didn't discover the subterfuge. And of course the housekeeper would have to keep her secret too.
Bingo. Three weeks in Paris and the French wine country.
But as soon as they arrived home, Thompson began planning another vacation -- the whole family would go to Walt Disney World in December. "A trip for them, a trip for us," said Thompson. "You have to make time to be with your husband . . . it's the first thing to slip away."
In managing career, marriage and motherhood, Lea Thompson doesn't seem to have let much slip away. "I guess a lot of people look at me as someone who can have a balance in her life. We probably do represent one of the rare couples who make it work . . . You have to make decisions in your life."
Thompson is no stranger to decisions. Over the years, she has made the ones that -- coupled with good timing and hard work -- put her where she is today:
As a college student, Thompson decided to study marketing and journalism, a combination that led her to an advertising agency in New York. With a fledgling career in advertising underway, she chose to shift gears and marry a Washington lawyer. And then, her new career in local television going full bore, she defied the rules of career advancement and decided to have a child. And another one. And another.
Thompson also chose to turn down an offer to go with NBC. "I had the opportunity to go with the network, which is lovely," she said. "But so many people have the feeling that the network is the end-all, be-all. I disagree with that. The money is not the thing. I know network correspondents who would love to be a local anchor . . . When you have shown you're good at what you do, you are much more in charge of what you do. At the local level, you are more in control of your own destiny. You can work on bigger stories locally . . . I think there's a better working environment at the local level."
And so today, Thompson seems happy with her choices: "I have the best of all worlds. I can to some extent set my own course. For me, that's a wonderful option. I don't have to work for the network, because I already work for the network. I get to do as many pieces as I can for the 'Today' show -- they'd love to take all I could do."
But Thompson won't entirely rule out the possibility of going with the network at a later time. Next month she is scheduled to fill in for "Today" anchor Jane Pauley when she goes on her second maternity leave. Thompson replaced Pauley for several days two years ago when Pauley gave birth to twins. Thompson's new contract with WRC-TV -- negotiated by her husband -- gives her more more opportunities to appear on the network.
Since 1970 when Thompson joined Channel 4 with no television experience, she has come a long way, including garnering 18 local Emmys. When the Washington awards are handed out Saturday, WRC-TV hopes she'll receive another. She is the station's nominee for individual achievement in newscast productions, for her consumer reports, an area she particularly likes because "I believe that people who do what I do can make a difference in the world."
Last month, Thompson, her "Live at 5" coanchor Dave Marash and their crew took to the road for 22 reports in 22 days. Using a truck with a satellite link back to the station, they set out to do live reports each night, originating first from Virginia (beginning with the Gold Cup steeplechase at Great Meadows, near Warrenton, and the Apple Blossom Festival in Winchester) and then Maryland, with reports from Baltimore, the U.S. Naval Academy, St. Michael's. They returned to the District to report from various neighborhoods, and closed with Memorial Day observances.
"Our objective was to get out to see the people who see us," said Thompson. "I got home most nights. What a wonderful month. We would have literally hundreds and hundreds of people watching us, getting autographs. I don't know what people do with autographs.
"The first thing I do is to walk wherever we are, without a camera, and talk to people to find out what people care about in that community. I found that people are real proud to show their town or city off." She also learned that "beyond the Beltway, the number one problem is development, even among people who just moved in last week." The on-site reports were so successful that Thompson said "Live at 5" will continue them each Thursday this summer.
Also in May, Thompson resumed her role as consumer advocate. Both "The Art of the Hard Sell" and "How to Buy a House" aired over three days each. In a two-day report, "DPT: Four Years After," Thompson updated an earlier story, "DPT: Vaccine Roulette," that detailed how some children had suffered severe reactions -- even death -- to an innoculation that had been routinely administered to all American children.
At the end of May, Thompson attended the 50th anniversary celebration of Consumers Union in New York -- "I didn't do anything significant. I was just there to be honored." But she called the party "one great big old-home week -- you were surrounded by everyone you ever interviewed." Thompson was on CU's list of 50 people who have made a difference in consumerism in the country.
