Newsrooms are filled with anchors so enthralled with being recognized at the supermarket, they come to believe they matter more than the copy on the teleprompter.

Diana Pierce isn’t one of them.

When she signs off at KARE, Channel 11, for the last time Friday, she leaves behind a record her peers would sacrifice a lifetime supply of hair products to boast about — including an on-air partnership with Paul Magers that thrived for two decades. But perhaps her most telling moment came when her career was on the line.

In 2002, KARE stole rising star Julie Nelson away from rival KSTP, a coup that Pierce was forced to read on the air even though the younger anchor was, for all practical purposes, being brought on to replace her.

Pierce was not informed ahead of time of the planned switch. She skipped the 10 p.m. broadcast later that evening and went so far as to clear out her desk, most likely ready to dump her belongings in a limo and shuffle off to Buffalo. Or Boston, Milwaukee, St. Louis — heck, anywhere that would properly appreciate how she had helped move the NBC affiliate’s news team from drawing test-pattern numbers to the top of the mountain, toppling mighty WCCO along the way.

But as far as diva fits go, that was it — at least in public.

“Oh, I had those thoughts. Everyone is allowed that for a moment,” she said, setting aside her coffee Saturday afternoon while chatting in an otherwise empty cafe on the Augsburg College campus. “But how do you show up? You want to be better than ‘screw you.’ I always say that the people who rule the world are the ones who show up.”

Pierce would, of course, stay, even though her shifts gradually moved to less-trafficked hours. She departs as co-anchor for the 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. programs.

“Everyone has a season. I had 20 years of great seasons,” she said. “But in the end, I had 32 years where I could pinch myself in the morning and say that this was still a good job.”

Nelson, who had to sit out a year because of a noncompete clause, might have been braced for an “All About Eve” moment when she started work at KARE in 2003. Instead, she was greeted by a warm, welcoming letter lying by her computer, handwritten by Pierce.

“It basically said, ‘You’re going to love it here,’ ” Nelson said last week. “Diana has always been an example of graciousness and pure class. This can be a pretty competitive business, but fortunately, KARE doesn’t have a lot of huge egos. Diana set the tone.”

Magers, who left for a Los Angeles CBS affiliate the same year Pierce was starting to be moved off the most coveted assignments, couldn’t recall a single prima donna moment from his cubicle mate, whether the cameras were on or off.

“She could have been swept up in all the attention at the time, but she always comported herself,” Magers said. “She’s a pretty humble person.”

Face in the crowd

Ask Pierce why the pair resonated with Minnesota viewers and she’ll defer to her more flamboyant dance partner. Her job, she insists, largely consisted of setting him up and serving as a fill-in for viewers who quickly developed a crush.

“Sometimes I would be the catalyst for him to say stuff and show off his quick wit,” she said. “Women specifically would say, ‘I could never sit next to Paul Magers without breaking out in a sweat because he’s so hot.’ ”

Pierce’s instincts to downplay her own contributions may have hurt her during contract negotiations, but it most likely endeared her to Minnesota audiences who still value modesty and tolerate showboats about as much as they do Packers fans.

The now sixty-something Pierce is striking in her own right, but more like a fit soccer mom than a TV star always ready for her close-up. Even though she grew up in California, she has the ability to blend into a Midwestern crowd, a gift for someone who’s genuinely more interested in telling stories than being the story.

The piece that affected her the most during her three decades at KARE focused on Joe Dilts, a bus mechanic struggling with Lou Gehrig’s Disease, to the point where it would take up to three long minutes for him to answer even the simplest questions. Many visitors gave up, treating him like a potted plant in the corner. Pierce didn’t.

The 1988 story, which chronicled the last nine months of the man’s life, would earn Pierce a National Merit Award from the Muscular Dystrophy Association. It would also serve as a vivid reminder of why she was a journalist.

“I’ve always thought my job, especially recently, is to let the other guy speak,” she said. “People are going to tune in and see me, great. But if I can guide the conversation, and a person at home feels like they’ve learned something — mission accomplished.”

Calling the shots

Pierce, a 2009 inductee into the Minnesota Museum of Broadcasting’s Hall of Fame, cringes at the word “retirement.” She’s set up Diana Pierce Productions to work on documentaries. And while she can’t appear on air for a year, due to a noncompete clause of her own, she seems excited to be working as a behind-the-scenes adviser, helping shape stories that provide a voice for the underserved.

She started planting the seeds more than three years ago when she enrolled in classes at Augsburg to learn more about leadership and the arts. She wrapped up her studies in December and will attend graduation ceremonies next weekend.

Pierce had planned to leave KARE when her contract expired in December. A generous buyout package from Tegna Media, which owns KARE, simply sped up the process.

She’s already honed her behind-the-scenes skills, shooting video in Nicaragua as part of her college studies and getting loads of advice from her only daughter, who works on reality shows from Los Angeles. In May, she’ll photograph a herd of wild horses at North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park and in June, she’ll direct footage for her church group during a visit to South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Neither assignment will involve her being in front of the camera.

“It’s a weird, wonderful transition,” she said.

Near the end of our conversation, an instructor came over to the table with some leftover cake from an Augsburg class, more an offering to a valued student than courting a popular TV personality. That was followed by a last-second invitation to join other grads-to-be for lunch.

“I can mooch off you guys?” said Pierce, who was on campus to contribute to a focus group on the leadership-and-art program. “I’m in.”

As she got up to join her fellow knowledge-seekers, one couldn’t help notice the North Face thermal mug in her possession.

The message sprawled across the plastic container: Never Stop Exploring.

 

njustin@startribune.com

612-673-7431

Twitter: @nealjustin