Sep 27, 2021 - Culture

A Charlotte news legend retired, and she’s gonna hate me for writing this

Sharon Houston and Laura and George

Photo: Michael Graff/Axios

I’ll be brief, because she’d have little patience for me dragging this out: But I have to send a big congratulations to Sharon Houston on her first full week of retirement (no, really, Sharon, don’t go in today).

She finished her trailblazing 47-year television career with four years as president of NBC News Channel, the Charlotte-based operation that serviced and packaged news for about 200 local NBC affiliates all over the country. She was executive producer there for 26 years before that.

Why it matters: Sharon is one of the most widely respected media figures in the country, though you’d never hear her say it.

  • “A 1st ballot Hall of Famer,” former NBC News president Steve Capus tweeted.
  • “The GOAT of news managers! Always a calm and steady voice in a chaotic sea of crazy,” said WCNC anchor Ben Thompson.
  • She also happens to be the best mother-in-law I could’ve dreamed of. She raised two children — my wife, Laura, and Laura’s older brother Adam — while powering through a male-dominated television career. And now she’s a gifted grandmother (still getting her used to that term) to our son, George.

Background: Sharon grew up off Freedom Drive in the 1950s and 60s, jockeying with her three siblings over who’d get which piece of chicken. As a teen she’d cruise around the Tank Town area of west Charlotte in a car with a “four-on-the-floor” transmission, as she likes to brag.

  • After graduating from West Meck and UNC Chapel Hill, she got hired by N.C. broadcast legend Jim Babb to work at WBTV. “I started in August 1974, which happened to be the week President Nixon resigned from the White House,” she said recently. “I was in the newsroom, where I wanted to be.”
  • She moved on to CBS News’s Atlanta bureau, where she became the network’s first woman bureau chief in 1985, Babb told me.
  • She has a national Emmy sitting in her living room for her team’s coverage of Hurricane Hugo in 1989.
  • In the early 1990s she moved home to Charlotte when NBC launched its News Channel service, to be the hub for all local stations that wanted national packages.
  • She covered space shuttle launches, political conventions, Olympics and inaugurations — some years leading teams of 60 or more into those big events.

One example of her dedication to news: In March 1982 she had midcourt seats to see her beloved Tar Heels play in the national championship game. But a delayed space shuttle landing kept her at work for an extra day. She missed the game — and Michael Jordan’s historic shot — to stay with her crew.

The big picture: News is part of her blood, and her most remarkable success is balancing work and motherhood, even after she and my father-in-law were divorced.

She often just turned her kids into participants in her news-chasing field trip of life: During the Atlanta Olympics games in 1996, she moved back there for more than a month with Adam and Laura, who were 13 and 10 at the time, so they could experience it.

  • At the 2004 DNC in Boston, she took Laura, then just 19. Walking the hall they ran into Dan Rather, who, unprompted, leaned over and told Laura that her mother was a special person.
Sharon Houston and Laura at Discovery space shuttle launch in 2005
Sharon (standing) and Laura at the launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery — NASA’s first expedition after the Columbia disaster — in 2005 space shuttle launch in 2005. Photo: Courtesy

We had a small gathering for her on Saturday, and it came with a surprise that folks have been holding in for months: Her former colleagues and friends formed the Sharon Houston scholarship at UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism.

  • More than 100 people contributed — from family members to Babb to “60 Minutes” correspondent Bill Whitaker.
  • Without her knowing, they raised enough to endow a scholarship for one broadcast student each year. Already there’s a young UNC student benefitting from it.
  • When presented with this information and a letter from the dean, Sharon accepted it the only way Sharon Houston could: gracefully. She teared up, choked down a lump in her throat, caught herself, and said a soft “thank you.”

My thought bubble: I have a bunch of funny and heartwarming Sharon stories by now, and others have thousands more, but one I come back to today goes like this:

We’ve always bonded over the fact that no matter what kind of week it’s been, one constant is that we eat pizza on Friday nights. Her family did this; my family did this. Marriage made.

  • Back in 2019, Sharon was riding through Charlotte on her way to our house on a Friday evening. She happened to drive past a spot where Bernie Sanders was having a rally. I asked her if she thought about stopping, being a news junkie and all.
  • “No,” she said, almost offended by the question. “It’s pizza night.”

The bottom line: Love you, Sharon.


Get more local stories in your inbox with Axios Charlotte.

More Charlotte stories