CINCINNATI – Clyde Gray paused a moment when asked why he decided now was the time to retire from television broadcasting.
After 37 years of reporting other people's tragedies, Gray said, he yearned to do something new, refreshing and renewing.
"I have to report on children who are abused or raised in abusive circumstances," he said. "It's hard for me to talk about those stories, knowing that I have an 8-year-old daughter at home. And sometimes I see her face when I'm talking about all these other kids. And it just tears me to pieces."
That's when the 59-year-old anchorman – admired by viewers and colleagues alike for his calm under pressure, smooth delivery and unwavering professionalism – began to cry. Still, Gray wasn't embarrassed or ashamed.
"I'm comfortable in my own skin," he said.
Thank goodness. If Clyde Gray weren't, what hope would there be for the rest of us?
For more than 23 years, Gray has been a main anchor at 9 On Your Side. Most recently, he has co-anchored the 5 p.m. news with Tanya O'Rourke and co-anchored with Carol Williams at 6 p.m. and 11 p.m.
WATCH Clyde take his final bow after his last newscast in the video player above
"He's like the Walter Cronkite of Cincinnati," Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley said of Gray. "You felt like when he said something, it was news."
Career Built In The Queen City
A native of Winston-Salem, N.C., Gray has spent all but a handful of years in his long TV career working in Cincinnati. Gray worked for a couple years at a station in his hometown before moving to Cincinnati in 1979 to work for Channel 5. He left in 1983 and worked at a TV station in Baltimore before moving back to Cincinnati in 1985 to return to Channel 5.
Channel 9 hired Gray in September 1990 to become one of its main anchors. His first big story was to go to Washington, D.C., to interview the region's congressional delegation about sending troops into combat just before the start of the Persian Gulf War, said Stuart Zanger, a former Channel 9 special projects director and news director.
During Gray's interview with former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana, the congressman's buzzer went off for a vote in the House.
Gray continued interviewing Hamilton as they walked down the hall and rode in the elevator, Zanger said. And when it came time for Hamilton to take the subway from the congressional office building to the U.S. House, Gray asked if he, Zanger and Channel 9 Photographer Terry Helmer could ride with him.
"The security didn't say anything. We kept shooting when we were on the train," Zanger said. "That's the kind of journalist we had for our anchorman."
Gray made his mark as a part of Channel 9's I-Team, too.
Among Gray's favorite I-Team stories, he said, was an investigation into rebuilt wrecks – used cars that were cobbled together from pieces of vehicles that had been totaled.
Gray's face was too well known in Cincinnati to be part of I-Team's undercover reporting for the story, Zanger said. Still, he insisted on going with a producer and photographer to London, Ky., where there were body shops that specialized in rebuilding totaled cars.
The team had just finished shooting the last video from their minivan – taking a slow shot of the body shops from the open door of the van – when they were spotted.
"Clyde called me and said a pickup truck with a couple of folks had chased them out of town," Zanger said. "He said they were OK, that there was a state police office across the highway and that's where they went. That's how Clyde was."
Gray said that story has stuck with him because it resulted in a change in Ohio law. He and former Channel 9 News Director Jim Zarchin even testified about the issue before the U.S. Senate.
Inspired By Watergate Reporting
Making a difference in people's lives is, after all, why Gray got into journalism to begin with, he said.
"I turned to journalism from basically not having any clue what to do during Watergate when I was watching Woodward and Bernstein," Gray said. "I thought, 'Boy, wouldn't that be cool to do? To have an impact that changes the course of history and, presumably, makes people's lives better and makes their government more accountable."
He's had that impact in Greater Cincinnati – not only through his award-winning reporting – but also in the way he has done his job as an anchorman for so many years, said Dr. O'dell Owens, president of Cincinnati State Technical and Community College and a friend of Gray's.
"He's been a tremendous role model for the community, especially the African-American community," Owens said.
Gray's race was a big part of the local media coverage when Channel 9 hired him to be a main anchor in 1990.
He was the first African-American man to be hired for such a prominent role, Gray recalled, although former anchor Dave Burchell was on the air at Channel 12 before Gray started anchoring at Channel 9.
"It was a huge deal," said former Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory. "I felt like he was The Guy."
Over time, that focus on Gray's race became less intense, Owens said.
"Clyde is one of the most senior and well-known anchors now," Owens said. "That black piece doesn't come into play there anymore."
That doesn't change the fact, though, that professional African-American men can feel like they're under a magnifying glass, Owens said.
He and Gray were part of a small group of professional, African-American men who met on a regular basis for about seven years to mentor a group of boys in Over-the-Rhine, help the boys financially and discuss amongst themselves the challenges they faced as professionals.
"Everyone in that group was a very high-powered African-American male in some high-powered job," Owens said. "When you're successful, you have people in both the African-American community an the non-African-American community that want to see you slip."
Yet, Gray hasn't.
When he signs off after his last newscast at 6 p.m. Aug. 29, he will do so as one of the best anchormen Cincinnati has ever seen, said former Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken, who himself was an anchorman at Channel 5 during the 1990s.
"From a technical point of view, I don't know that we've ever seen anybody better than Clyde," Luken said. "I always thought when he was a young anchor that he was going to go to one of the networks and always was surprised that he didn't because of his talent."
Luken wasn't the only one.
