Broadcast journalist Tom DuHain will say goodbye to KCRA Channel 3 today after a 46-plus year run in which he became a fixture in Sacramento-area living rooms.
“It’s been much more than a job; it’s been a lifetime,” DuHain said earlier this week, sitting in a conference room off the KCRA newsroom. “I’m going off into uncharted waters to find a new normal. My wife (Susan Kennedy-DuHain) just retired from UC Davis, and our goal is to find the things we like to do, now that we have the time to do them together.”
DuHain, 64, has been a much-respected fixture in the Sacramento media market and a familiar face to generations of viewers. His straightforward style and authoritative voice have brought gravitas to KCRA’s news broadcasts.
“Every newsroom needs a Tom DuHain – somebody who has the institutional knowledge and integrity, and knows where to find the stories,” said KCRA news director Lori Waldon. “Some may watch him work and say it’s old school, but it’s really just good journalism.”
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“He’s a legend who has survived all kinds of changes,” said media observer Barbara O’Connor, emeritus professor of communications at Sacramento State. “He is among TV’s trusted authority figures.”
DuHain became interested in broadcasting at an early age. At 15, he had a back condition that put him in a brace “from my waist to my chest for almost two years,” he recalled. “Like any (teenager) I wanted to get a job, but I (wasn’t mobile). Someone said to me, ‘You ought to go on the radio and just sit there and talk into a microphone.’”
DuHain moved quickly and acquired an FCC broadcasting license. By age 16, he had found jobs at local radio stations. Two years later he went to KCRA as a full-time news-radio assistant while attending American River College. (At the time, KCRA owned an AM radio station.)
DuHain struck up a friendship with KCRA star meteorologist Harry Geise, who told him, “I need an assistant, so let me teach you everything you need to know about meteorology,” according to DuHain. A few months later, he was filling in for Geise during the weatherman’s vacations. DuHain ultimately assumed his mentor’s role from 1969 through 1979, when he shifted to the news side.
DuHain had other jobs at the TV station, as co-host of the pioneering news magazine “The 7:30 Show,” and as a daily news anchor and reporter with several beats, including utilities and energy, one that provided huge opportunities.
“One day (in 1979) I was told, ‘There’s been an accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania. We have twin reactors south of town – go there.’”
That directive resulted in DuHain covering the Sacramento Municipal Utility District’s Rancho Seco Nuclear Generating Station for 10 years, at one point broadcasting “the first live shots from within a reactor building,” he said.
On that beat, DuHain was “very fortunate to find a conscientious SMUD employee at the power plant who had serious concerns about its safe and competent operation,” he said. “He was afraid there would be a nuclear accident. He led me to other contacts, and I began hearing a lot of stories.”
Those “stories” culminated in DuHain’s one-hour special in 1981, “Trouble at Twin Towers,” which delved deeply into the plant’s disturbing operational issues.
In 1984, a power plant employee was arrested for distributing drugs at the facility. “Out of the blue her boyfriend called me and spilled the beans about the widespread distribution and use of cocaine and marijuana at the plant,” DuHain said. “What really caught our attention was when he said, ‘Oh, and we delivered drugs to the control room, too.’
“The issue was so explosive that I contacted the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s head of security for the Western region and briefed him before we went on the air (with a live five-part prime-time series),” DuHain said. A public referendum led to the closure of the plant in 1989.
Dozens of other reporting highlights have marked DuHain’s career, including the “profound experience” of spending a week reporting on Palestinians in the Middle East in 1984. “I’ve had guns pointed at me in a couple of places, and that was one of them,” he said. For that one, the National Council of Christians and Jews awarded him a Gold Medallion, its highest national award.
On the lighter side, “I got to do two series (for which) I should have paid the station.” One was a five-part special on Windham Hill Records, “which started out of a garage in Auburn” and became a major force in the new-age, acoustic and folk music worlds. “We profiled (founder) Will Ackerman, his company and its artists. We went to recording studios in L.A. and to Ackerman’s home in Marin County, and went on a raft trip on the American River with him and some of his people.”
DuHain went behind the scenes at Paramount Studios for two specials on the “Star Trek” TV franchise. “I was a kid in a candy store,” he said. “I went on the set and got to sit in the captain’s chair and say, ‘Make it so.’ ”
But the world turns, and DuHain has seen his share of changes at KCRA and in the news business in general, including the shift into the digital universe.
“It’s been a learning curve,” he said. “I’ve been flexible and adaptable, and have recognized that different owners and managers want different styles. As changes have occurred, I’ve been renewed in the process. Part of (surviving change) is periodically getting yourself recommitted and recharged, though basically I’ve been the same person doing the same job.”
Once off the job, DuHain will most miss the camaraderie with his colleagues when big news is breaking, and the “excitement and satisfaction of being successful with reporting in the field. I’ll also miss going places and meeting people. That’s stimulating.”
What he won’t miss is the daily grind. “There is pressure every day, and after a while it’s wearing,” he said. “This is a young person’s game, and you don’t see people my age in the newsroom anymore.”
Tonight during its 6 o’clock broadcast, KCRA will air DuHain’s “goodbye speech” in the form of a video touching on his career highlights.
Part of that will reveal “the one story I’ve always wanted to cover, but could never convince the last three news directors to let me do it. I have video and pictures from the location, though, which is across the country. There’s a Sacramento connection, and longtime Sacramento residents will be amazed.”
As for the stories he has covered along the way, DuHain said, “I’ve tried to remember they involve real people experiencing real events. There’s a human side do it. I’ve found that most people are good and honest, and respond well to kindness.”