HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – How do you adequately write a story about one of Alabama’s best storytellers? I don’t feel equal to this task.
On Friday, the staff of WHNT News 19 celebrated our colleague and friend Al Whitaker as we announced his retirement. He wasn’t ready to hang up the camera and mic but doctors instructed him otherwise. None of us were ready for it. Concerns about his health following a stroke in late December last year forced us all to a place none of us wanted.
North Alabama’s airwaves will forever be far less interesting for Al’s absence from them. He has a rare style of storytelling – like a fist that punches through the television screen and grabs you by the shirt collar and commands you to pay attention.
How did his stories do that? Why can he do what others can’t? Simple. He cares. We all care. We don’t get into this business if we don’t care. But, Al just cares more. He cares to his core. And that comes through in the way he researches, reports, interviews, shoots, edits and delivers the words. You feel what he feels. His anger. His compassion. His joy. His pain. Every person’s story he told, he told as if they were his kin.
Al fought for consumers. He doggedly pursued scam artists who ripped off people of their hard-earned money. By exposing them, he held them accountable. They paid up, completed work and sometimes served time. He put reprobates on notice. If you wronged someone, Al worked tirelessly to track you down.
Al is a human lie detector. He can smell BS a mile away and isn’t ashamed to tell the scourge what he thinks of them. "You are a thief. You are the worst kind of thief. You are scum. You are stealing from these people," he admonished con artists calling from Jamaica who scammed a Hartselle family out of $3,500. He couldn’t get that family their money back. But, we believe his story prevented others from falling victim.
WHNT News 19's Brian Lawson worked with Al on our investigative team. During Friday’s retirement party, Lawson reflected, "Al Whitaker was so much like the lawman in a Western who rides into a lawless town, bringing the promise of justice. If you were hurting or had been ripped off, you'd never find a better or tougher friend. If you were a crook, or a hustler preying on people, the last thing you wanted was Al Whitaker, armed with his camera, showing up on your doorstep." Lawson continued, "Al was not only fearless, but tireless. If he sensed a story, he'd work to find it, didn't matter if it was hours, days, weeks, he'd keep digging. And he'd get it... every time."
Al breathed life into our brand Taking Action, Getting Results®. He did what was right and made no apologies for it – even if it meant veering outside the lines of convention. As his News Director, I was Al’s supervisor. But, I must admit that “supervising” was a loose term. There simply was no corralling Al. He and I had more than one visit in my office where I had to remind him that I didn’t like surprises. Take for instance the time that he took it upon himself to convince a local RV dealer to loan him a camper for a family displaced by floodwaters. Al transported the temporary residence to the family. Once I got wind of it, I wrestled with how to respond. How could I be mad at him for finding a creative solution? On the other hand, the legal and liability concerns nearly made my head pop off my shoulders. I think we both grew through those numerous heart-to-heart conversations.
Al fought for a veteran who fought for our country. Al’s story began, “Ron Buis served his country with honor but now he's serving time.” Buis was charged with shooting into an occupied dwelling - a felony and he was being held without bond. Al’s narrative explained, “It's not that Buis was outside shooting into someone else's house. He was in his mobile home and the bullets traveled into the mobile homes near his. It happened on more than one occasion, too. His friends tell us Ron wasn't trying to hurt anyone. They say he was shooting at the voices in his head.” Buis came home from Vietnam with a Purple Heart, a Vietnamese Citation for Gallantry with Bronze and Silver stars, and a Gold Star from the Marines in lieu of a second Purple Heart. Al’s story revealed, “He also brought with him the haunting memories of a horrible experience that would later manifest themselves as psychotic depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.” On live tv, Al stared directly into the camera and closed his report vowing, “Mr. Buis, we make you this promise, sir, we will not rest until you get the help you need. And we promise you we'll keep you apprised of any developments.” It took 5 months, but Al Got Results for Buis.
Al also possesses a remarkable way of capturing the human condition and telling the stories that remind us about the things that are right in this world. Like his feature on Coach Trevor, Madison County High School’s honorary football teammate. On May 15, 2015, Trevor Landers earned his chance to move from the sidelines to the line of scrimmage and Al documented it in a way that touched our hearts. You just have to watch the story to understand. Al helped us follow Trevor’s journey to being crowned homecoming king and then turning the tassel at graduation. Trevor’s mom, Cathy, emailed to express her appreciation following one of the stories, “We have had so many texts, phone calls and hugs & high fives from friends, family and once again even strangers who have seen the story!! Thank you both from the bottom of ALL THE LANDERS’ HEARTS!!! Y’all are and will forever be our Channel 19 Family!!!”
Veteran anchor Jerry Hayes surmised, "I've seen a lot of reporters, anchors and producers come through our newsroom, and Al is one of the best writers I've worked with in 40 years. His stories start as a blank canvas and he chooses his words as an artist would do with a paintbrush to create a piece of work that leaves an impression on the viewer. Al has the gift of writing in such a way to make you feel what he's feeling whether it's anger about someone taking advantage of the little man or happiness that warms your heart with joy. As journalists, we should all ask ourselves, how would Al write this story? It'll make us better at what we do."
Following an EPA health advisory on unsafe levels of the chemicals PFOA and PFOS, the West Morgan-East Lawrence water authority advised residents in June 2016 not to drink its water. Al dug into the story. He highlighted the challenges the water authority and residents faced, gave voice to resident concerns, showed consumers how water filters could work and solved a mystery about why the chemicals were still so present, years after 3M had stopped making them.
In an age where the rally phrase “fake news” cries loudly, WHNT News 19 Anchor Greg Screws offers this thought, “Al is the best. What makes him the best is how real he is. He brings humanity and a unique nature to the projects he embraces. Viewers watch and listen to Al and think, “I believe what he is telling me and I want to know more. Al always brings two things to projects that seem elusive in today’s media landscape: context and perspective. Al not only gives you black and white. He gives you all the shades of gray in between. And, it is in those layers that we most often find clarity and truth.”
As the WHNT News 19 staff assembled to receive the news about Al’s retirement on Friday, co-workers current and former shared thoughts, memories and well-wishes.
Steve Johnson, WHNT News 19 morning anchor called Al a man of character, “Al Whitaker is a great reporter, but that’s not what I think of with Al. I think of a genuinely nice guy who’s been my friend for a couple of decades. He’s the kind of guy you trust, a guy who would do whatever he could to help you. Maybe that’s why he was such a great reporter. I know that’s what makes him a great friend.”
WHNT News 19’s Former Chief Investigative Reporter David Kumbroch couldn’t be there in person, but had an emissary deliver his message to tell Al, “That he earned his rest. That he served his community better than anyone I've ever met. That he should be damn proud of what he's done. And that there's not a single person that wouldn't want him to take the rest of his time to do some things for himself.
On Friday, we showered Al with our adoration and affection. And, yet… it didn’t seem like we gave enough to a man who gave so much to us.