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The Seattle Times | Pacific Northwest
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Pacific NW Cover Story Florangela Davila

Jean Enersen

stays steady at the top of a very volatile game

The answer is No.

Jean Enersen is not, it seems, ready to announce she's retiring, or that she's even considering it anytime soon.

When you ask around about her, that's the No. 1 thing people want to know.

Is the KING 5 newscaster, this region's first female anchor, the woman who's held the position for the last 35 years on the most storied (and currently No. 1) local station, calling it quits?

Her retirement, whenever that may be, will make headlines in the same way Natalie Jacobson, over at Boston's WCVB-TV, was a big story when she stepped down in July, after 35 years there. Jacobson's departure, it's believed, now makes Enersen the record-holder for longest female anchor in a single market anywhere in the country.

The Washington Post had mentioned her trailblazing in a story a year ago. So it seemed like a good time to check in with the person behind one of the most recognized faces in the state.

Here's the thing, though. It helps if the person opens up. Offers physical and emotional access to get that whole peeling-of-the-onion-to-find-something-real sort of thing.

It helps when the person lets you into her home, stroll in her garden, visit with her daughters. And along the way, over time, the person gets to talking about something significant, emotional, scary, frustrating — something that means something to her, shows who she is.

Otherwise, you might as well just publish a résumé.

The challenge with Enersen, however, is that this person we let into our homes when we flick on the TV at 5 (and 6:30) p.m. because we like the way she looks and sounds and we've come to trust her and the newscast that surrounds her — this person is, in fact, extremely guarded. Not arrogant, rude or cold. Rather, contained. Controlled. As if, well, as if the world were watching.

"My public life is my public life," she says, "and my private life is my private life."

JEAN ENERSEN IS, by several accounts, the most powerful person in local broadcast circles, if such a thing can be measured in terms of job, tenure, ratings, Q score — the measurement of how appealing someone is — and salary, the latter estimated, by those who might know, to be at least $250,000, her salary in 1997. She is more than likely the highest paid TV broadcaster in town.

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Jean Enersen: The Franchise, Queen Jean, Queen of KING, and, if you met her way back when, Jeanie.

"She's our go-to person," says her boss, KING news director Pat Costello. "If there's a big interview out there, we would like Jean to do it. When Warren Buffett and Bill Gates were in town, we wanted Jean. She's really good, and those are two big 'gets.' And we knew she'd do an interview and maybe show us a side of the two of them that we didn't know. And she did."

"She has a degree of credibility in this market enjoyed by no other anchor," says John Sandifer, a former KING broadcaster and now executive director of the local union representing on-air talent. "She's a genuine journalist, and a lot of anchors can't say that. She's a good journalist who also happens to be a good performer."

Enersen on how people say she's got so much sway: "I'd like to thank those people. I have no idea."

She did, while juggling a packed schedule, sit down for interviews, twice at a Tully's, twice at the station, allowing us to watch her right before and during a news broadcast. A myth: She has her own makeup artist. She does her own makeup, actually. So, does a naked face = the real Jean? Hard to say. She greets visitors at the station looking flawless: white shirt, black slacks, obedient short blond hair, face nicely groomed.

In fact, she's always looking faultless. It's not so much the outfits, but a certain poise. She's polished, more smooth than glossy, and it doesn't matter what the occasion is.

"Jean can have a pair of jean overalls on and a too-big sweater for her and she still looks like that was the plan. I don't see her sloppy," says C.J. Taylor, the former executive director of the local Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, and a close friend.

It helps that she's got a body to envy: 5 foot 6 and thin (some say even thinner now than before). A swimmer when she was a teen, Enersen remains devoted to a range of sports: running, swimming, biking, skiing. And it shows. No one looks better in a track suit than Jean Enersen. And when you learn her age — she turned 63 in June — you're impressed even more.

She's intensely health conscious, which makes her the breathing example of all the advice she imparts in her signature "HealthLink" segments. Fish, chicken, dark leafy greens; a diet of daily exercise which she fits into a busy schedule by being an early riser: 5 a.m. Two laps, say, around Green Lake with her workout soundtrack simply being her own observations. "I looked at groups of people," she said once about a recent run. "Every one of those faces has a story to tell."

She's tremendously efficient and organized, her friends note, the kind of person who actually gets her film developed and then puts the photos into albums.

Or, say, you're over at her house for (an always healthy) dinner and you offhandedly remark how much you like a certain dish.

By the time you're home there's an e-mail waiting with the recipe.

The word "thoughtful" gets tossed about by three friends (Taylor and two station producers, who'll not only team up with her to participate in the Danskin triathalon but who'll go to Enersen's house to watch "Grey's Anatomy." She also confesses to liking "The Daily Show," although she declines to say whether she thinks it's news. "I'll leave that for others to decide," she replies.)

