Lester Holt returning to CSUS for honorary degree, commencement speech

Lester Holt, seen when he was an MSNBC anchor, left California State University, Sacramento, after two years to work at KCBS radio in San Francisco. From there, he has advanced to prominence at NBC.
Lester Holt, seen when he was an MSNBC anchor, left California State University, Sacramento, after two years to work at KCBS radio in San Francisco. From there, he has advanced to prominence at NBC. MSNBC

Lester Holt Sr. was concerned in 1979 when he learned that his son was planning to drop out of California State University, Sacramento, to work at a San Francisco radio station. But he wasn’t as worried as his wife, June.

“She predicted poverty and failure,” he said with a laugh.

But the Rancho Cordova couple gave their blessing, firm in the belief that Lester Jr. would go far with hard work, talent and a likeable personality in his chosen field of broadcast journalism.

Today, the younger Holt is well known to millions of viewers as a veteran reporter and hardworking understudy in the role of anchor at NBC News. In addition to substituting for Brian Williams on the flagship “Nightly News” program, he has co-hosted the weekend “Today Show” since 2003 and led the weekend “Nightly News” since 2007. He also has hosted “Dateline” since 2011.

His star has climbed even higher as the interim face of “NBC Nightly News” since early February, when Williams was suspended for six months for exaggerating his reporting experience in the Iraq War.

“He was just a typical teenager, a joy to be around,” Lester Sr. recalled about his namesake. “He was not headstrong, but he had this desire to be a journalist and to work hard and make something of himself. There was no doubt in my mind about that. Whatever he puts his mind to, that’s what he will do.”

On Saturday, Lester Holt will return to Sacramento State to receive an honorary doctorate and speak at the commencement ceremony for the College of Arts and Letters, where he enrolled after graduating from Cordova High School in 1977. He studied journalism and government for two years before leaving to work at KCBS radio in San Francisco.

He and other candidates were nominated for the honor by a committee representing CSUS students, faculty and alumni, professor Jacqueline Irwin said. The selection of Holt was made by the California State University board of trustees.

“My students were incredibly excited to hear that he’s coming,” said Irwin, who teaches communications studies. “Our students are very excited to have someone who has come from this area and has really made his way in the world. That’s what Sac State students hope to do as well.”

Holt has indeed gone far since since he worked as a part-time DJ at KRAK radio and interned at KCRA Channel 3 while in high school. He spent almost two decades as a reporter and anchor at major CBS affiliates in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

He joined NBC in 2000 and won industry praise for his steady presence and remarkable stamina anchoring wall-to-wall coverage of the Iraq War on 24-hour cable news channel MSNBC. In 2003, he was named substitute anchor for Williams on “NBC Nightly News.” His reputation as a reliable, go-to guy for the network led to additional jobs as weekend anchor on “Today” and “Nightly News” and host of “Dateline.”

According to Nielsen, ABC’s “World News Tonight” won the ratings race last week with 7.7 million viewers. NBC’s “Nightly News” placed second with 7.6 million viewers.

Now, Williams’ fate is up in the air as NBC investigates allegations that he exaggerated additional experiences. Meanwhile, Holt has held his own in the anchor chair as a familiar face with a steady presence and a direct delivery in front of the camera.

More importantly from a business standpoint, Holt has kept ratings high in the evening news competition against ABC’s David Muir and CBS’ Scott Pelley. Although NBC has lost the longtime grip on the top spot that it held with Williams as the anchor – and the contest has been a pingpong match with ABC’s “World News Tonight” in recent weeks – Holt is widely praised by industry watchers for stepping in at a difficult time for NBC and doing relatively well.

“He’s done a masterful job of showing up, doing the job, keeping the ratings consistently high and not trying to be more than he is,” said Judy Muller, a broadcast news veteran and professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. “He’s a steady hand that has righted the ship.”

According to Nielsen Media Research, ABC’s “World News Tonight” won the ratings race last week with 7.7 million viewers. NBC’s “Nightly News,” which held top spot for the two previous weeks, placed second with 7.6 million viewers. “The CBS Evening News” came in third with 6.6 million viewers.

As NBC officials continue to weigh Williams’ fate after his suspension, notice of Holt’s solid work continues to grow. Earlier this week, entertainment trade publication Variety ran a column with a headline that read, “NBC Should Forget Brian Williams and Start Promoting Lester Holt.”

If Holt became the permanent anchor for “Nightly News,” it would be a historic move for the network and Holt. He would become the first solo African American anchor of a major broadcast network newscast. (Max Robinson, a pioneering African American TV journalist, was co-anchor of “World News Tonight” with Peter Jennings and Frank Reynolds from 1978 to 1983.)

History-making aside, Holt’s track record as a seasoned journalist speaks for itself. He has reported in the field on major stories from war zones from Afghanistan and Lebanon; earthquakes in Haiti and Japan; streets inundated by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans; and communities seething with tensions following police shootings of African Americans in Baltimore and North Charleston, S.C.

Supporters are pulling for Holt because they say he is the same person when the TV camera is on and off – a decent, likeable guy. Born in 1959 in Marin County to parents who moved and raised their three children in Rancho Cordova, he was a popular classmate who sang in the choir and played in the band at Cordova High School.

“At NBC News, from the lowest intern – who was in my class – to very well-known correspondents and reporters, what they all say is that Lester is one of the nicest guys you could work for,” Muller said. “I get that over and over again. Between Brian Williams and Lester Holt, Lester is the one who will ask how your family is and who will remember your kids’ names.”

Robert D. Dávila: (916) 321-1077, @Bob_Davila