Pittsburgh’s Leading Newswoman
It is a hot, unbearably humid day in late August. There are two LED lights, a heavy, Sony XD camera mounted on a tripod and one monitor propped up on the Baughman Trail in Ohiopyle, just beyond the old train station. Mosquitos relentless, sun managing to beat down through a thick canopy of trees, crickets that are getting symphonic, and WTAE veteran Sally Wiggin is melting.
“Oh my God… the back of my shirt is wet! I am so sweaty!” She says, fanning herself before she straightens her shoulders, focuses on the camera, and waits for the cue to begin taping.
“Sally Wiggin!” a shirtless, gray-haired man wearing a faded gray ballcap, dirty jeans, and riding a mountain bike suddenly exclaims, stopping to extend a sweaty hand. “Oh, you’re the best! I watch you all the time!”
“Thank you,” she smiles, extending hers, engaging him in conversation. After a few minutes, he pauses, still smiling, still not believing it. Sally Wiggin!
He finally pedals off, just as her makeup artist swoops in with a towel, another swipe of coral colored MAC cream sheen, and a stream of hair spray. “Are you ready?” Sally calls out to her photographer. “Let’s do this!”
She tosses a white sheet of paper imprinted with her lines to the ground next to her feet for easy access, just shy of the green overgrowth and fans herself in another attempt to cool off.
“Ultra Running,” the photographer says, “Take one!”
“For many of us,” she begins, “the idea of a typical….”
“Sorry!” another bicyclist apologizes, riding through the shot.
“Take two,” the photographer calls out.
“For many of us…” Sally begins again, at the exact moment a CSX train lays on the horn, tank cars and box cars and coal cars squealing and screeching and hissing their way along a set of tracks less than 200 feet away.
“Are you kidding me?” she shouts over another blast of the horn as a minute passes. Then two, then four. More squealing. More hissing. Six minutes of screeching, clanking train cars.
“I am going to pound my head on something hard!” she exclaims, picking her lines up from the ground again and fanning herself.
She’ll be here outside in the blazing heat for another four hours, filming this intro and that outro for “Chronicle,” the documentary-style magazine show she’s been hosting since 2013. This is the next to the last episode. Because in three months, Sally Wiggin will retire from a career that began in 1978 as a street reporter at WSGN AM 610 in Birmingham, Ala., then led to a part-time job down the street at WBRC TV, and less than 18 months later landed her in Pittsburgh as a general assignment reporter at WTAE. Pittsburgh was then a top-10 television market, and WTAE had affiliates in Atlanta, Miami, and New York City courting her, as she would go on to earn, among other honors, a national George Foster Peabody award and a national Edward R. Murrow Award. On Nov. 30, that career will be over.
“I’m ready for it to be over,” she had said as the air-conditioned Lexus SUV drove her an hour and 20 minutes out of the congestion of the city and into the rolling green hills of the Laurel Highlands.
Which wasn’t exactly true.
“I told myself, ‘You’re lying when you said that,’ ” she’d say later, tearing up. “I really am gonna miss this. Not miss being on TV. Telling stories and meeting people is what I’ll miss.”
But when she’s being totally honest with herself, that’s not exactly true, either.
“It’s going to be wrenching. You do become addicted to being in the public eye. And you don’t even know it’s happening. Anyone who says they are not is lying.”
* * *
It’s not that Sally Wiggin doesn’t swear. She’d just prefer that it was left to the imagination. Because it’s not like you can be emceeing a benefit gala for children or homeless pets or taping a segment in public swearing like a truck driver anyway, so let everyone think you’re not the type to drop a bomb or two or 10 when you’re melting and mosquitos are relentless and CSX trains are screeching by. “I mean, everyone swears. Well, not everyone, that’s not true. It’s just a bad habit.”
