Union in the News for June 15, 2007
Pay it backward
By Mark McGuire - The Times Union
ABC anchor Charles Gibson is coming to his father's hometown to address Union College's graduating class Sunday, in part to repay a debt he says can't be settled in full.
The debt, more than two decades old, is owed to Phil Beuth, a Union trustee and benefactor. It was Beuth, then an ABC executive, who unexpectedly gave Gibson a shot hosting "Good Morning America."
In very circuitous and thoroughly unexpected ways, that decision led to where Gibson sits today, anchoring ABC's top-rated "World News with Charles Gibson."
"It's funny how life takes turns you don't expect," Gibson said. "This is a total unexpected turn of events that I'm in this job."
A twisted path
Gibson's career has been built on a series of happenstances both tragic and lucky. He's certainly deserving to be sitting in the top anchorman chair at ABC News -- his broadcast has catapulted to No. 1 in his one year on the job -- but that ascent was certainly unforeseen.
In fact, nothing really has gone as planned for the 64-year-old ABC veteran.
He didn't plan on being a co-host on "Good Morning America." He would always be that backup to Peter Jennings. Passed over after the untimely death of Jennings, Gibson planned on retiring -- on June 22, 2007, to be exact.
Instead, Bob Woodruff was wounded in Iraq and Elizabeth Vargas got pregnant. Gibson expected to soon be traveling with his wife to Australia and down the coast of Canada and spending time with his only grandchild. Instead, he's off to the Middle East or interviewing world leaders while serving as the face of a network news division.
"Maybe sometimes when things come to you unexpectedly, you appreciate them more, and maybe it takes some of the pressure off you in some ways," Gibson said.
As Beuth said: "He was always the right guy at the right time. ... Once you release the brake on Charlie, it's going to work."
Gibson will be the keynote speaker at Union College's 213th commencement. The ceremony is slated to begin at 10 a.m. on Hull Plaza on the Schenectady campus.
The anchorman is coming to Union this Father's Day to honor his father, Burdett, and namesake uncle, Charles, Schenectady natives who attended the college. He's also here to pay back Beuth for a cup of coffee 21 years ago.
It was over coffee in the ABC cafeteria that Beuth first talked to Gibson about co-anchoring "Good Morning America."
Gibson was covering the House of Representatives in 1986 when he first sat down with Beuth, then an executive with Capital Cities/ABC. He shocked Gibson with an offer to co-anchor "GMA" with Joan Lunden.
"I had to talk him into the job," Beuth recalled. "We were trying to replace David Hartman. We interviewed many people. ... Charlie, for us, he always appealed to us with his curiosity and his ability to get along with people and be interesting."
Gibson, stunned by the offer, would have turned it down and stayed in Washington, D.C., had his wife, Arlene, gotten a job she was up for there. Instead, Gibson headed to New York.
The anchorman is a fan of the writer John Irving, who maintains there are X number of people you come across who unexpectedly alter your life's direction. Gibson counts Beuth among them.
"You changed my life, and there is no way to thank you for that," Gibson said of his former boss. "One of the ways is when they ask you to give a graduation speech, you give it."
Unexpected, everything, being here and sitting in that chair in New York. Gibson references a line from John Lennon's song "Beautiful Boy:" Life is just what happens to you/While you're busy making other plans.
When speaking to television critics last summer via satellite from Cyprus, Gibson intimated that viewers care little if anything about ratings and the internal machinations of network news. He was wrong; they do. He is still confused as to why.
An example: Before being interviewed Wednesday for this story, Gibson was working, interviewing Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the multinational force in Iraq. While setting up for the interview, the two men chatted; Petraeus congratulated Gibson on his recent ratings success. Once again, Gibson was stunned.
"Now, he is in Iraq, and he is in Baghdad, and he has really important things to do," Gibson said. "Noticing the television ratings is not one of them -- and yet he does. What is it that interests people?"
In his early days in the top chair, Gibson dismissed the cultural significance of ratings. He still does, even though his show is No. 1.
"Does it affect quality of a news show? ... No," he said. Gibson granted high ratings make for a nice affirmation, but quickly adds, "I don't believe in any of them."
Here's a warning to those planning to attend Sunday's ceremonies: As of midweek, Gibson had yet to finish -- well, start -- his speech, the only commencement address he'll deliver this year. "I am busted, actually," he said. "I'll think of something."
It's not like Gibson worries about planning ahead.