Signing off: Roger Weber caps a 37-year career at WDIV

Susan Whitall
The Detroit News

You won't find a drop of perspiration on Roger Weber. The veteran WDIV TV reporter is as cool as a tall glass of ice water whether he's facing a hostile witness, an angry dog or a producer telling him his live shot was bumped from 5 p.m. to 6.

On this muggy day in Ferndale, the newsman's lavender shirt and gray pinstripe pants are impossibly crisp as he sits in the Local 4 truck tapping away on his laptop. He's crafting a report about a woman who found her stolen purse and the thief who took it, thanks to social media. Working quickly, he's creating a perfect balance of words and images, sketching out time for his live standup, as well.

Yes, he writes. It's Weber's favorite part of the job, unless he's overloaded with stories and fighting a deadline. As the reporter, he has to construct the story, placing everything — narrative, film clips and live shot — in a certain sequence.

"I think sometimes viewers think we just stand up and talk," said Weber, 64.

He's heard a lot of crazy stuff from viewers over 37 years at WDIV, covering stories including the crash of Flight 255, the Kevorkian trial and the city of Detroit's meltdown, in a career he is winding up Friday.

Passersby like to bang on the window of the Channel 4 truck. Weber rolls the window down and politely answers the inevitable, "What's going on?"

After sitting in the parking lot of the Ferndale Wendy's for half an hour logging tape and writing, Weber and cameraman/producer Sunny Shields drive a few blocks away, park the truck and walk through an alley, looking for a particular trash can where the thief tossed the woman's purse.

"This is the glamorous part of the job," Weber quipped. As far as looking fresh, "I don't think about looking presentable," he said. "I think about surviving."

His survival pack is his briefcase. It's slimmer now, but in the winter it's stuffed with long underwear, extra gloves and socks. Weber is agnostic on winter hats, which can cause problems for TV reporters. Former WXYZ (Channel 7) reporter Cheryl Chodun was known for wearing a fluffy white winter hat when she was on a live shot.

"You can't win with hats," Weber opined. "In the winter, if you wear one of those big Arctic-looking hats, it's distracting. But if you don't wear a hat, that also bothers the viewers. They want to know, 'Why can't he wear a hat?' "

As a reporter, Weber is the quintessential generalist. He loves telling stories, thrives on variety and never throws a fit over an assignment. He's reported on Lenten fish fries, child murders, the statues of Detroit, and a fellow who writes 20 postcards a day.

News of his retirement caused one competitor, Fox 2 News reporter M.L. Elrick, to post a humorous, heartfelt tribute on Facebook. Elrick pointed out that while Weber's retirement was bad news for Detroit TV viewers, it was good news for Fox 2 and Channel 7.

"Roger is a great reporter, a true journalist and very creative," said Chodun, who is preparing to teach broadcasting at Madonna University in the fall. "If we were on the same story, and and one of us arrived later than the other, you would kind of lay out the basics of what might have happened at the scene to the other person."

"It's mostly cordial," Weber agreed. "If someone's late to the scene, you'll warn them about a hostile witness, and they'd do the same for you."

Over the years, the stories he's done on veterans have been particularly important to him.

"I love it when Roger sits down with people from another era, when he talks to World War II veterans, or somebody who likes to talk about maybe the 1950s on an auto line," said WDIV anchor/reporter Devin Scillian, who sits next to Weber in the newsroom.

"He finds a way to bring alive what should be very yellowed, antiquated stories; they really come alive in his hands. Part of that is his skill as a writer, part of it is the way he talks to people when he's doing stories, what he's able to draw out of people about their experiences."

Why hang it up, when he so clearly enjoys reporting? Weber sighs. "I'm 64 now. I'm young enough and healthy enough, and I don't have to worry about finances. The daily pace can be wearying."

He thinks he's lasted this long because WDIV lets him do the features he loves, making the daily grind of fires, freaks and murders more palatable.

"I did a story on the statues of Detroit," Weber said. "How many news directors would say 'Sure, go ahead and do that? ' "

A calm, thoughtful reporter

Born in the Boston area, Weber was just a few weeks old when his father died. His mother ended up moving with her three boys to Stoney Ridge, Ohio (near Toledo), to be close to her family.