Friend Pat Duggan, a KING producer, recalling a gracious Enersen: "I wasn't here very long at the station when I became embroiled in a child-custody lawsuit which was very nasty, and Jean stopped at my desk with a gift bag and a decorator pillow that said, 'The best is yet to come.' And she shared with me that someone gave it to her when she was going through a rough patch."

That's a nice anecdote worth exploring. Does she remember that decorator pillow and what that rough patch was?

She sits at a Tully's. She looks neither flustered nor put off. She just doesn't say a word.

Have you ever failed at anything? she's asked later, during a fifth visit.

"Oh, I'm sure I have," she says nicely enough, smiling, coming across as gracious.

Then, tick, tick, tick. A broadcast journalist's worst fear: dead air.

Like?

"I'm a lucky girl. I tend to focus on the positive."

Was there ever someone who was just hard to interview?

"Ronald Reagan was difficult. He had certain things he wanted to say, and he just kept saying those things and smiling."

JEAN ENERSEN has been on the air, in that anchor's chair, for a remarkable 35 years, and that just might be the reason she's so private.

Who else has sat in the glare of a TV spotlight — growing up, getting older — for so long?

Think about it: Three generations could likely point her out, or they'd at least have some inkling that she's somebody. Not even Charlie Royer, Ken Griffey Jr. or Sanjaya can say that. And sure, there's always Ichiro, now, but let's see twentysomethings single Ichiro out when he hits age 50.

She's technically not 100 percent from here, born in San Mateo, Calif., to Evelyn and Irving "Stan" Stanislaw while he served in the Navy. The family moved to Seattle when the children — older brother Miles now a construction claims litigator; younger sister Marie, a former Lakeside School teacher — were youngsters. First, Magnolia and Our Lady of Fatima; then, Mercer Island High School, where Enersen swam.

"I think she wanted to be Chris von Saltza," her sister recalls, naming the 1960 Olympics multiple gold-medalist swimmer as one of Enersen's earliest heroines. About her sister: "She always set her sights high and worked really hard."

And if there's a mantra in Enersen's life that explains why she's done what she's done, she'd say it is this: "I did what it took to get there."

She wanted to go to Stanford and she did, arriving after transferring from Pomona College.

She wanted a job when her Stanford Ph.D studies were abruptly thwarted (the Vietnam War spoiling her government scholarship), so she returned to Seattle, landing at KING's documentary-film production company in 1968.

The production unit folded one week later, though, which sent her into the KING newsroom, one of only two women at the time.

About those early days: "There was a photographer who wouldn't get out of the car to shoot. I'm new. He's twice my age. He only wanted to roll down his car window and shoot from the car. So I said, 'Don't you think we could get a better picture if you came out?' "

The scrutiny only intensified when the bosses promoted her to the 11 p.m. news-anchor slot, a gamble not only given her gender but because some in the newsroom considered her a third-rate reporter, author O. Casey Corr notes in his book about the broadcasting company. At the time then-news director Norm Heffron wanted a different, less formal look for the late-night news. He drafted Enersen who, Corr writes, had been stiff and clumsy in news but relaxed and warm as a talk-show host.

But if the higher-profile move wracked her in any way, if the bosses' exploit felt monumental, Enersen doesn't reveal.

"I'm pretty steady," she explains about the multitasking that is the job of a news anchor. Read this. Look at the camera there. Take in the director's voice through an ear piece. Ad-lib to a colleague and to commercial. And, of course, shine and steer and give perspective and ask the right questions, when it all hits the fan.

"This job is kind of like working in an E.R.," Enersen says. And she is, by several accounts, adroitly calm.

No one can recall her ever looking frazzled, cursing, throwing a tantrum, acting territorial, balking at an assignment or acting even remotely like a diva, for that matter, which might be excused, given her rank.

"I think you have to be mindful that you're in people's living rooms. How would you want to present yourself?" says Robert Mak, a KING political reporter and news show host, about being on air. "I think that's what Jean brings: She's someone you would want to invite to your home. She's someone you can relate to."

"When I worked with her I was always impressed by how hard she worked," says Aaron Brown, the former CNN anchor but to locals, forever one of ours for working a decade at KING and then five years at rival KIRO.

"To be honest, I would sometimes wing it," he said about working alongside her. "She won't wing it. She came to whatever it was, this, that, notebooks filled, ready to rock."

