Rich Brenner, my hero

by Jim Longworth


It was sadly appropriate that my friend Rich Brenner died while attending an event titled “A Salute to Heroes.” Rich and I are from the same generation, so my hero worship wasn’t born out of some sort of childhood adulation, but rather from watching my colleague ply his trade day after day, year after year, and do it so effortlessly.

Following a stint as a war correspondent in Vietnam, Rich’s career path took him to TV stations in Lynchburg, Va.; Portsmouth, Va.; Raleigh, Chicago and High Point. But regardless of the city where he was based, Rich’s talents were seen and heard throughout the land, as he did play-by-play for college football and basketball games, covered NASCAR, the NFL and more. He never put on a fake broadcasting voice. He didn’t have to. What you heard was all Rich, all natural, His was a forceful voice full of confidence. That’s because no matter what sport or venue he covered, Rich was always prepared, and he was recognized by his peers for that dedication, having won three regional Emmys, a National Iris Award and the Silver Circle Award from the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.

For 21 years, Rich was the sports anchor for WGHP FOX8, where he not only reported on the games people play, but also delivered stinging commentaries about all things sports. Listening to Rich opine about athletics, I wondered if he was that opinionated and informed about other topics as well. And so, following his retirement in 2008, I called Rich and asked him if he would be interested in becoming a regular member of my roundtable team on “Triad Today.” Lucky for me he jumped at the opportunity. We taped our first show together on April 30, 2008, and it was clear from the outset that Rich was born to debate, discuss and give opinions about anything and everything. Unburdened by scripts, commercial breaks and the normal constraints put upon a network-affiliated anchor, Rich was like a bear who had just escaped from the circus and was free to roam in any direction that suited him. I didn’t always agree with Rich’s political views, but I respected him because he formulated those views based on thoughtful analysis of the facts.

And you never had to ask Rich to clarify his stand on issues because he didn’t give vague explanations. In what was to become our final correspondence just hours before his death, I told Rich that I was add ing a topic for this week’s roundtable discussion. In my e-mail I wrote, “State lawmakers have just raised their own pension by 30 percent, meaning guys like Joe Hackney will retire and make $41,000 a year for life. I’m going to ask you on the show if part-time legislators should receive pensions at all?” It’s important to note that we never rehearse or divulge our answers prior to taping, so it was surprising when Rich broke tradition and wrote back with a preview of his viewpoint. “Hell NO!” he said in response to my query. It would be his final commentary.

I always introduced Rich as, “The busiest man in show business,” because in addition to taping “Triad Today,” he had his own company, was in demand as a public speaker and continued to support a number of charitable causes. I met Rich late in life, and though we never got the chance to socialize, I felt that I knew the man and his family. He spoke of his bride Judy every time we were together, and was proud of his son Shawn and daughter Leslie. Rich even brought his grandson to the studio on occasion so the little guy could watch his old granddad knock ’em out of the park. My heart goes out to the Brenner family. I lost my dad not long ago, and there are just no words that will make this sad time any easier for Judy and the kids, so I won’t pretend to have any.

On Monday night I was making preparations for this week’s show and looking forward to seeing Rich, when our director, Jay Paul called to tell me that FOX8 had just run a crawl about Rich’s passing. Fittingly, FOX was in the middle of broadcasting the Daytona 500, which had been rain-delayed from the day before. Rich would have understood if the TV station couldn’t break away from NASCAR’s marquee event to issue a report about his death, but they did anyway, and it was a heartfelt presentation. After a few minutes, though, the platitudes gave way to fast cars, and the oval took precedence over the obit. It was back to the business of television. Heroes understand that kind of thing.

Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11am on WMYV (cable channel 15)