Another was former Giant Foods consumer advisor Esther Peterson, who offered the toast at the CU anniversary banquet. Peterson recalled a shopping trip the two shared as dueling consumer advocates. Thompson thought shoppers could save more money by using coupons; Peterson believed in comparing unit pricing. "I won, but at the time I didn't know I would win," said Peterson, adding, "I really loved working with her all the time . . . She's daring, hard-working and has integrity and such panache . . . She's a joy to work with."
Next week Thompson will help kick off WRC-TV's 18-month campaign aimed at lessening infant mortality in the District through education. She, with colleagues Susan King and Susan Kidd, will host the initial special on June 28, "A Fighting Chance," produced and written by Oscar-winner Robert Gardner. The station will provide a booklet of coupons good for food, vitamins, child care items, and transportation to and from a doctor or clinic, and will track women through the last six months of their pregnancy and the first year of that child's life.
It's a fitting project for Thompson, combining as it does news/feature specials, consumer advocacy and motherhood -- her own strong suits.
Daughter of a Wisconsin publisher who wouldn't let her work on The Marshfield News Herald (circ. about 20,000) because of his own nepotism rule, Thompson grew up "in a very typical middle-class family. My father was always very proud of his newspaper, especially when they were going to break a story . . ."
Thompson majored in journalism and marketing at the University of Wisconsin, worked on advertising for the campus newspaper, and in 1967 joined the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency in New York, becoming one of its first female account executives at a salary of $6,800. During the turbulent '60s, when campus radicals were bombing buildings nationwide, Lea Hopkins went to work in white gloves and hat -- what the firm considered de rigueur at the time.
But the law student she had met back in Madison, Durke Thompson, had moved to Washington,D.C., and after "burning up the New York-Washington corridor," the pair decided to marry.
She moved to Washington in 1970 and found a job at WRC-TV with the title "administrator, editorial services" -- essentially she was a researcher for Washington's first anchorman, television veteran Bryson Rash. He paved the way for Thompson to become a reporter and to appear on camera. "I think I was at the right place at the right time," she said.
Rash recalled that he immediately saw potential in the tall, slender, dark-haired Thompson. "Lea came to work for me when I was the editorial director . . . She had little or no television experience, but she was an extremely intelligent gal, a hard worker, imaginative and creative with a lot of drive.
"We began by doing editorials. I wrote all the editorials; she did all the research. In the beginning I wrote them all, but as time went on Lea began to write some too. Then I decided to put her on the air.
"We were able to do things with Lea that were helpful to her. Barbara Walters was in town one day, so I grabbed Barbara Walters' makeup gal and said, 'See what you can do for Lea.' We did other little things . . . she took a production course at the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences here, and got some hands-on procedures and learned something about the production of television. Then we sent her to a voice coach. So the end product was just great."
Sixteen years later, Thompson has collected 43 journalism awards, including a George Foster Peabody Award she earned with Rash, the DuPont-Columbia University Award, the George Polk Award and the locally-prestigious Ted Yates Award. Over that time, she has developed a rule of thumb for her on-camera interviews: "Ask a question a minute," she will tell interns, "but they have to be the crucial questions -- we don't have time to ask extraneous questions to find out the facts." She also believes that "more important than a big story is to be right. I work in an area where I could do a lot of damage."
That, of course, means doing your homework. Thompson and her consumer unit took 14 months to do one investigative series, another took 20 months. One of the reports got 20 minutes of airtime without commercials -- a lot for a local story -- and another was given 13 minutes. Most are shorter.
Many of Thompson's stories -- she calls them "health" or "pocketbook" issues -- result in action. When former president Jimmy Carter signed the Infant Formula Act of 1980, he cited Thompson as being the impetus for the law. Her story on the dangers of baby formulas led to a national study on the nutrition of children and to congressional hearings. After finding that many hairdryers generated cancer-causing asbestos, she testified before both the House and the Senate, and asbestos is now banned in most consumer products, including hairdryers. A local report resulted in Giant Food's relabeling the meat it sold.