A line he enjoys quoting from David McCullough's recent book "The Wright Brothers" is what Wilbur Wright said when asked about the secret to success:

"Pick a good father and mother, and start life in Ohio." (The newsman, a history buff, calls McCullough "my rock star" and was in the audience June 10 when he spoke at The Henry Ford.)

Weber was 17 in 1968, a tumultuous year for news that had a profound impact on him.

"LBJ, George Wallace, Richard Nixon, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. It was the year Russia invaded Czechoslovakia, and the riots happened at the Democratic convention. Then around Christmas time, Apollo 8 orbited the moon. It was one of the most amazing years."

As a Bowling Green State University journalism student, Weber started working a paid job at public station WBGU-TV in 1972 before being hired by Channel 24 in Toledo. He later jumped to Channel 13 in Toledo.

Weber laughs, thinking about the changes in technology over the last 40 years. One TV job that doesn't exist is booth announcer, something his wife, Corinna, was doing at Channel 13 when they met.

"Booth announcers were people in a padded cell with a microphone who did live announcements for commercials," Weber said. "And I may be the last on-air guy who edited film. When you edit film, you're tearing it apart after it comes out of the processor, and you're gluing it together. When I tell the young reporters, they say 'You did what?' "

When he was in Toledo, there were no live shots, they would have to take the film back to the station and edit it. "The film had to go through the chemicals and dry out and you had to piece it together. You had to be careful how much film you shot. If you shot more than 400 feet of sound film, you could get in trouble."

In 1978, WWJ-TV (the station changed its call letters to WDIV later that year) scooped Weber out of Toledo. He hit the ground running when he walked into the station.

"Roger was like a breath of fresh air — so good, so confident right off the bat," said Bob Giles, who was assignment manager at WWJ-TV then. "He was like a rookie you bring in at 20 years old for his first major league appearance, and he hits a home run. He's the ultimate storyteller, and can construct sentences in quality, conversational English."

Matt Friedman, who produced WDIV newscasts from 1996-'98, said Weber is a "gentleman."

"News can be a frantic and loud environment, but working with Roger was neither. He's very calm, very thoughtful. He was definitely one of my favorite reporters to work with, because I knew we could talk to each other very openly about putting stories together during the course of a day, and he'd never get frazzled."

Weber said he's "wide open" about his post-retirement plans, although he wants to do videos documenting family histories, "interviewing a patriarch or a matriarch in a professional way."

He and Corinna have two grown children: Ashley, a French teacher; and Owen, a video producer and comic writer/performer. Weber said he hopes to spend more time in retirement taking walks with Corinna, gardening at his Farmington Hills home, golfing and fly fishing on the Au Sable.

Without the demands of breaking news, "I'll have the freedom to do what I want to do," Weber said. He's had to reschedule many dinners because a story ran late or took him to a distant exurb. "Corinna is so patient about these things," he said.

Mr. Unflappable

Weber and Shields have now moved the Local 4 truck to Garden Fresh Gourmet on Nine Mile. It's the day the Campbell's Soup acquisition of the Ferndale company for $231 million was announced, and Weber hopes to talk to Garden Fresh's CEO. Sitting in the parking lot, he opens a lunch bag packed with military precision and peels a banana.

Discussing a particularly vicious recent murder, he offers detail, as reporters will do. "She was cut up with a Leatherman utility knife," he said.

Does it ever get easier, reporting stories like that?

"I don't think so," Weber said. "If you reach the point where you say it's easy, now you've lost empathy. If you lose empathy, you're not dealing with the victim's families very well."

But empathy is tricky.

"I think it's something you don't show on the air," he said.

It sometimes seems as if he'd prefer to tell the story without being seen in it.

"When you're live, it eats into the time you have to tell the story," Weber said. "But I realize, for us, (the live standup) is like a byline."

Tell Weber that his bosses and co-workers describe him as unflappable, and you will get a rise out of him.

"I deny that!" he roared.

He added, turning serious: "What you don't see is when things go wrong. It can be very intense, and a logistical challenge to pull all this together. The trick is not showing it."

Roger's greatest hits

■Roger explores the provenance of the statues of Detroit.

■A report on the Great Lakes Military Cemetery in Holly.

■A story about a couple celebrating their 70th wedding anniversary that earned Roger a regional Edward R. Murrow Award.

■An Iwo Jima vet meets the son of a Marine who served with him.