And whether luck, intuition or ambition drove Enersen in the first place she couldn't have chosen a more iconic place to embrace than KING-TV. Local TV didn't even exist before KING, then known as KRSC-TV, broadcast the state high-school football championship on Thanksgiving Day 1948. Author Daniel Jack Chasan chronicles the station's history in another book: The only station north of Los Angeles and west of Kansas City. The first independent station to bounce signals off a satellite.

Enersen was a twentysomething when she arrived at the 20-year-old station, and as KING's dominance grew, so did hers.

She rode an unprecedented era of TV newsgathering at the station, reporting and anchoring from all corners of the world. (She's got a slew of awards recognizing her work.) She's survived anchors, news directors, general managers and station owners (the Bullitt family; the Providence Journal Co.; currently Dallas-based Belo).

She continued working while others followed and put down their own roots (notably KOMO-TV's Kathi Goertzen. And because the public's scrutiny only goes so far, people mistake one blonde anchorwoman for the other. Enersen laughs: "I guess I'm flattered. I know people like her. And she's younger than I am.")

Enersen continued working while two marriages came to an end (with cameraman Dick Enersen, then businessman Paul Skinner); while she raised two daughters from her second marriage (Sarah and Jenny, both grown and in California); and after marrying Dr. Bruce Carter, president and CEO of ZymoGenetics, 10 years ago.

Carter is tight-lipped about their personal life, too, declining to say who set them up or even what a perfect date night might be.

"I won't go there," he says.

But to see the couple, others report, is to see a different side of Jean Enersen.

"When they're together she turns into a teenager with her boyfriend, and the way she looks at him I smile because I never see that side of her," a colleague says. "That's when she drops her guard."

Over the years, political office and NBC News have both come calling. Enersen filled in as host on "The Today Show" when Jane Pauley, back in 1986, took maternity leave.

But she says she never seriously considered running for office. "Look at the sacrifice Patty Murray made. Huge." Or, jumping to the more prestigious markets.

"Everybody thinks what else might I have wanted to do. But I like what I do."

She made up her mind to stay in Seattle right after her daughters were born, she says. She wanted to raise them here; to be close to family; to remain in a place that's so her.

"I'm from here. I love the outdoors. I like to swim. I like to hike, boat, garden. I'm so Northwest."

And to point out what else she is — smart, curious, loyal and yes, private — is to unmistakably identify her as ours.

JEAN ENERSEN, up as close as you can get, three views.

• 7:45 a.m. on a Saturday just outside Safeco Field. She's dressed in a track suit the color that hordes of people all around her wear: pink. Enersen is devoted to numerous community causes, including Komen's fight against breast cancer with its "Race for the Cure."

It's race time and she's chipper, reporting for the morning's newscast and emceeing the event. (KING-5 was a sponsor.) She's cheerful even though she didn't get to sleep until about 2 a.m. that morning, having gone to see a movie ("Nancy Drew") with her daughters who were in town to celebrate her birthday.

She always has a lot of energy, which makes right on the "Energizer Bunny" label her daughters give her.

"You are the cure!" she hollers at the crowd. But when she walks among people, they holler at her, their celebrity. For an autograph, a picture, a wave back.

• A weekday, sometime between the 5 and the 6:30 p.m. newscasts at KING-TV. Co-anchor Dennis Bounds is on vacation, so in his place is the 11 p.m. anchor, Lori Matsukawa, arguably the person who should inherit Enersen's mantle whenever that might be. (Enersen, when asked who should succeed her: "Good question! Ask Ray." Ray Heacox is the station's general manager.)

The basement studio is cold and empty, the automated cameras operated by a crew in a technical booth elsewhere. So it's just her and Matsukawa sitting behind an anchor desk. Matsukawa, dressed in a red suit, sports tennis shoes. Enersen, in that white blouse and black slacks, wears black pumps.

Women typically know the basics about the clothing they wear: where they bought it; the brand; how much something cost.

Where'd you get your shoes?

"New York."

Who makes them?

"I don't know."

Among women, it's not totally unheard of to slip off a shoe to look at its brand and pass along some useful tidbit — The best shoes are at J. Gilbert — in order to bond.

But Enersen's shoe stays put.

• 8 a.m. at a Tully's, some two weeks later for an interview. She arrives, and hands over a small purple bag filled with lavender stems.

A couple of her friends had already revealed that Enersen dreamed up these lavender sachets as a Komen fundraiser, plucking the lavender from her own Bainbridge Island garden as well as the yards of friends.

The bag is nice, but it's an unusual gesture because, in the news biz, it's generally understood that you don't take gifts from interview subjects.

It's a polite gesture, to be sure. A little formal but friendly. Yet what does it mean?

Hard to say.

Florangela Davila is a Seattle Times staff writer. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.

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