She has interviewed presidents, flown with Mother Teresa, given a face to depression and helped HIV-infected orphans. Long-time Arizonans know her as the first primetime television news anchorwoman in the Phoenix market. But, teenage girls growing up in the ‘70s regarded her as their own personal hero, a real-life Mary Richards (played by Mary Tyler Moore), who really could “turn the world on with her smile.”
Mary Jo West’s smile continues to break barriers and warm hearts. She lives by what could well be her own theme song, “Brighten the Corner Where You Are,” a beloved church hymn she sang as a child growing up in College Park, Georgia.
Known for her gentle, Southern style, West is credited with shattering the television studio glass ceiling to bits for a generation of female journalists who did not want to believe that only booming male voices held credibility.
“Mary Jo West was, and is, my idol to this day,” said Fox 10 anchorwoman Linda Williams. “She was the heart and soul of KOOL News for several years and she opened the door for all women journalists to follow. I could go on and on about her strength and character as a journalist, but it is her strength and character as a woman that guides me still.”
For her trailblazing legacy, West was recently inducted into the Arizona Women’s Hall of Fame. She shares the honor this year with other state greats like world-class mountain climber Alison Levine and internationally acclaimed humorist and author Erma Bombeck.
“Mary Jo deserves it!” said retired Fox 10 weatherman Dave Munsey. “When she started in news, it was tough. She paved the way for all of these women in Phoenix anchor chairs. Every one of them owes her something.”
For 13 years, West’s television news career took her from reporting news, sports and weather in the dual market of Tallahassee, Florida/Thomasville, Georgia to the national network anchor chair at CBS. She came to Phoenix in 1975 as a producer-host at the Public Broadcasting Station KAET-TV in Tempe. A year later, she was invited to share the anchor desk with legendary Phoenix newsman Bill Close at the CBS affiliate KOOL-TV.
“Viewers quickly warmed to Mary Jo and the station ratings reflected her popularity,” said 602 Communications television news consultant Doug Drew, who worked with West in the early ‘80s. “She was a good journalist and storyteller, and when the station put her on the anchor desk, viewers felt like she was a friend of theirs.”
West recalls the night gunman Joseph Billie Gwin held Close and camera operator Louis Villa hostage at gunpoint for five hours on May 28, 1982.
“As the news opening was playing, a producer told me in my earpiece that I would be anchoring the news alone. My first thought was that Bill Close had had a heart attack. Bill NEVER got sick. I started the newscast and then I remember crew member Nancy Petrenka running into the newsroom screaming something like, ‘He’s got a gun!’ Still no explanation in my earpiece on what was going on. A few minutes later, reporters and photographers from The Arizona Republic and rival TV and radio stations started walking into the newsroom and setting up in front of me.”
The situation ended peacefully after Close agreed to read’s Gwin’s rambling statement live on the air in exchange for Gwin handing over the gun. “Bill was tremendous, and a hero. He was the essence of bravery and staying cool. The Phoenix Police Department was amazing. No one died. It could have had a different ending. The incident, I feel, was a foreshadowing of many more incidents with guns in the hands of people with mental illness.”
Later that year, West left Phoenix for New York to be one of the anchors of Nightwatch, CBS’s answer to CNN’s overnight coverage. “The challenge was that I was anchoring from 2 to 6 a.m. My body never adjusted because on weekends I wanted to go back to the normal hours that most of the world was living. The people were friendly and talented, but distant.”
Almost a year later, Channel 3 KTVK asked her to come back to Phoenix. “I said, ‘Yes!’ Professionally, it may not have been the right move, but it was the right one personally.”
In 1987, she started Mary Jo West Communications. During that time, she, along with co-producer Donna Vogt, were among the first to tackle the topic of eating disorders. Their documentary, “Dying to be Thin,” was nominated for a regional Emmy. “It was a great learning experience to start one’s own business. To be honest, it was lonely not being part of a large team.”
A Performer from Childhood
West grew up singing in her hometown Baptist church choir and had no fear of public speaking. She began reading scripture before the congregation at age nine. “My faith is as much a natural part of me as my heart and hands,” she said. “It is always there and has instilled in me a strong sense of social justice.”
West’s talent was first recognized by Gene Martin, the church’s minister of music. “The summer going into my junior year in high school, I was singing and, all of a sudden, a mature woman’s voice came out of my mouth. My voice changed and changed my life! Mr. Martin became my serious voice teacher.”
West won a voice scholarship to attend Florida State University’s prestigious music school. She was cast as Daisy Mae in the musical “Li’l Abner” and the play was chosen to perform for troops at military bases in a 1968 USO tour. She had major parts in other college productions, as well, and earned a spot in Theater of the Stars, a professional Atlanta theater musical company.
