Television anchor Jim Vance was a hero in black Washington
A fixture on the local news for four decades, he died of cancer
Back in the day, Jim Vance used to double-park his cream Mercedes 450 SL outside Roland’s grocery store on Pennsylvania Avenue in Southeast D.C. He’d run in, grab a magazine, some Junior Mints, often a pack of Marlboro Reds, and dap up every soul in the store who recognized him before peeling away.
This was 1979, when local TV news was king and most every American news anchor was white. The nation’s potentates and poseurs ran the country just down the street. But to black Washington, Vance was a hero, anchoring the leading local news show in the nation’s capital for more than four decades.
Young’uns and old heads alike beamed with pride at his accomplishments and what he represented: an elite African-American professional, playing by his rules.
“They thought he was working for them — and he was,” recalled Scott Towle.
Towle was 20, stocking shelves and working as a cashier at Roland’s in 1979. Today, he is another Washingtonian who felt as if he lost a family member when NBC’s WRC-TV announced Vance had died of cancer Saturday morning — just two months after he told viewers about his diagnosis.
“He became the embodiment of black Washington,” said his widow, Kathy McCampbell Vance, whom Vance often credited with saving him from cocaine addiction in the mid-1980s. They were married in 1987. Through separations and an on-and-off-again courtship, she’d been his closest companion for 40 years.
“He lived in Southeast, in a black neighborhood in Capitol Hill, for years,” she added. “Vance was a bootstraps kind of guy. He was just smart. And he had so much personality and charisma.”
If Birth of the Cool belonged to Miles Davis, Vance was the Continuum of Cool. He read the news with a jazzy syncopation, enunciating every sentence just so. In television, a world of harried producers and directors, he moved at the speed of … Jim Vance. If time hadn’t stood still for him, at least the 6 and 11 o’clock newscasts did.
I met him in 2005 through sportscaster George Michael, who invited me to be a panelist on his NBC Washington sports shows. Vance was an unabashed local sports fan who formed a close relationship with Hall of Fame NFL coach Joe Gibbs and many of the team’s best players during Washington’s three Super Bowl victories between 1983 and 1992. He pined for the day when the Wizards would hoist the NBA trophy like Wes Unseld’s Bullets did in 1978. Vance was always curious what Gilbert Arenas was really like, why Stephen Strasburg always looked so angry for a man paid millions to play a child’s game and why Dan Snyder kept getting in his own way, “because Lord knows I know what that’s about,” he told me.
When Michael died in 2010, Vance took it hard and delivered a profound eulogy for his friend. “George Michael was the first man to tell me he loved me,” he said. “When I told him that the L-word made me feel uncomfortable, George replied, ‘Get over it.’ ”
Vance grew up in Ardmore, a suburb of Philadelphia. His father, James Howard Vance Jr., drank heavily, dying of cirrhosis when Jim was 9. His mother left him in the care of his grandparents. He blamed his father’s death on himself, once lamenting, “I was convinced I was such a piece of s— that he’d rather die than hang out with me.” He earned a degree in secondary education from Cheyney University, a historically black college where he roomed with Ed Bradley, the longtime 60 Minutes correspondent.
He taught high school English for three years and got a job as a television reporter in Philadelphia through a career placement agency in 1968. With America’s racial cauldron boiling, he was recruited to Washington within a year. By 1972, he would become NBC4’s lead news anchor for much of the next five decades.
Winner of 19 Emmy Awards, Vance went to Vietnam. To South Africa. And to Southeast D.C. He fished with President George H.W. Bush. Former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry sought out Vance first after being arrested in 1990 for smoking crack cocaine.
Vance knew where the mayor had been, because he once put himself through the same hell. He entered the Betty Ford Center in 1984 after many years of free-basing cocaine. But he relapsed upon returning to town.
“This was the pre-crack cocaine era,” Kathy Vance said. “I just think free-basing was so seductive to Vance that it just pulled him in.” At his lowest, Vance stuck the shotgun he used for bird hunting in his mouth one evening out by Great Falls, but he didn’t pull the trigger.
