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Cordova High’s Lester Holt fills in for NBC anchor Brian Williams during suspension

Cordova High School band drummer Rocky Burris chats with 1977 graduate Lester Holt, left, of NBC News during band rehearsal in May 2004. Holt visited Cordova as part of a “Today Show” segment in which reporters visited their high schools.
Cordova High School band drummer Rocky Burris chats with 1977 graduate Lester Holt, left, of NBC News during band rehearsal in May 2004. Holt visited Cordova as part of a “Today Show” segment in which reporters visited their high schools. Sacramento Bee file

When “NBC Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams was suspended Tuesday, the network selected a familiar face with Sacramento-area roots as its substitute anchor: Lester Don Holt Jr., pride of Cordova High School, class of 1977.

Williams was given a six-month suspension following his admission that he falsely claimed that he was in a helicopter that had been hit by a rocket-propelled grenade while in Iraq in 2003. He voluntarily took himself off the newscast Saturday, and Holt was initially tapped as a temporary fill-in.

Television industry watchers say it’s not surprising that the network turned to Holt to calm the waters and retain viewers. Holt, 55, is well known to television viewers for his many roles during a 15-year career at NBC. He has been co-host of the weekend “Today” shows for the past dozen years, the weekend “NBC Nightly News” since 2007 and hosts the news magazine “Dateline.”

It was also not a surprise to two people in Sacramento who know him very well: his parents, June and Lester Holt Sr.

“His nickname is ‘Iron Pants’ because he is in the anchor chair so much,” his father said. “He is always there to step in at a moment’s notice.”

Holt’s parents said their son was always comfortable in front of an audience. He sang in the choir and played bass in the band at Cordova High.

He also was the “Voice of the Lancers,” making morning announcements over the school public address system. Invariably, he would end his messages with the tagline, “You are up to date.”

Melinda Malaspino, a classmate at both W.E. Mitchell Junior High and Cordova High, remembers Holt’s school daily bulletin.

“Even then he was articulate, he was eloquent and he was a pleasure to listen to,” she said.

Malaspino, who was two years behind Holt in school, looked up to him because he was smart, funny and treated underclassmen nicely. Malaspino, a pianist and singer, was in school jazz groups with bassist Holt.

“He was tall, slender, just as handsome as he is now, and he sported a very stylish Afro,” said Malaspino, an English teacher now at Folsom High School who also taught at her high school alma mater. “He was just a kind soul, a pleasure to be around.”

As a teen, the budding anchor honed his chops as a news reader by reciting newspaper stories into a tape recorder for practice.

He got a part-time job as a KRAK country radio disc jockey while still in high school, his father said. Holt also had an internship at Channel 3 (KCRA).

After high school, he was a government major at California State University, Sacramento, though he never graduated, leaving the university to take a job at San Francisco radio station KCBS. Since then, he has been all over the world, in hot spots such as Iraq. He also has covered some of the most important domestic stories.

His father was stationed at Mather Air Force Base twice, with the family living off base in Rancho Cordova the second time.

Holt’s mother believes that moving from base-to-base helped her son become resilient.

“You are the new kid on the block all the time,” June Holt said. “But Lester has never had any problem relating to people and fitting in.”

Holt Sr. is proud of his son’s accomplishments, never doubting that he would do well in his career.

“But the thing that I am most proud of is that he is one of the best human beings you will ever have the opportunity to meet,” said the elder Holt. “He is just a good person, very giving and caring. That’s who he is. The rest is just accomplishments due to talent and opportunity.”

Call The Bee’s Bill Lindelof, (916) 321-1079.

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