After decades as a TV news anchor in New York, Rolland Smith moved to California for his second act.  Credit: Alex Horvath

Think back to Rolland Smith and try not to think of a mustache — a great, luxuriant accessory to rival Tom Selleck's, and which would make him among New York's best-known news anchors of the '70s. 

But there was and is so much more to Smith, who retired nearly 20 years ago (2006) and now lives with his wife, Sue DiCicco, a sculptor and prominent children's book author and illustrator, in the town of Nipomo, California, about 70 miles northwest of Santa Barbara.

I recently caught up with Smith, 82, over three extended Zoom interviews. He had a stroke earlier this year but says he's mostly fine now. And on the pretext that it's cocktail time somewhere, he held up a glass of white wine during one of the calls. (Their home is also surrounded by vineyards, so when in Rome, I suppose.)

There's an air of tranquility with Smith, and it's not because of the wine or booming Pacific just a few miles away. He says he's been on a spiritual journey since the age of 16. A “recovering Catholic,” he jokes, he began writing poetry later in life as his youngest son and then-wife, Ann, were both dying of cancer. (She died in 2015.)

That helped bring him to a point on this journey where no New York TV anchor had ever been before: He says he now believes in reincarnation and still speaks to his son, Lee, who died nearly a quarter of a century ago. (He has two other adult sons, Gregg and Conan, who lives in Commack.) 

(Clockwise): Rolland Smith in the WWOR/9 newsroom in 1989; interviewing...

(Clockwise): Rolland Smith in the WWOR/9 newsroom in 1989; interviewing the Dalai Lama; interviewing Pope John Paul II; anchoring the WCBS/2 news.

To someone else, perhaps, these might seem like coping mechanisms, but to Smith, they're the bedrock of his life and career. He often threaded lines of his poetry into newscasts, and in the years after 9/11, closed broadcasts with elegiac (and Emmy-winning) tributes to victims and survivors' families. Their prevailing theme was that people are essentially good and the universe bound by love. Smith has published three poetry books and, since retirement, has frequently lectured.

Born the day before the attack on Pearl Harbor, he was raised in upstate New York — his father was an engineer with GE involved in the war effort. He went to Ithaca College, then began his broadcast career with stops in Syracuse and Indianapolis (where he anchored and reported from Vietnam) before joining WNEW/5 (now WNYW) as White House correspondent in 1969.

By 1971, he was at WCBS/2 where he reported and co-anchored alongside Dave Marash, Vic Miles, Michele Marsh and Jim Jensen. Not long after leaving in 1986, he co-anchored the ill-fated “Morning Program” on CBS with the actress Mariette Hartley, then closed out his career at WWOR/9, with a four-year run as an anchor in San Diego in between stints there.

The following conversation been edited for length and clarity.

Were you born into a large, Irish Catholic family?

I'm an only child — my mother lost three, two before me and one after, so I was considered a miracle baby when I was born, and was several weeks premature and at a few days old, had a double hernia strangulation operation. My dad said I was the size of a milk bottle, so my mother, being the Irish religious lady she is, promised Saint Anne, that if I survived, they'd take me [on a pilgrimage] to [the Basilica of] Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré in Quebec before I was 12. Which they did.

What was it like growing up in small-town upstate New York back then?

You know, the 1950s were bucolic [there]. Basically the Korean War had ended, Eisenhower was president, Kennedy was elected. I graduated high school [in Oneida] in1960.

What was the career goal after college?

Rolland Smith enjoys his home which backs up to a vineyard...

Rolland Smith enjoys his home which backs up to a vineyard in Nipoma California. Credit: Alex Horvath

I wanted to be a CBS correspondent. While I was in Indianapolis, they asked me if I'd be willing to go to Vietnam and do what was called “home-towners” — profiles on 18, 19, 20-year-old GIs from Indiana. When I went there as a reporter, I was accredited as an officer, which meant you got to fly on military aircraft, so I was all over the country, from Khe Sanh, to the Mekong Delta, to the Ticonderoga aircraft carrier in the Gulf of Tonkin … Sometimes you also got caught up in the national story of the day and that's kind of what happened with me. I did a lot of stuff. I also met [Walter] Cronkite for the first time, when he was dining with his producer at the Hotel Caravelle in Saigon.

What happened when you got back stateside?

In 1969, I got an offer to go to WABC in New York, which I took, then another from [Ch. 5 owner] Metromedia to be their White House correspondent. I wanted that one, and Al Primo [who had just launched 'Eyewitness News'] was not very happy.

Then?

After a year I was in New York as a United Nations correspondent, and one day wanted to come in late because one of my sons was the lead in his third-grade play. But somehow that message never got to the news director and when I got to work later that day, he was furious. He had a temper and I had a little bit of an Irish temper, too. We had a shouting match and he ended up firing me in the middle of the newsroom.

John Roland [the veteran Ch. 5 anchor who died last May] called a friend, an assistant news director at Ch. 2, to tell him I'd been fired, and an hour after I got home, I got a call asking if I'd like to go work there. Started two weeks later.

And so begins a long run.

Smith on the precipice of Mount St. Helen's in Washington state...

Smith on the precipice of Mount St. Helen's in Washington state in 1980. 