She also entered beauty pageants. “I knew my limitations when it came to my outward appearance, but I would win the talent awards and walk away with scholarship money!”
West won the Miss Atlanta contest, a preliminary to the Miss Georgia and Miss America pageants.
Instead of returning to FSU, she took a year off to sing in churches and stadiums, and travel the country. Her mind opened and expanded. “I decided to transfer to the University of Georgia and get a degree in journalism. The timing was perfect. The FCC had just mandated that women and minorities must be hired at TV stations. I graduated in 1973 around the same time all that happened.”
Although West turned her attention to news, she later sang with the Phoenix Symphony and was asked to play Maria in “The Sound of Music” with the Phoenix Little Theatre while she was anchoring at Channel 10. The musical sold out and West is credited with saving the performing company, now known as the Phoenix Theatre, which was near bankruptcy at the time.
Speaking Up for Others
While her outer voice shaped her career, her inner voice led her to speak out against racism, help the homeless and become an advocate for mental health. She shared her personal challenges with clinical depression on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Tipper Gore heard her speak at Northern Arizona University and invited her to participate at the White House Conference on Mental Health. She has volunteered at local chapters of Mental Health America and National Alliance for the Mentally Ill and was awarded the Martin Luther King Living the Dream Award from the City of Phoenix for her efforts to help erase the stigma.
“What I love about Mary Jo is her authenticity. She has been open and honest about her struggles, so that others will learn and cope better in their own lives,” said Williams. “Yes, I know she has many firsts in the news business, and I try to emulate her on a journalistic level, but on a human level, she has taught me to show grace under pressure, to be honest and to be real! Mary Jo leads by example. She is a survivor.”
Currently, her efforts, along with her church, are focused on the small village of Gem in Kenya, where about 100 orphans live in filth, many of whom are infected with HIV. “I met them in December of 2016 and lost my heart to them. I got close to one, Kip, and unofficially made him my ‘godson.’ Kip died three months later. They only eat once a day, had no place to live except the street and were being sexually abused. We are talking children from two to 13. These children have NEVER had a story read to them at night or have ever been tucked in. Only recently has a dorm been built to house them, but all is stopped for now.”
West volunteers with the Global Hope Network International to help the children, but warring tribes have made it unsafe for volunteers to visit and improve their living conditions. After her trip to Africa, West was moved to sell her spacious condo and give away most of her possessions. Today, she lives in a one-bedroom apartment in Phoenix.
“I have never looked back and do not miss all that stuff. I feel so free.”
Who was your favorite interview?
“My favorite interview was Gloria Steinem. I was working for CBS News anchoring Nightwatch. Ms. Steinem was funny, fearless, articulate and so kind. Before the interview, she wanted to get ME coffee!”
What was your most memorable story?
“My most meaningful story happened when videographer Matt Barcellos and I were able to travel down the Colorado River on a pilot project for the National Park Service. If it was successful, the Canyon would be opened up permanently to those with various physical disabilities. We called our documentary ‘Take Me to the River.’ Channel 8 (PBS Phoenix) aired it and I do believe it’s still being shown somewhere today. The trip was a success!”
What advice do you have for aspiring television journalists?
“Be eternally curious. Learn how to write and do it every day. Get both sides of the story. Read, and then read some more. Start in a small market. Travel as much as your budget allows. Listen. When you feel you did a good job on a story, thank everyone who helped you make it happen. Write thank you notes. Be a team player.”
What is your guilty pleasure?
“The list is too long to name here, but I would start with the Butter Burger at Culver’s, then the Key Lime Pie at California Pizza Kitchen, and of course, Dr. Pepper!”
When was the last time you were star struck?
“It happened when I saw [civil rights activist] Maya Angelou and when I met Jimmy Carter, again. And of course, when I spent time with Mother Teresa. She ended up giving me the greatest gift of my life, my daughter, Molly.”
West was interviewing Mother Teresa for a news documentary on a plane from San Francisco to Gallup, New Mexico, in 1988. “We were singing with the nuns and then for me, a miracle happened. All of a sudden, I said to Mother Teresa, ‘Do you ever allow Americans to adopt children from your orphanages?’ At first she said, ‘No,’ and turned away. Then she turned back to me and said, ‘Because you love the poor and the Virgin Mary so much, I am going to give you a baby.’” A few weeks later, West went to Mother Teresa’s orphanage in Honduras, where she met her four-month-old daughter for the first time. Molly’s adoptive dad, Dick Mahoney, followed a few weeks later and they were able to finally bring Molly home to Phoenix when she was 10 months old. FBN