The bad habit started in Birmingham, when she was covering hockey for WSGN radio in the late seventies. “I was fascinated with sports,” says the equestrian, former competitive swimmer and NCAA swim coach. She landed the job fresh out of grad school after earning her masters in Asian studies at the University of Michigan thanks to an obsession with “Lawrence of Arabia.” “Maybe it was Peter O’Toole,” she laughs. “I’m not sure.” The station hired her full time and paid her a salary of seven grand, a job that included some unwanted attention that back then was waved off as boys being boys but is now more commonly referred to as sexual harassment.
“When someone grabs you… how I dealt with it was to swear like a truck driver,” she says.
In 1978 she became the Birmingham radio station’s first female morning drive anchor, while also doing street reporting. She and three colleagues conducted an investigative series on insurance fraud in Alabama that won the National Headliners Award, National Sigma Delta Chi Award, and the national Edward R. Murrow award for journalism. Which was a big deal. Back then, there were only four Edward R. Murrow awards. Now there are so many you have to scroll through a list.
During the awards ceremony, a handful of local television news directors approached her with a question: Want to be on television?
WBRC, Birmingham’s ABC affiliate at the time, hired her to work two days a week, which eventually led to full-time employment. Six months later, the affiliate in Chicago was asking her for tapes. Then Miami, Louisville and Pittsburgh were asking her for tapes.
She interviewed with WTAE, accepted the job, and was flown back to sign her contract. As she walked into the lobby, the general manager for the Gannett station in Louisville, where she had tested two weeks earlier, called the main number at WTAE with a Hail Mary.
Your tapes have been circulated among different stations. Atlanta wants you.
When she began to waver about signing the WTAE contract, the station’s top brass whisked her away to lunch at the Churchill Valley Country Club where they talked and pitched and dangled a carrot: the station had plans to launch an hour-long news program. An opening for a weekend anchor gig might be on the horizon. No promises, nothing set in stone, but a strong possibility that would get her air time in the nation’s 10th largest television market.
They talked her into it. By March, she was getting ready for her first day on the job as a WTAE general assignment reporter. A few months later, in January of ’81, the weekend anchor possibility became a reality.
“I was very blessed. I had only been in the business a year when all of this started happening.”
Five years later, she’d be asked to anchor the 6 o’clock news. Then the 11 o’clock news in 1988 and the 5 o’clock news in 1992. Two years later, when they began searching for a male co-anchor to replace Don Cannon, she had a request for then General Manager Jim Hefner.
“I need a really strong guy to anchor with me,” she told him.
“Sally,” he replied, “You’re the lead anchor. You will be the lead anchor. You don’t need a man to be the lead anchor.”
And so continued a career that would end up spanning almost four decades, during which she anchored WTAE’s 11 p.m. news for 16 years and the 6 p.m. news for 22 years, won regional Emmys, snagged a regional Edward R. Murrow Award for Best Documentary for “Chronicle: Compassion and Cannabis,” was inducted into the Pennsylvania Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 2015, received multiple Lifetime Achievement Awards including the Mid Atlantic Emmys Governor’s Award in 2017, was honored by the Heinz History Center during the 26th annual History Makers award dinner in 2018, was named a Carlow College Woman of Spirit, and at one time even spawned the Whoa Sally Wiggin fan club on Facebook. Her career got her a lot, but not the two things she wanted the most.
“I wanted a husband and kids,” she says. “I never wanted a career.”
* * *
Sally Wiggin has always been private about her private life. She has dated, been engaged, married, divorced, and not necessarily in that order, and most people are only vaguely aware of any of it.
“I once had a co-worker ask me if I was a lesbian,” she says.
And during her career on the air, few people knew that she was also enduring domestic abuse, heart disease, a mini-stroke, and two stalkers that required an intervention from law enforcement. She also wrestled an addiction to alcohol, a disease that started with a sip of a Tom Collins while a senior in high school. “I was so shy. Especially around men. And I still am. I don’t know how to flirt. I hardly dated in high school. And my father’s death was just wrenching… they would say, ‘Oh, you’re not an alcoholic. You can’t be an alcoholic.’ And I really wanted to believe that.” She would go into recovery, fall off the wagon, and repeat the process.
