Shelby, ready to fade to black, ponders life out of 'CCO spotlight

  • Article by: NEAL JUSTIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 14, 2010 - 5:32 AM

He'll end his storied 32-year career on Channel 4 on Nov. 22.

He's conquered mountaintops, braved the Boundary Waters in 50-below cold, battled alcoholism and come back from a stroke that killed a massive amount of brain cells. But there's only one thing that really scares Don Shelby: No longer being Don Shelby.

The Twin Cities' most recognized news personality has just a few days to go before his last broadcast as WCCO-TV's top anchor, a countdown that's forcing the man with all the answers to ask a few questions about just how relevant he'll be when he's no longer a daily presence in viewers' lives.

"At this point, I can walk into Best Buy headquarters and everyone will say, 'Don Shelby's here!'" he said. "They walk you right into the CEO's office, and he'll listen to whatever I have to say. A year from now, they're going to ask to see some ID. I'll say, 'I'm Don Shelby, dude,' and they'll say, 'Doesn't ring a bell.'"

Shelby, 63, is the smartest, most talented journalist since Edward R. Murrow. If you don't believe it, just ask him. He's known as a blowhard, a know-it-all, an egomaniac -- and that's coming from his friends. Shelby has such a exuberant sense of humor about being a Mensa version of Ted Baxter, it's hard not to be charmed.

As difficult as it is to imagine him not being on the local airwaves after 32 years, it may be even harder to picture the WCCO newsroom without his commanding presence.

He's not only the king; he's also the court jester, zipping a football across the room, reciting dirty jokes, performing basketball tricks, ordering heir-apparent Frank Vascellaro to fetch coffee, stuffing his mouth with Cheez-It crackers. On a recent afternoon, he removed his designer pinstripe jacket and peeled off his crisp white shirt to show off a massive tattoo of a compass on his back. No one in the newsroom flinched.

"I hate to use an athletic analogy, but I think he's going to miss the locker room most of all," said longtime sports anchor Mark Rosen, who is so skeptical about his friend actually leaving that he's calling him Brett Favre. "You can't replace Don's part in the family."

When asked if he had prepared some parting words for his final broadcast Nov. 22, Shelby said he might read Robert Frost's "After Apple-Picking." A few minutes later, he slipped into the station's green room, leaned back in a chair, looked toward the ceiling and recited the poem from memory with the gravitas of a Shakespearean actor on the Guthrie stage.

The poem, in which harvesting fruit serves as a metaphor for looking back on one's career, causes Shelby to reflect on the stories he didn't get to, his legacy, his regrets. Most of all, it makes him think about his predecessor and mentor, Dave Moore.

Moore, who worked at the station from 1957 until 1997, just a year before he died, had a hard time letting go. When the bosses replaced him with Shelby, Moore refused to leave, hanging around the newsroom, hosting a Sunday morning show, watching the next generation pass him by.

Shelby remembers the afternoon Moore came to his desk looking distraught. He had just taken a walk down Nicollet Mall where a pedestrian stopped him and asked: "Didn't you used to be Dave Moore?"

"It's the one image that frightens me to this day," Shelby said. "There's no bigger has-been than the guy who used to be on television. The speed at which you're out of people's minds is rapid."

Friends and colleagues believe that Shelby will struggle without a regular platform, but will ultimately thrive because of his various interests, which range from beekeeping to global warming.

"I think Don will find that not hanging around the station will be a good thing for him," said former WCCO reporter Dave Nimmer, godfather to Shelby's children. "Yeah, the adoring crowds won't be there, but that will force him to find a real spirit that sings to you. In my working days, I wouldn't think about having time to take an ailing friend to treatment, but you find out how good that can feel when life gets closer to the bone."

• • •

As much as Shelby might miss the attention, it doesn't appear he'll miss journalism.

While looking at footage from a story he did in 1990 on the plight of orphans in Romania, tears came to his eyes. There's no doubt that he's emotional because of the weight of the award-winning piece. But Shelby is also sad because he believes no Twin Cities station today would spend the time or money to do a story like that with no local connection.

"What I know would be of no value to anyone in the modern era," he said between rants about the lack of investigative journalism, management's allergic reaction to longer pieces and increased focus on reaching so-called key demographics. When someone disagreed with his statement, Shelby replied: "I don't believe it, either, but I'm telling you what I've been told."

Shelby may have lost the war, but he won many battles, not to mention three national Emmys, two Peabody Awards, a duPont Award, a 30-years-sober chip from Alcoholics Anonymous and 13 job offers from the networks. There's one fight, however, that continues.

One morning six years ago, Shelby rose in his Minnetonka home and snacked on some pistachios. A few hours later, he felt so dizzy that he had to crawl to bed and call in sick. Bad breakfast, he thought. After more than 24 hours of nausea and vertigo, his wife, Barbara, called an ambulance. Shelby had suffered two strokes, destroying a significant portion of his cerebellum and causing a hole in his heart.

He was back on the air within a month. Colleagues say that was probably too fast.

"I remember shows where Don had to literally grip the anchor set because the room was spinning," said former WCCO meteorologist Paul Douglas. "It took every ounce of focus and intensity and courage for him to get through some of those newscasts."

Coanchor Amelia Santaniello said she sometimes catches Shelby rubbing his thumb into his palm, a drill he uses to help him concentrate.

"I've noticed that after the stroke, he made himself slow down," she said. "He doesn't like to admit it, but he started taking all his vacation time. In past years, he sometimes wouldn't use those days at all."

Shelby still has the occasional dizzy spell. He can get uncomfortable in crowds because his brain responds to too many conversations at once, even ones from far away. He suffers from short-term memory loss and has occasionally forgotten details on the air.

But he insists none of this made him decide to retire. It's more about the changes in the industry than the changes in him. He says the suits are more interested in "what will appeal to the key demos as opposed to what appeals to our sense of public service. It's happening all over the country, partly because of some economic realities and because business has to respond to those things."

• • •

Shelby said he doesn't know what's next. He'll work on raising money for favorite causes, including the Washburn Center for Children, Minnesota GreenStar and the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. He's talked to producers about developing a cable show on environmentally friendly homes. He'll head up North on a solo trip to ski, snowshoe and pull a sled. He'll spend more time with the grandkids, whose toys are scattered around his living-room floor. The one thing he doesn't want to do is make the same mistake made by Dave Moore.

He paused at one point to admire a sculpture of Moore displayed in a corner of the newsroom, which prompted the question: If Moore could reappear for five minutes, what advice would you seek?

"I'd ask him to tell me what it's going to be like when I'm no longer Don Shelby," he said.

And what does he suspect Moore would say?

Shelby took a long pause.

"It's going to be tough at first, but you can handle it."

njustin@startribune.com • 612-673-7431 • Follow Justin on Twitter: @nealjustin

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