Vance’s sobriety from cocaine, which began in 1985, lasted until he died. He became active in Washington 12-step groups, partnering with longtime advocate and D.C. politico Johnny Allem in 1991 to open the Cardozo Club at 14th and V streets, which catered to some of the city’s poorest in need of a recovery group, and the nonprofit Columbia Recovery Center.
By 1989, he had combined forces with Doreen Gentzler, weatherman Bob Ryan and Michael. Ratings soared. More people in Washington watched NBC4 for the next 20-plus years than all the national cable news networks combined.
Gunner of Harley-Davidsons, slayer of hundreds of king and sockeye salmon each summer outside of Ketchikan, Alaska, connoisseur of tequila, jazz and the good life, Vance began wearing a golden hoop earring in his left ear in 2006 after the death of his friend Bradley, who had worn one.
“He was such a … man,” said Rock Newman, host of The Rock Newman Show and the former boxing manager for Riddick Bowe. “He was such a cool character. Sinatra-like. When he did my show, he walked in with some beautiful sweater, leather coat over it and jeans on. That’s some cool s—.
“No matter who you were, how much money you had, what color you were, you saw Jim and you smiled. He was a magnet for everybody.”
He also wasn’t afraid to be polarizing. Vance emotionally advocated for Washington’s NFL team to change its name in 2013 in his Vance’s Views forum — even though the team had a business partnership with the station that had dated back decades.
CBS’ James Brown, a D.C. native, credits Vance with pushing him toward broadcasting during a lunch they had in the early 1970s. “I was trying to seek safety in the multitude of counsel, deciding whether I should stick with the corporate route or pursue my passion, broadcasting. He said to go with what I really wanted to do, that nothing would take the place of that. I still remember that, that he was one of those sage voices that took the time to reach out to a literal nobody at the time. And he was like that with everybody.”
Donnie Simpson, the District’s DJ for life, moved from Detroit to Washington 40 years ago. His first radio gig in D.C. was housed in the same building as NBC4.
“When I saw that anchor desk, all those black faces — Jim, Sue Simmons, Martin Wyatt, the sports anchor at the time — and Jim Vance was the lead? All I could think was, damn, this was the Chocolate City. Black folks really do have some standing in this city. And Jim Vance represented that.”
Craig Melvin, a former NBC4 reporter and now an anchor with NBC and MSNBC, recalled that when he was hired at WRC in 2008, he was told, matter-of-factly, “You gotta get Jim Vance to bless you.”
When Melvin finally introduced himself, Vance said, “I know who you are. I know why you’re here. Meet me at this address.” He then slid a small piece of paper across the table with the address on it. “Best steaks in the District. I’ll meet you there between shows at 7:30.”
“I’m fairly nervous, to say the least,” Melvin said. “I get there early because it’s Jim Vance. But there’s no steakhouse. Just an interesting-looking building with an awning.” A brawny doorman brought Melvin to a private room.
“Then he walks in — in a top coat, top hat, lookin’ cool as s—,” Melvin said. “He sits me down in a corner. It’s then I realized where we were.”
Vance had had Melvin meet him at a strip bar called Camelot. “We sat there. We talked over what was, surprisingly, a pretty good steak.”
“I was testing you,” Vance finally said. “A punk would’ve walked in here and turned right around. But you’re my kind of guy.”
Kathy Vance knew the deal.
“He had his flaws, his demons, and they were his undoing,” she said. “But on the other side of that he lived the life he wanted, and he left a lot of good behind.
“The thing I remember is he looked you in the eye when you spoke to him and talked as if he was really, really listening to you — because he was. … He read people. And he responded. He didn’t wait for you to tell him who you were.”
The irony is Jim Vance didn’t know who he was until much later in life. And even when he found out, he still perplexed the ones he loved.
“I think I’ll be asking questions for decades to come about who he really was,” Kathy said.
Jim Vance was 75 years old. He is survived by Kathy, three children from two previous marriages, a daughter-in-law, three grandchildren and everyone who ever saw him grace the television of their family room.