Ch. 2 and CBS News always thought of themselves as the “broadcast of record,'' with a combination of network and local news people all working together — but I was hired as a reporter and weekend anchor until they took me off that job because they thought I looked too young. So, by the time they wanted to make another change a couple years later, I'd grown a mustache to try to look older. I co-anchored the 6 with Dave Marash and he had a full beard.

You and Marash were quite the team.

I was the buttoned-up one, with suit and tie, and Dave was the bearded guy who worked in his shirt sleeves. He was a brilliant journalist and excellent ad-libber who could make sense of just about anything. One of the most intelligent people I've ever had the pleasure of working with.

Why the mustache? 

To look older, and the '70s was the era of Mark Spitz, as you'll recall. But there was a time when I went on vacation and shaved it off, and on the night I got back on the air, that generated several thousand calls to the station from viewers who complained, or to say that I looked much better without it.

In 1975, you were paired with Jim Jensen — a New York TV news icon at the time. How'd you both get along?

Never had an issue or heated discussion with any of my partners. It's just my philosophy, to not let your ego get in the way of the job, and be appreciative of those who tune in and be respectful of your colleagues. We're all here to just do a job.

Smith interviewed President George H.W. Bush at the White House.

Smith interviewed President George H.W. Bush at the White House. Credit: Rolland Smith Collection

Nevertheless, he had a lot of emotional and substance abuse problems over those years. How'd you handle that?

I helped him in any way I could. He was always courteous and professionally supportive of me. I did the best I could with the situation as I perceived it to be at that moment, whether on the air or off the air. All I could do as his friend was to listen, and that's always helpful to people. No judgment. Just listen. Be helpful if you can or if a request is made, and I'd do the best I could. But Jim and I remained friends long after I left CBS. You know, Jim lost a son to a hang gliding accident, and when Lee was going through his brain cancer, and I was working in San Diego, Jim would call every two weeks and ask how Lee was doing. It was a great relationship all those years and a dynamic one.

You abruptly left in 1986 with no explanation at the time. What happened?

There was a [news] management change and I decided I wanted to do something different. But I had nothing in mind. I just decided I was going to let the universe help to tell me where I should go next.

Ah, the universe led you to the failed “Morning Program” — with comic elements [Bob Saget was a host] and even Mariette Hartley's dog. Regrets?

Rolland Smith with his colleagues from CBS' short-lived "The Morning...

Rolland Smith with his colleagues from CBS' short-lived "The Morning Program." From left: Mark McEwen, Smith, executive producer Bob Shanks, Mariette Hartley and Bob Saget.

It was run by the entertainment division and the news division did not like that at all, so they wanted that time slot back. I think corporate skulduggery plays a part in all changes [like this]. [But] I loved doing it and humor plays a very important part in understanding the global gestalt … But some things just take time. I got along with Mariette too, but she had more contractual control over the program, and could choose whoever she wanted to interview even though a news interview should have been rightfully mine.

It ended abruptly after 10 months. What then?

Again, I had no idea what I was going to do, but put feelers out — without an agent or publicist — and got a call from Ch. 9.

You would spend the next five, presumably happy, years there. Why leave?

I was told management wanted to lower my salary [Smith was making around $600,000, and his bosses wanted to cut that in half, per press reports; his annual salary exceeded $1 million during his peak years at Ch. 2]. I said that's their right, but I will not be here. I won't take less. I'll just go someplace else.

Enter KNSD, San Diego, the NBC affiliate.

It was a wonderful place to end a career.

While there, in 1993, you get the worst conceivable news: Your son has been diagnosed with brain cancer.

I was told Lee had a maximum of five years of life left, so I decided that I should try to accelerate the spiritual teachings a father would share with his son over the course of a normal lifetime. I told my wife I'm taking a trip up the coast of California and stopping at every place I can to meditate. I would write down some notes, and then when I got back to my car realized I had written something in almost perfect iambic pentameter [the basic meter of English poetry] and from that moment on, everything I said to anyone was in the form of a poem, or I'd write copy for the evening newscast in iambic pentameter. But I was trying to deal with Lee, and had started to write him letters on spiritual teachings in a quest to understand what life was all about.

He was extraordinarily receptive to it all. I wrote in the preface of my first book [published in 1995], “what inspires a … broadcast journalist to dwell in a poetic world? The quick answer is a balance to the daily tragedy of life …”

He was undergoing treatment in New York?

No, he was in Denver, and married. He was one of these free spirits who love to ski, and was learning to be a sommelier at a restaurant. But he had no insurance. So I decided I needed to get back to New York to make more money. That's the catalyst of leaving San Diego. I put out feelers when my contract was up, came back to become managing editor for a regional cable news network, RNN, then after two years went back to Ch. 9. Lee died a short time afterward.

In fact, you announced his death at Jensen's memorial service?

Right. I said I am here today among friends and former colleagues to honor a man [but] I have a very heavy heart because two weeks ago my son died …

How'd you keep it together?

Because I knew at that moment that only his body had died — his spirit, essence and mind were totally intact on the other side. I don't believe that — I know it. And so, he's not dead, only his body died. So I'm OK with that.

What are you up to now?

Just sent the first half of a new book to my publisher, and I'm concentrating on recovering from the stroke. For me, it's part speech, although my therapist says I sound like anybody. I have a higher standard because obviously my profession. The book's a collection of writings through the years including posts on Facebook — I have volumes of writings saved up. The working title is “Words and Wonder.”


 

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