By Warren Francke
In Danville, Ill., they boast of native sons: Donald O’Connor, Gene Hackman, Dick and Jerry Van Dyke. Now another son of the Illinois-Indiana border, Reg Chapman, is making a name—in television news with WNBC in New York City.
But Chapman, 37, got his start in Omaha, where he is kid brother to John Chapman, weekend sports anchor at WOWT-TV. John “tried to talk him out of the news business.” But he’d eye all 6-4 of his “little” brother, and grumble, “I got to get that kid off my couch and out of my refrigerator.”
And, eventually, he did. But not before the kid brother became a Goodrich Scholar, started the Phi Beta Sigma fraternity, was crowned 1991 UNO Homecoming King and earned a degree in broadcasting. He gained part-time experience at KFAB, WOW, World-Herald sports and WOWT-TV. His big brother watched all this and gruffly asked almost daily: “How’s the kid doing?”
Well, the kid was doing all right. He was working weekends with veteran producer-photographer Roger Hamer (BS, 1990; MA, 1997) and taking a news video class from the man’s father, award-winning photographer Dave Hamer. Reg took brother’s advice and moved “down” to Sioux City, where he could learn more in a smaller market. After a year in Sioux City, he worked six in Dayton, Ohio, then in Pittsburgh, then Minneapolis—ever-larger markets. Since April of last year he’s been in the Big Apple.
Now he wakes up each morning in Weehawken, N.J., to a view of the Manhattan skyline. He jogs along the Hudson River and returns to his co-op apartment, where, on a recent cold Sunday, a water pipe had burst.
No, that’s not the prelude to pretending that life is hard on the mean streets of the metropolis. WNBC sends a black car each workday to drive him through the Lincoln Tunnel and deliver him to “30 Rock.”
He can laugh about it now when a news executive reminds, “Your eyes were as big as moons that first week.” But he remains far from blasé when talking about stargazing at NBC headquarters in Rockefeller Center. He finds himself riding the elevator to the seventh floor with Al Roker of the “Today Show” or spots “Late Night’s” Conan O’Brien in the commissary.
On this Sunday in January, the temperature had dropped 40 degrees and caused more problems than his frozen pipe. Word of power outages led him to worry about “some seniors without heat.” At midday, he expected a call to discuss story prospects. The black car would arrive at 1 p.m. and he’d work toward the big 11 p.m. newscast, deemed significant enough for staffing by top anchors.
Nothing happened that Sunday to match earlier tests of his talents. “Being a little country boy from Danville, I had to get over the shock of the big city.” The crash of a small plane on Coney Island gave him the chance “to prove to myself that I belonged there.”
“Go be live,” he was told, and his story led the next newscast. “I worked with an incredible crew.” He completed his live report and the seasoned photographer said, “You cut your teeth. You’re all good.”
Late last year, he covered the New York transit strike, live on the scene from 3 a.m. to 7 p.m. A news exec finally called to ask if he’d had a bathroom break. He had, thanks to a Mountain Dew bottle inside the news truck.
The chauffeur-driven commutes, for the safety of the staff, aren’t the only concession to big-city conditions. A “courier”—extra eyes, etc.—joins the team of reporter, photographer and truck operator at locations deemed dangerous.
But Reg Chapman hasn’t feared dying since landing in the Gulf War with the 82nd Field Hospital unit from Omaha. That fear was short-lived: “I said a couple of prayers and knew I’d make it home.”
Reg, John and two other brothers were raised Southern Baptists by their parents, John Sr. and Jerrie Chapman, wed for 48 years. “Wherever I go,” Reg said, “I find a new church home,” and those who know him recognize the importance of faith in his life. One negative: his fast-moving career has kept him from starting a family, though he has a woman friend.
Trained as an Army medic at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Reg came to visit brother John and family after he got out of the military. (Two of the elder Chapman’s children now attend UNO.) The rest is history: broadcasting and other classes led him to walk across the stage and receive his degree, which didn’t actually arrive until 2000 due to a mix-up with an adjunct professor.
Walt Kavanagh pushed him on the air at KFAB, UNO grads Eric Olson (BS, 1987) and Kirby Moss (BS, 1986) helped him get into sports at the World-Herald, and he worked at the Gateway newspaper with Herald photographer Jeff Bundy (BS, 1993) and others. “I’d known since 7th grade that I wanted to be a journalist,” and each opportunity added to that conviction.
Among the first “real tough” assignments was the disappearance and murder of North High student Kenyatta Bush, but the experience assured him “this is what I was supposed to do.” Roger Hamer recalls a lighter story where “he really kind of figured out” how to show a story visually with fewer words. “A deer had jumped through the window of a house. We were there for the capture and he understood that you don’t write too much.”
Reg moved up from KTIV-TV in Sioux City to Dayton when the WHIO-TV news director saw his story on a six-legged lamb. Like Mary’s little lamb, everywhere that Reggie went, the lamb was sure to go. His six years in Dayton included an expose of an inhumane animal shelter and his heading a county bureau.
The news director moved up to Pittsburgh and brought Chapman along, both for his reporting strength and his ability to bridge the gap to the minority community. Honored later for his volunteer service, he would cover the crash of Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001, and the rescue of coal miners in the same vicinity.
He rushed to the scene of the crash before the world knew of the heroism on board that day. He recalls “The devastation, the body parts . . . but what burns in my mind most was when the FBI agents formed a human chain at night fall to protect the bodies if animals came out of the woods.”
His “day” there turned out to be five days. Reg had already learned to “always keep a bag in my car—change of clothes, tooth brush, contact lens. You never know when you won’t come home.” A year later, he was back in the same area for the rescue of the miners—“an incredible experience with prayers and positive thoughts when everybody survived.”
After three years in Pittsburgh, he moved up to Minneapolis-St. Paul with KSTP-TV and covered the crash that claimed the life of U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone. The impact was personal; he’d met the Wellstones and found “both very encouraging.”
He reported the Columbine-like school shootings at the Red Lake Indian Reservation, and added to such honors as a regional Edward R. Murrow award and other reporting prizes.
Still, when the call came last spring, and WNBC News Vice President Dan Foreman asked, “How would you like to come to New York?” he was far from jaded by success. “I thought I’d cry.”
He called Omaha and told brother John, who reminded him of the day at Channel 6 “when he told me I could do anything I wanted to do. I’m so blessed to have a big brother.”
Yep, the kid’s doing fine.
Email author Warren Francke at email@example.com