In 1975 her unit began an arrangement with George Washington University law school, using 45 law students each semester to help solve consumer cases brought to Thompson's attention. "The students got college credit and the opportunity to learn a lot, and we got a lot of work done," she said. The joint effort between GWU and WRC-TV became the prototype for other stations' consumer investigative units throughout the country. Between 1975 and 1981, Thompson said, "We had 150,000 to 175,000 cases that we brought to fruition . . . We were the largest consumer unit in the area."
Today, her consumer/investigative unit includes a couple of producers and an officer manager, plus five or so interns -- usually three local and others from colleges with intern programs ("like doing your junior year abroad"). Each year the unit updates "Byline: Lea Thompson," a free booklet of information about how to get help and how to get things done.
Thompson said she has enjoyed her work as a consumer advocate. "Some of the how-to-cope kind of stories I ended up doing were about people who were down and out, and I liked that . . . I found myself broadening them out -- 'This happened to the Smiths, don't let this happen to you.' "
But her career was on a roll. "I started to anchor and I was also doing a half-hour show. We would use one-half of 1 percent of the cases on the air. While we got some wonderful stories, overall I thought it was more important to get into bigger things. And frankly, I just couldn't do it all."
* Thompson's career at WRC-TV was well under way when she decided to have a child. At that time, in 1977, she said, not many women in broadcasting had risked taking time out from a demanding career to have a baby. "It wasn't in the rules or regulations or whatever, but frankly I was told that if I wanted to come back, I'd better leave a backlog of material to air ." She left 45 reports, and "when the last piece aired, they called me back."
Six weeks after the arrival of Laetitia (Tisha), now 8, then-news director Bruce McDonald called and asked her to return -- he would babysit. And he made good on his promise. He took the baby's pram into his office, turned out the lights, and gently rocked the pram to keep the baby asleep while he conducted a meeting -- in whispers -- with the station's technical engineers.
With Katrina, now 6, Thompson again left a backlog of material, but returned after eight weeks. Although she received no salary during the first maternity leave, "by the time my second baby came along, I got paid for that . . . By the time the third was born, the priorities were a little different. So it was more that the philosophy had changed." She filed no reports ahead, and spent three months with newborn Tenley, now 3.
"I'm just a normal mother," said Thompson. She tries to accompany each girl's class on a field trip each year, provides cookies for bake sales, drives carpools and carts the older ones to their weekend soccer games.
She is overseeing remodeling their home, which sits on four acres and shares with three neighboring houses a two-acre pond suitable for boating and fishing. Thompson said they bought the house mainly for its yard. "It's a nice home, but it's nothing special. We're trying to make it special."
Thompson said the family lifestyle works largely because of Mary Blake, their live-in housekeeper and mother of nine from Easton, Md., who provides a measure of security for the girls. After one series of reports Thompson did on certain meat packing companies that she says are Mafia-linked, she received threatening calls that mentioned her daughters by name. That time the family had police protection.
Because Thompson's face is so recognizable, even her daughters' friends sometimes ask her for autographs. "One thing I tell my kids is that it's important that their friends just think of me as just a mommy who goes to work like other mommies. It's terribly important to me that my kids are raised like I was, except that today everybody's mother works."
Arlington novelist Cara Saylor Polk, author of the recently published Images and wife of NBC-TV's Washington-based investigative reporter James Polk, says her friend Lea Thompson was in her mind when she wrote her story about a television anchorwoman. Not that Thompson is the model for the book -- to the contrary, said Polk, her character Marlena Williams sacrifices her marriage in favor of career advancement as she moves to ever larger television markets.
But Polk thinks that Thompson would like to spend more time with her family than her career allows. Thompson agrees: "If there's anything I wish I could do, it's to stop and smell the flowers. We just can't have more time."
Still, Lea Thompson seems driven to leave her mark. "I believe that people who do what I do can make a difference in the world. I love what I do. The greatest thrill is when I know that I've got a story. The rest of the world doesn't know it yet, but I do. And I've been very lucky. I have had some big stories. I've been lucky to find my niche . . . We both feel we've been very fortunate in our lives."