Former 9 On Your Side sports anchor Dennis Janson said he, too, believed Gray could work for any network or in any market in the country.
"He has the ability. He has that special something. He has the professional heft," Janson said. "He has a very, very pleasant yet authoritative look, a great voice. He is widely read – very, very literate. He's the whole package. And he's excellent under pressure and in ad-lib situations."
Gray had offers to leave Cincinnati over the years, said Zanger, who talked about them with Gray when the two men worked together.
Originally, that's what Gray thought he would do, he said.
"I did come here with the intent of this being a springboard to the next level," Gray said. "But as time went by, this became ever more home, and I had ever more connections here."
Plus, Gray said, he got a glimpse of what network life was like during an assignment he had in the late 1980s that took him overseas.
"I talked to a producer, and he got to telling me what the lifestyle was like, and it was a cautionary tale," said Gray, who has a grown daughter and grown son from his previous marriage. "I didn't really want to give up family for career any more than I had to."
As a trusted, tenured news anchor here, Gray also has been able to help the community through some of its most difficult times.
During the 2001 riots, for example, Gray delivered the news without bias and "didn't pander to anybody on any side," said Luken, who was mayor at the time.
He also helped facilitate difficult and honest conversations about race, Luken said.
"That was the key to moving forward – people coming out of their comfort zones and talking about things that made them squirm a bit," he said. "And Clyde was good at getting folks to do that. Without that conversation, I don't think we would have moved forward as much as we have today."
'Kind Of Perfect'
If all this makes Gray sound too good to be true, his co-workers insist that's just Clyde.
"He's the coolest, nicest, best guy you'll ever meet. He's kind of perfect," said 9 On Your Side anchor Tanya O'Rourke. "People ask me all the time, 'Is Clyde Gray as cool as he seems?' Yes, he is."
He's an anchor who "connected to the audience" immediately, said Jeff Brogan, vice president and general manager of WCPO 9 On Your Side.
"Trust, respect and connections are extremely valuable to any media organization," Brogan said. "And Clyde has helped maintain these important attributes with our audience."
He also is the kind of colleague who understands the importance of good communication, said 9 On Your Side anchor Carol Williams.
"He's a generous partner. A good partner is generous and doesn't interrupt you," said Williams, who started at the station several years before Gray. "We always joke that he's my TV husband, and I'm his TV wife. Husbands and wives do that for each other. It's 'Dear, tell that story….'"
Gray also has made sure to stay on top of what has been happening in the world so that he always has had something smart to say during transitions to sports or weather, said John Popovich, 9 On Your Side's long-time sports director.
"The good anchors make everyone around them better – it's as simple as that," he said. "I really respected Clyde because he's smart, and anchor guys have to be really smart and quick on their feet all the time. He is – despite two hip replacements."
Gray also has been a newsroom leader from the day he walked in the door, said former 9 On Your Side General Manager Bill Fee.
Fee oversaw major changes in the WCPO newsroom starting in 2002 and 2003 that required anchors, reporters and photographers to learn how to do each others' jobs so everyone could be involved in creating content for newscasts and the station's website.
"It was hard for everybody," Fee said. "But Clyde did it confidently. He did it with the best of intentions and just followed through. He knew if he didn't do it, nobody would."
The Next Professional Chapter
Those changes were nothing compared to what's next for Gray.
After he retires from 9 On Your Side, Gray plans to devote his time to Clyde Gray and Associates Public Relations Strategies, he said.
Gray has been thinking about starting a business for several years. He initially launched an ad agency and marketing firm in 2011 but scaled back his involvement soon after its launch.
"It energizes me to have something new and fresh and different to try to do," Gray said. "I want to build something that contributes to the vitality of this community and puts people to work and gives them opportunities."
It won't be easy, said Steve Hightower, a friend of Gray's and the owner of several businesses, including Hightowers Petroleum in Middletown. Hightower described leaving a corporate job to start a company as a "combination of culture shock and a rude awakening."
"I think Clyde will transition well, but that awakening of 'I now have to make my own' is going to be different for him," Hightower said. "But in the long run, it will be more rewarding for him. And does he have that tenacity? Absolutely."
The move to entrepreneur also will be a big change for Gray's wife, Kalena, and their daughter, Claire.
For the first time, Gray will be home for dinner during the week and might get a taste of what it's like to shuttle his third-grade daughter to her many after-school activities, Kalena Gray said.
It's a big change for the family dynamic, she said, and it's one she welcomes.
"It's nice to hear my husband laugh and put energy into something that he's enjoying," she said. "He wants a new mountain so he got it."
As Gray prepares to climb that "new mountain," he will leave behind a void in the place he has worked for nearly a generation.
"It's not just his on-air presence that will be missed. It's going to be the mentorship, the leadership that he provided to everybody in that newsroom that's going to be missed the most," Fee said. "Channel 9 will be just fine. WCPO.com will be just fine. But to lose somebody of Clyde's stature and experience and integrity – it's going to take a while to fill in that newsroom."
Brogan said he sees Gray's retirement as the "end of another successful run by a WCPO anchor."
"From Al Schottelkotte to Pat Minarcin to Clyde - this station has a history of anchors that have made an impact in our community," Brogan said. "So now we are looking for the next WCPO anchor who can carry on this legacy."
For more stories by Lucy May, go to www.wcpo.com/may. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.