In a city of news junkies and scores of high-profile figures in politics and the media, the most-watched journalist in Washington may well have been Jim Vance. For more than 45 years at WRC-TV (Channel 4), he was the region’s longest-serving television news anchor. He presided over the area’s top-rated newscasts and became a public figure in his own right. He gained broad sympathy for his openness about his struggles with drugs and depression.
Mr. Vance, who was 75, died July 22. The death was announced by WRC-TV, where had worked since 1969, but no further details were provided. He announced his diagnosis with cancer earlier this year.
After three years as a reporter for Channel 4, Mr. Vance ascended to the anchor’s chair in 1972, putting him in the first wave of black news anchors in major news markets. In addition to reading the news, he also delivered pointed commentaries, often on sensitive racial topics.
Mr. Vance sat alongside a revolving cast of co-anchors and was often second or third in the local ratings until he teamed with Doreen Gentzler in 1989. Together, with sportscaster George Michael and meteorologist Bob Ryan, they vaulted Channel 4 to the top of the local ratings and stayed there for more than 25 years.
In the nation’s capital, Mr. Vance’s 11 p.m. newscasts with Gentzler regularly drew more viewers than the prime-time shows of the three major cable networks — CNN, Fox and MSNBC — combined.
Mr. Vance, who won or shared more than a dozen local Emmys, rose to prominence at a time when home rule and self-governance opened doors for a new black elite in the District. He defied the staid standards of broadcasting with his bushy Afro hair style in the 1970s and by refusing to wear makeup on the air.
Other Washington news anchors, such as Gordon Peterson and Maureen Bunyan, had long careers, but none had a longer tenure at a single station than Mr. Vance. His success — and frailties — became interwoven with the city’s life.
“When cocaine almost killed me and I left here in 1984 to go to the Betty Ford Center,” he told Washingtonian magazine in 2011, “I got boxes and boxes of letters from people saying little more than ‘I’m praying for you.’ ”
He reported from Washington’s grittier neighborhoods, yet he also became a fishing buddy of President George H.W. Bush. He was one of the first people embattled D.C. Mayor Marion Barry sought out for advice after being arrested in 1990 for smoking crack cocaine.
“Why did he ask me?” Mr. Vance told his viewers at the time. “Because what he, like everyone else who’s been around Washington for a while knows, is that for more than four years I have been in recovery. The mayor thought that I might be able to advise him. I did so.”
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SOURCE: The Washington Post, Matt Schudel