Photo courtesy of Steve Lacey
In 1985 I had to visit the Public Defender’s office in Seattle’s Smith Tower (a story for another time). As I walked through the lobby, a TV reporter and her cameraman were waiting patiently for something. The reporter was chewing gum, blowing bubbles, and tapping her high heels on the ground in a marching pattern while she held a mic.
That reporter was Kathi Goertzen of KOMO TV News.
I pretended not to notice someone famous was in the building. I mean, come on…it was THE Kathi Goertzen! I was nervous. When confronted by an intersection in life that includes famous people, I usually embarrass myself somehow unless I go underground. Even if I didn’t have the guts to talk with her, I simply couldn’t get over that visual of a toe-tapping reporter blowing bubbles.
At the time I was working overnight at Shoreline Family Shell in Shoreline. It was a job worthy of a thousand goofy stories; I worked with a crew surrounded by subplots. Even though it was right on State Route 99, the station was also very boring overnight, save for the occasional tweaker or coke head gassing up while yelling at some presumed threat. Those were the ones who paid me in – for real – wads of crumpled money, silver certificates, or bags of wheatback pennies.
This job also came at a very low time in my life.
Things weren’t going right. I had worked just about every job, and lost my fair share of them too. The future just wasn’t clicking, and I seemed to be floating on open water without a port in site. Any sort of future seemed shackled to jobs where the manager scheduled me for just enough hours to not give me benefits like health insurance. In short: my life was stagnated.
One night in the gas kiosk I started thinking again about that chance meeting at Smith Tower with Kathi, and somehow the notion of writing her a letter seemed like the right idea. Maybe I just needed something to lift my spirits and help me forget that my career was stalled. But I couldn’t just write something like, “Hi…how’s it goin’? I really like you on the news and stuff…” No, I needed a hook, something that would convince her to read a letter written by a pump jockey from Shoreline. Something fun to write. Something – more importantly – fun to read. So Kathi Goertzen of KOMO TV4 received an award so wonderful, so prestigious, and so legendary that no one outside of my circle of friends had ever heard of it:
The Cutest Woman in TV News Award
In the hand-written letter I first described how we had crossed paths at Smith Tower, and then the fictional account of how she had won the award at random. Names of female newscasters of the era were written on pieces of paper: Kathi, KING TV’s Jean Enerson, and KIRO TV’s Susan Hutchison. In a big bowl, Byl the Cat stirred them around with his paw before a name was chosen. My friends and I then pledged loyalty to the winner and watched the news together while eating pizza. Of course it was all hooey, and probably not believable; I just wanted to write her a letter.
I also wanted to deliver it by hand. My friend Jamie tagged along, and we headed downtown on a Monday afternoon. I knew we probably wouldn’t be allowed to give it straight to Kathi, but it would be worth a shot.
“I have a letter here for Kathi Goertzen,” I said holding it in front of me. The person at the front desk gracefully took the letter and thanked us. Knowing that crazies probably walk in off the street all the time, we dutifully announced that we weren’t crazies.
“That’s alright,” she said. “We have a dog that sniffs all her mail.”
By the end of the week she replied to the letter. It is probably buried in my archives somewhere (aka “plastic bin in garage”), but I recall most of the correspondance. She thanked me for the honor of being chosen. “Words can’t begin to describe my surprise and gratitude.” She also sent her regards to Byl the Cat for being so instrumental in her “achieving such a great honor.” What a ham.
“It is true,” she wrote, “that I chew gum while on assignment, much to my producer’s dismay.”
She went on to say that she hoped we would continue watching her and drinking beer, even though beer was never mentioned in my letter. “I hope to be here for a long time, unless my ratings plummet.” Thankfully her ratings never did.
Her letter was like a single-page double-spaced Helvetica-typed piece of happiness.
I always hoped to get a letter in reply, but didn’t expect that it would raise my spirits so much. I felt that I had a knack at something, and that there might be a future yet for a guy who to that point had just been floundering. As might be expected, things did get better.
But the story doesn’t end there…
After 9/11, I felt tremendous thankfulness for the people who had helped me through my earlier life, especially the times when I was either broke or floundering. I thought it would be a great idea to write some letters. For example one went to the high school teacher who introduced me to so many great films like Bullitt and Citizen Kane. Another went a friend’s parents who treated me like their own son. It seemed important to let these folks know that the things they did in the past were still appreciated, and that I was thankful for even the small acts of kindness they had shared.
And once again, I got to thinking about Kathi Goertzen.
I remembered 1985, when my stalled life was tied to that brief and goofy correspondence with someone famous – the one shining beacon of normalcy for the whole year. Should I write to her? Kathi’s email address at KOMO was on the station’s website. But what would I say? I didn’t know right off, but it just seemed like the right thing to do.
“I don’t expect you to remember,” my 2004 email to Kathi began. I went on to explain the embarrassing tale of how I had concocted a story in 1985 about Byl the Cat choosing her as The Cutest Woman in TV News with his paw. But I also wrote how the brief correspondence we had really brightened my day and helped my future look reasonable and positive. In the final paragraphs the described how I had finally turned my life around for the better, and eventually got a degree from WSU – willingly tying that letter from her to a turnaround that got me on the right track in life.
A couple days later I got a gracious reply, thanking me for the email and commenting on the humor behind the “award” she received. “You really give me too much credit,” she wrote, “for what you had inside all along.” Always a class act, that one.
On August 12, 2012 we lost Kathi to brain tumors which she had been battling for 14 years.
Throughout her fight she remained as positive as she was back in the day, even as the tumors kept coming back and taking more away. Her words of encouragement to me and others in the past turned back on her, as thousands of well-wishers and fans like me continued to support her as a long-time local favorite personality. I chuckle a bit when I think back to the mid 1980s, and the whole idea of sending off a letter to Kathi. As much as I groan and shake my head about the contents of that letter now, I’m glad I did it. What it has shown me is even the small intersections in life can be important, and influential later on. You may never know how much impact your words will have on someone, so make them good words. And you may never know when an award might come your way.
Rest In Peace Kathi; you still win.
Note: I originally wrote this story in 2010. In 2011 I shared it on Kathi’s Facebook page, and got a comment back from her. “This is so touching!” she wrote. “I’m going to share your story with my daughters.” It makes me happy that she was able to read it before she passed away.