“I had to back myself into a corner,” she says of her decision to publicly acknowledge her addiction while emceeing for the Gateway Rehab gala in 2012. “I stood up and said, ‘By the way, I’m Sally Wiggin, and I’m an alcoholic.’ ”
Sobriety has been hard at times, easier at others. She misses Scottish beer the most. “Because I like Scottish guys,” she says. “It’s always a guy! For someone who was so socially inept, it’s always a guy!”
She has always wanted a family. Still does. “I always wanted someone to take care of me so I could have a child or children and be in the home. I don’t know quite how to say that so it doesn’t sound… but that’s what I wanted.”
A journalist once approached her about a story that focused on giving up so much for your career. “I said to her, ‘Whoa! You’ve got the wrong impression of me. I thought this career was going to get me what I wanted, which was a husband and children. I didn’t give that up for a career. I didn’t want this kind of a career. And now I’m stuck with it because I’ve gotta support myself!’ I said that to her. She didn’t do the story.”
And she’s not ungrateful for what she has. She feels blessed; to have had the opportunities she’s had, to have lived in Pittsburgh, to have met the people she’s met.
But asked if she’d trade it all for a husband and kids, she does not hesitate.
“Yeah,” she says. “But that’s not what was maybe meant to be… I would never have been a part of so many of these nonprofits in a meaningful way where you’re affecting change, especially the ones that involved wildlife and domestic animals. I never would have met the Rooneys, who are just this amazing family and many others. I got really involved in the Pitt Asian studies program. I never would have gotten involved with the women’s shelter, where I got a chance to talk about having experienced domestic violence while living in Birmingham. So, I don’t know… maybe it wasn’t meant to be. It doesn’t mean you don’t still miss it. But it’s so funny. People still today think I chose this. No. I chose really badly in some respects, so this was sort of default. I ended up in this position by default, because of being changed irrevocably by my father’s sudden death when I was 14.”
* * *
Sally Wiggin’s desk sits in the corner of WTAE’s newsroom, right next to the windows and behind Andrew Stockey.
“Oh,” he laughs. “I could tell you some stories.”
There are office phones and iPhones ringing and 18 flat screen televisions playing and multiple conversations happening all at once. “You wonder how people write in newsrooms, especially open newsrooms, but it’s hard to write at home, too,” she says.
She’ll write and log the segments for the next-to-last episode of “Chronicle” for the next few hours at a desk decorated with a black and white photo of her parents on their wedding day, the program from Dan Rooney’s memorial service, a Tuskegee Airmen Memorial paperweight, coffee mug in the shape of an elephant, bobble head of Michigan alum and former Steelers cornerback/safety Charles Woodson, and yellow Post-Its scribbled with reminders in a red Sharpie. Need to write shooting piece.
In a few days, she’ll be on vacation over 4,000 miles away in Alaska on a wildlife trip with the Pittsburgh Zoo. Her vacations are usually safaris into places such as Antarctica, the Galapagos, the Arctic, India, South Georgia, and Rwanda, where she hiked five and a half hours just to see the gorillas. Seeing the Great Migration is on her bucket list, as is visiting Zimbabwe. Animals have always been one of the great loves of her life, and she still kicks herself for not just soldiering through calculus and statistics to fulfill her lifelong dream of becoming a zoologist.
“I gave up the love of my life,” she says. “It was my obsession since I was two. Still is. It’s why I’m on the board at the Zoo. It’s the closest I can get to helping with conservation.”
Which she’s done for years, sitting on other animal welfare boards including the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society and the Animal Rescue League.
Which she will continue doing when she finishes her last day at WTAE. When she leaves her desk and says goodbye to everyone in the newsroom, taking a final walk past her framed photo next to all the other station’s television personalities and a quote on the lobby wall from William Randolph Hearst that says: You must keep your eye on the objective, not the obstacle. Walking out of the same lobby she first walked into in 1980.
“What am I?” she asks. “I’m just a regional news personality. I’m nobody, really. People ask me what I’m going to do in retirement. I’m going to make the world a better place. That’s the one small thing that I can do.”