Local News

WRAL playbook changes: Suiter handing off sports anchor role

Posted December 3, 2008

— On Dec. 18, longtime WRAL sports anchor Tom Suiter will emerge from the sports office in the back of the newsroom. As he briskly walks to the set, he will take time to greet fellow employees as he always does. He will likely sing a song or two as he passes producers and directors preparing the next newscast. Like any other day, Suiter will make people smile before he ever appears on television.

Unlike any other day, when Suiter delivers the sports report with his energetic style and unending passion, it will be his last 6 p.m. sportscast.

After that, Suiter will transition into a new role at the station. In the coming year, he will continue to bring viewers the scores, highlights and excitement from high school football games on his Football Friday show. He will still honor outstanding high school athletes with the Extra Effort Award and will take on some special assignments including work for WRAL.com and radio station 99.9 FM The Fan.

“Tom’s enthusiasm and energy, fast-paced delivery, dedication to accuracy and commitment to excellence have all been hallmarks of his sportscasts,” said Rick Gall, WRAL news director.

Jeff Gravley, a long-time friend whom Suiter first met when Gravley interned at the station in 1985, will become the 6 p.m. sports anchor in addition to his roles on the late newscasts during the week. Bob Holliday will continue to anchor WRAL’s weekend sports.

“Jeff is top-notch,” Suiter said. “Not only is he an Emmy-winning broadcaster, but, before that, he was an award-winning photographer.”

Gravley had words of praise for the man he follows to the anchor desk. "I'm following a legend," he said. "The sportscaster I grew up watching, a friend who has taken so much of his time to teach me about television. I got a masters degree in sportscasting in the 20 years I have worked with Tom."

This change is a landmark one at WRAL. Gravley will be only the fifth 6 p.m. sports anchor in the station’s history. He follows Suiter, Rich Brenner, Nick Pond and Ray Reeve. No one has held the position as long as Suiter, who has had a lasting impact on sports coverage in the Triangle.

Suiter joined WRAL on June 2, 1971, after earning his degree from Erskine College.

“After graduation, I wrote every television station in North and South Carolina, and only two stations responded with something other than a form letter. WRAL was one of those stations. I got a personal letter from Jesse Helms,” Suiter explained.

At the time, Helms was the executive vice president of the station. He encouraged Suiter and gave him a chance in the sports department despite his lack of experience.

“The only thing I knew when I came here was how to turn the set on,” Suiter said, laughing.

To prepare for his first television interview, Suiter stayed up the night before, anxiously writing out questions in longhand and repeatedly rehearsing possible dialogue in his mind. He wore his best button-down shirt and put on the only necktie he owned.

“I was interviewing (basketball) Coach John Wooden from UCLA. As soon as the camera started rolling, I forgot everything. I held my notebook close to my face and read every question verbatim,” Suiter said.

“About five minutes into the interview, Coach Wooden patted me on the knee and said, ‘Son, just talk to me like we’re having a conversation.’”

Despite his nerves and shyness, Suiter knew sports and he knew how to craft a good story. Even as a young boy, Suiter could announce the starting line-ups for basketball, baseball and football teams from memory.

He instantly loved working at the station he had watched growing up in Rocky Mount. For his first 10 years at WRAL, Suiter anchored weekends, early morning newscasts, coach’s shows and early morning radio.

Suiter laughs, “You name it, I did it.” He earned his opportunity to anchor the 6 p.m. news when then-anchor Brenner left the station in March 1981.

Suiter’s long, steady career at WRAL is unusual in an industry where turnover and job changes are common.

“That’s something you don’t see in virtually any industry today, especially television,” Brenner said. “A guy gets his first job and stays there his entire career.”

“I went from being the youngest on the set to the oldest,” Suiter quipped.

Suiter’s love of sports has never faded as the years passed. He maintains his boyish enthusiasm for local sports teams and has become an enduring presence on WRAL broadcasts.

His dedication to his profession earned him induction into the prestigious Silver Circle by the Nashville/Midsouth Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

Over the years, one of the most exciting stories Suiter covered was N.C. State’s run to the 1983 NCAA basketball championship.

“Nobody thought State could win, and when they did, it was so surprising. I think everyone was happy even if they weren’t a State fan,” he said.

Suiter’s appreciation of State’s upset win came from his tendency to root for the underdog.

“It all started in prep school. At Christ School, located outside Asheville, it was common for the older students to haze the younger students. I remember one day when a senior grabbed me and started calling me names. I didn’t like it,” he said.

