Jim Vance lived a very good life, and he knew it.
So Tuesday’s memorial service for James Howard Vance III — known to friends, colleagues and viewers simply as “Vance” — was an affectionate, lighthearted tribute to the beloved Channel 4 anchor who died in July at 75.
The two-hour service at Washington National Cathedral was as close to a party as you could have in such grandiose surroundings. There was lots of music, laughter and a guest list of Washington’s broadcasting and political elite: the entire Channel 4 family, of course, plus Gordon Peterson, Paul Berry, Arch Campbell, Chris Matthews, Katie Couric, Willard Scott, Mayor Muriel Bowser, former attorney general Eric Holder and Redskins quarterback Sonny Jurgensen.
A line of Harley-Davidson motorcycles lined the plaza in front of the cathedral, and jazz filtered out the open doors.
“For 28 years, I got to sit next to the coolest guy in Washington, and for that I am very, very grateful,” Doreen Gentzler, his co-anchor since 1989, told the audience. “I looked up to him, I learned from him, I laughed with him, sometimes I laughed at him, I argued with him. And we always had each other’s backs, on the air and off the air.”
For more than four decades, Vance dominated local airwaves with his expansive smile, his effortless delivery, and a style that made him one of the most popular men on TV. He became friends with everyone he met — and many he never met — and remained essentially the same guy throughout his life: talented, funny, complicated, honest and cool with a capital C.
And so he became a mentor to thousands of African American men, especially in the broadcast industry.
“Not only was he a trailblazer, he did it on his own terms,” said NBC’s Craig Melvin, who first met Vance in 2008 as a new hire at WRC. “He was unapologetically black. And he was also, of anyone I’ve ever met or known, the most comfortable in his own skin.”
“The powers that be wanted Jim to cut his hair, wear it a little shorter. Jim grew an Afro,” said radio personality Donnie Simpson. “They wanted him to change his mustache. He grew a beard. That’s Vance.”
Gentzler was newly paired with Vance in 1990 when Mayor Marion Barry was arrested for possession of crack cocaine. It was a huge story, and everyone wanted an exclusive interview. Barry called Vance, who had been open about his own addiction problems, and asked to meet with him privately for advice — no notebook, no cameras.
The bosses at WRC, concerned that it might look bad for the station, didn’t want Vance to go. He went anyway.
“I remember thinking at the time, ‘Wow. That guy is a real badass,’ ” said Gentzler. “To Vance, the person in need was more important than the scoop.”
One of the newsman’s greatest contributions to his adopted city, said a number of speakers, was his willingness to talk about his struggles with addiction and depression — a kind of honesty that helped thousands of others battling the same demons. But there were also plenty of stories about Vance’s playful side. Melvin remembered the night that Vance, offering to give the then-rookie career advice, promised him a great steak dinner but lured him to Camelot, Washington’s most famous strip club. (“The steaks weren’t half bad,” cracked Melvin.) Gentzler recounted how Vance would moon (off-camera) strait-laced weatherman Bob Ryan during live weather reports.
He especially loved to make sportscaster George Michael laugh. The two are immortalized in a YouTube video (with 19 million hits and counting) cracking up over a Paris model falling on the runway.
The only problem? None of the speakers were half as good at telling stories as Vance, who would have had the crowd on the floor if he were telling the tales.
Vance told viewers in May that he was battling cancer, and he died two months later — but not before he was enshrined on the mural at Ben’s Chili Bowl, one of the greatest of his many honors. A couple of weeks before he died, he found some notes he had written three years earlier:
“Who gets to live to 72 years old before the fog of doubt and self revulsion has lifted?” he wrote. “Heart is healed, soul is free and eyes open to the wonders of an extraordinary life? This guy does.”
‘What a perfect summation of the journey his life represented,” said his stepson, Brendon Pinkard, at the service. “And what a soothing assurance that his long journey ended in a place of peace, comfort and gratitude for a life well lived.”
The memorial ended with a second-line recessional by the Jefferson Street Strutters, who led the congregation out onto the sun-filled plaza to the sounds of jazz.
A cool finale for the coolest guy in Washington.