After almost two decades, longtime KTUU Channel 2 news anchor Sheila Balistreri bid a final good morning to Anchorage audiences Friday. At the station where she's been presiding over the sunrise newscast, "Morning Edition," since 1998, heartfelt moments permeated her last show.
Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell wished her the best of luck in future endeavors, as did "Today Show" co-hosts Savannah Guthrie and Matt Lauer. Red rose petals lined the hallways leading to the KTUU studios.
But it was the acknowledgement of Alaskans -- both her staff and viewers -- that had Balistreri fighting back tears before reminding her audience that she wouldn't be leaving, necessarily, just passing the torch.
Balistreri has been with "Morning Edition" since day one, working the grueling 11 p.m. to 8 a.m. overnight shift required to produce the show while the rest of the Alaska slept. For years, she worked through the night to produce the show, sometimes even at personal expense. She said her family would often note that it seemed like she was in a fog when she got home, a result of giving all her energy to making sure the job was done right, she said.
Maria Downey, assistant news director and longtime evening news anchor, said Balistreri was a perfect fit to start the morning newscast, with her strong news experience and commitment to Alaska. Downey noted Balistreri was always willing to get up early and couldn't remember a time she called in sick. Even with the grueling shift, and other anchors coming and going over the years, Balistreri remained a fixture.
"She's remarkable," Downey said. "You never hear her complain. That's a shift that she's made her own and adjusted her life around it. I don't know how she does it."
"Morning Edition" dominates the ratings, with the only other Alaska morning show, the newly debuted KTVA's "Daybreak," well behind it. According to Nielsen ratings provided by KTUU, "Morning Edition"'s 6-7 a.m. hour even rates higher than the national NBC "Today Show" that follows it.
Colleagues credit much of that dominance to Balistreri. Downey called Balistreri's voice "one of the best, if not the best" in the industry. That authoritative yet compassionate tone, coupled with her genuine dedication to viewers, made her a perfect fit to start viewers' mornings.
"You can tell that she really cares," Downey said.
Todd Walker, Balistreri's co-anchor from 2010 to 2012 who now works as a reporter for WTVF in Nashville, Tenn., said her warm presence -- she was never a showy, over-the-top anchor -- drew viewers in.
"Viewers used to say we felt like family," Walker said.
Curtis Smith, who was one of Balistreri's first co-anchors from 2000 to 2001, said Balistreri has one of the toughest jobs at KTUU, but she made it look easy.
Smith, who now works for Royal Dutch Shell U.S. in Washington, D.C., said Balistreri's "old school" style guided her, along with her uncompromising ethics and superior news judgment skills.
"She is an anchor in the truest sense of the word," Smith said. "She anchors it down."
Balistreri's start in journalism didn't follow a conventional path. After high school she joined Women's Army Corps, serving as a singer and a dancer with the 3rd Army Soldier Show based in Fort McPherson, Georgia, during the Vietnam War. She used the GI Bill to head to junior college in California, then later the University of California at Los Angeles.
After graduation, she headed back home to Williston, N.D., where she took a job as a secretary at the small local television station. Her first go on camera came unexpectedly, when her boss dropped a handful of Associated Press copy on her desk and asked if she'd read it on air.
She did, and found she had a knack for it, soon leaving Williston for the big city of Bismarck, where she spent eight years working as a reporter at KFYR-TV before moving to Salt Lake City.
In 1989, her husband, Jerry, took a job in Alaska working for the Anchorage School District, and the Balistreris moved to Alaska with their then-toddler children, Nick and Beth, in tow.
Balistreri said she wanted to get back into broadcast news after spending years doing primarily radio work in Salt Lake City, but there were no full-time positions offered by KTUU that were conducive to raising her young family. So she came on board to KTUU as a part-time arts and entertainment reporter in 1994, also doing short morning news updates, while working full-time as news director at Anchorage talk radio station KFQD.
But in 1998 KTUU decided it was time to try a half-hour morning show, with Balistreri in the driver's seat. She took the offer, and early that year, the morning show began.
Making the world a beautiful place
Balistreri called the late shift that she's worked for over a decade "killer" and said she is excited to move on to other things.
That list is extensive. She and her husband plan to be snowbirds, complete with a newly purchased condo in Scottsdale, Arizona. In her free time, Balistreri is hoping to get better at playing piano and even wants to learn Spanish.
But her biggest plans are to "pay it forward" with volunteer work -- from rocking babies at Providence Alaska Medical Center to reading to those in hospice care and helping care for animals or even making her famous paper star ornaments.
After working for so long, she just wants to give back and help make the world a more beautiful place, she said.
And her final wish to viewers? To be good to one another.
"I think it's love that makes a person a powerful force," she said. "I hope I've become one through that."
Reach Suzanna Caldwell at email@example.com.
By SUZANNA CALDWELL