From that day on, Suiter promised himself he would always be nice to the younger students at the school. “I knew they were scared and I wanted to help them,” Suiter said.

At WRAL, Suiter continues to live by the principle of being kind to others and treating everyone as he or she wants to be treated. He is humble about many aspects of his distinguished career, but he prides himself on his ability to get along with most everyone.

He makes it a point to know the first and last name and something unique about every person who works with him. To Suiter, titles do not matter. He will pull up a chair beside a production assistant for a conversation just as quickly as he will enter a manager’s office to talk.

Suiter seeks out the youngest employees at the station and tries to help them any way he can.

“I’ve known several of the photographers and sports reporters since they were in high school,” said Suiter, proud of their accomplishments.

Suiter met sports reporter and anchor Ken Medlin at a Christmas parade when Medlin was in high school. “I was amazed by the fact he took time to talk to me. He went out of his way to be nice to me. We talked for at least 30 minutes, and he invited me to the station for a tour,” Medlin said.

A few years later, when Medlin was hired as a news clerk at WRAL, Suiter recognized him right away. “He remembered the parade and he remembered me,” Medlin said.

Debra Morgan, who anchors the news with Suiter, said, “Viewers don’t know how much time Tom spends as a mentor to others in the newsroom.” Nearly every day, he can be seen talking and joking with those eager to learn more about the business.

“He really has a connection to young people,” Morgan said. “Of course we’ll miss him on the air, but we’ll really miss what a kind-hearted person he is.”

“Living is about getting to know people, learning their stories and knowing what they’re doing and what’s important to them,” Suiter said.

“I love sports and always will, but I have loved working here because I love the people,” he added.

Suiter’s long career has allowed him to cover ACC Tournaments, Final Fours, and NCAA championships across the county. But one of the highlights of his career has been high school athletic coverage.

“I had such a good experience playing high school sports,” said Suiter who still holds his school’s record for most points scored in a basketball game. “And I’ve always admired high school coaches for the difference they make in kids’ lives.”

Bob Holliday, a Suiter colleague since 1981, remembers their very first conversation at the station. “Tom felt strongly even then that there was so much WRAL could do to advance the cause of high school athletics," Holliday recalled. "We began covering games, first in Raleigh, then in Rocky Mount, Wilson and Fayetteville."

Under Suiter’s leadership and direction, the Football Friday show began and has emerged as a local tradition. Crews cross the state to cover football teams from the WRAL viewing area.

Because there are so many games to shoot and deadlines are tight to make air at 11:35 p.m. each Friday night, Suiter enlists a lot of help. Many reporters and photographers in the WRAL newsroom got their starts in the business assisting Suiter with the show.

In addition to game coverage, Suiter began the Extra Effort Award as a way to honor top high school athletes who excel in sports and in the classroom. Each week, Suiter travels to an area high school to present the award to a deserving student.

“Tom has recognized more than 700 young people since we began the award in 1981," Holliday noted. "Now we see some coaches who once were Extra Effort winners."

"Tom and I often marvel at the qualities many of our award winners possess – they are great students and leaders as well as athletes. The passion he brings to this weekly recognition of young people is, like his mentoring, Tom’s way of helping others. The opportunity to recognize the best seniors in the WRAL viewing area is something that means a great deal to Tom,” Holliday continued.

"Today, coverage of high school athletics in North Carolina ranks among the nation’s best in my opinion," Holliday said. "Our friends at the North Carolina High School Athletic Association have told me that the work of WRAL-TV, and Tom in particular, has played a large role in the quality of coverage statewide.”

Before his last 6 p.m. newscast, Suiter will prepare as he always does. Sitting at his desk, which is covered with papers, previous scripts, old newspaper articles and mementos from fans and co-workers, he will work hard to write scripts with the rhythm and pace he loves, reading them aloud over and over as he hones them. His two favorite typewriters remain fixtures on his desk despite the fact he does all of his work on the computer.

“I’ve always tried to deliver each sportscast with enthusiasm and accuracy like it would be my last one. I’ve always wanted to do the best I possibly could,” Suiter said.

When he signs off the air on Dec. 18, Suiter says he will look forward to the changes ahead.

Through his work with Football Friday, the Extra Effort Award, radio broadcasts on The Fan, and contributions to the Web site, Suiter will continue making people smile both on and off the air.

Preparing to anchor the 6 p.m. sportscast has been a part of his life for many years, and the decision to retire from the show has been an arduous one for Suiter.

“I’m grateful for the opportunity to anchor so long,” he said. “I never thought this day would come, but it’s time.”