Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Goodbye, Randy

Randy Garsee (Source: KOLD)
Like many of you, I was shocked to hear the sudden death of former KOLD news anchor Randy Garsee. I hadn't spoken to him on a regular basis since he left the station in 2006, but I knew he was pursuing journalism on his own terms, just the way he wanted it.

Randy arrived at KOLD in 1997, shortly after his longtime partner Kris Pickel and about three years before I stepped into the newsroom. His corner cubicle was adorned with dragons -- his favorite mythical creature -- and a millennium coffee-mug he'd doctored to read "01-01-01" instead of "00" at the end. Randy and the station shared the philosophy that the real turn of the millennium would come a year after the monstrous hype over all things Y2K. He reported and edited a weekly feature, "Beyond The Millennium," which spotlighted futuristic, cutting-edge subjects with a Tucson connection. One story had him checking out paranormal research at the University of Arizona and raising the question of whether mediums might one day testify in court on behalf of the dead.

One story he pursued relentlessly was the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, that polygamous breakaway sect of the Mormon church led by shadowy self-proclaimed prophet Warren Jeffs. Randy journeyed to the Utah-Arizona border and a remote ranch in West Texas as he tracked it.

He once tried to get an interview with Jeffs as members revealed what was happening in the FLDS-controlled enclave of Colorado City, Arizona. A camera rolled while he made a call from a pay phone in the town:

RANDY: "Hello, Brother Nephi?"

ISSAC: "This is Isaac."

RANDY: "Hi there, Brother Issac, I was wondering if I could talk to the Prophet today."

ISAAC: "Who is this?"

RANDY: "My name is Randy Garsee. I'm with KOLD-TV in Tucson. Would he be available for an interview today?"

ISAAC: "Negative, he would not."

RANDY: "Does he ever talk to the media?"

ISAAC: "We have no comment."

In the end, it didn't matter. Jeffs went to the slammer for hooking up underage girls with FLDS members. Garsee moved on to the next story.

With his Navy background, he proved to be an invaluable resource for military perspective and technical rib-poking. In 2003, He went to Kuwait when the U.S. tangled with Saddam Hussein again, hoping to get the inside story on Davis-Monthan Air Force Base personnel overseas. But due to a mess-up in the commanding ranks, neither the access nor the lodging he had been promised materialized. He nearly ended up stuck in the Middle East as the nation went to war. "I think I just got somebody fired," Randy said after he complained to the officers.

Randy with then-KOLD photographer Carl Lemon,
taking on "Anchorman."  (Source: Facebook)
In 2001, he came up with a new idea for a movie review feature: have people who share an occupation with characters in the film offer their take on how Hollywood portrays their job. I suggested the name: "Reel Life Movie Reviews." We debuted it with the film Pearl Harbor using three military service members who narrated their thoughts intercut with movie clips. For Spider-Man we turned to a local comic store owner and a spider specialist from the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. A Tucson magician offered his opinions on Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. When The Passion Of The Christ came out, Reel Life was a natural fit to let members of Tucson's religious community offer their views.  Randy got to see movies on Friday and get paid for it.

But most of Randy's viewers remember his knife-edged wit. He often injected micro-commentary into news items, especially when the station's aging tape decks started breaking up video on the air. "Can we get a working tape recorder around here?" he once blurted out from the anchor desk. In other famous on-air moments, he teased former reporter Kaushal Patel about her wardrobe choice and asked J.D. Wallace why there was barbed wire up at Pima County Democratic Headquarters. I gather he had the Howard Cosell effect: viewers who loved him watched because they wanted to see what he'd say next, and those who hated him watched to see what he'd say next.

In a 2006 interview with Tucson Weekly, he said:
"I always feel like people are inviting you into your living room. This is a job. People know it's a job; it's a career, but everybody likes to have a little fun on the job. Everybody does. That's something I took from the newsroom to the anchor desk. I try not to be too flip or too obnoxious, but my philosophy is to watch the newscast with the viewer, and if things go wrong, or if I do something stupid, which happens all the time, comment about it. Say something about it. I get more e-mail about those kinds of remarks--about referencing video, the jokes at the end of the show--more comments on that from viewers than anything else."
Your humble servant shouldered some of Randy's one-liners. When I took poetic liberties with some news copy, he quipped: "Our producer, Chris Francis Shakespeare wrote that." In the newsroom, when I heard crackling over the scanner about a body being found and noted it was right down the street from my home, he cried out: "Dammit, Francis, I told you to bury those bodies further away!"

Randy was also an aspiring novelist. He'd completed two books in his stint with KOLD, but he was having trouble getting them published, even with help from an agent. I revealed to him I had been working on a novel myself, and he graciously asked to see the first chapter or so. Within days he returned with his verdict.

"You need to seriously pursue this," he said, not cracking any jokes this time. "For somebody to turn around a novel this fast shows ability." Actually, I had been working on it for about 10 years in various forms, including a screenplay, but I had never finished it until months before. He encouraged me to spend the money on a writers' workshop in Tucson, where I could start courting potential publishers and agents while learning the business.

I did so in 2003, doing an interview and sending out some query letters and manuscript samples, but the book went nowhere. I knew I would have to send out oodles more to have a decent shot, but ultimately, I decided the text could be better and focused my attention on my day job. Randy eventually turned to e-publishing to get in print. One day, I might head that route.

Randy's passions for reporting and writing were only matched by the passion of his demeanor. He didn't suffer fools gladly, and I saw him light into more than one person. He believed in fighting for his stories, almost to blows in some cases. Randy also refused to practice office diplomacy, which did him in when he thought his contributions were being marginalized.

Source: Blogspot
It didn't take him long to find his next gig. He went to a smaller station in Ada, Oklahoma, and then moved back to a military job, providing video from U.S. operations overseas. Randy was working as a communications and public affairs adviser for the Center for Naval Analyses and Institute for Public Research when he passed away in his sleep on Sunday. He was only 50, a mere nine years older than me, but with enough experience for two lives.

Randy had a wife and two daughters. One of the girls loved to run up and hug me every time she visited the newsroom.

"Oh, thank you," I said to her. "You know the producer doesn't get a whole lot of hugs."

"I'll hug ya," Randy deadpanned.


Jerry Peek said...

Thanks so much, Christopher. I took Randy's place writing his Tucson Murals Project blog as he left Tucson six years ago. Though Randy and I stayed in touch by email and phone, we only met in person a few times -- so I didn't know much of the story of his life. I was happy to discover this post of yours.

Jerry Peek

Patti said...

Thanks for sharing this. I was Randy's mother-in-law and we always had a joke - he would sign cards to me "your favorite son-in-law". He was my only SIL and I loved him. We are broken hearted at this sudden, unexpected loss. Much too young and talented to leave so soon. Like others I enjoyed his wit and how he gave us the news in Tucson. I'm glad he lived such a full life and although this is a huge loss for his girls and Amy, we are proud of him and his accomplishments and will keep those positive memories alive for them.