Classy Queen of Cleveland TV News
Wilma was born in Garfield Heights on July 24th, making her astrological sign Leo. She attended Sts. Peter and Paul then Garfield Heights High School.
After High School graduation she went to Bowling Green State University where she earned a Speech and English double major degree. She went on to get her Masters Degree in Broadcast Journalism, also from Bowling Green.
After her undergrad time at Bowling Green Wilma was offered a scholarship to Florida State but chose not to take it. "I was well established at Bowling Green and very happy there and involved in a lot of activities." Florida State was just starting their broadcasting school and Wilma did not want to be in the very first class.
Bowling Green offered her a scholarship to entice her away from Florida State and also gave her a job on campus. She became an Assistant Dean of Women for Student Activities "because I was so involved in student activities, it probably just seemed like a natural."
Wilma had not started out with the idea of going into television. She actually thought she would teach Speech and English. In her senior year, however, she had the opportunity to try student teaching and realized "I didn't have what it takes to be a teacher. I absolutely admire teachers. That's a tough job. It is difficult to inspire young minds. I had a ninth grade class and I was their fourth student teacher. I was supposed to teach them the Merchant of Venice which they had no interest in what so ever."
Her indecision about a career was magnified by the fact that she had a crush on a broadcast major. In her funny, self-deprecating way Wilma says, "I did rub off on him, but more like fungus or algae or something. It really didn't work."
But it was enough to bring her into the world of broadcasting.
Wilma Smith at home in 2008
Her first job was in Richmond, Virginia at ABC affiliate (WXEX). The job was the result of a blind ad in a broadcasting magazine. They were looking for a woman in broadcasting because, at the time, "every station was being pushed to hire women. They didn't really want them, I don't believe, but they thought since I had a Masters in Broadcast Journalism they should at least talk to me."
Wilma went to the interview not really wanting the job. Truth be told what she wanted was to marry the young man she had a crush on, who she had started dating. He actually pointed the ad out to her and encouraged her to take the job so she "wouldn't resent him" in the future.
Try as she might she could not "fail" at the interview and she was offered the job. "He was thrilled" she laughed, "His role in my life was to get me in this business, not to be my husband. Thank goodness. I look back on it and think 'What was I thinking'. I have no idea what happened to him."
When she left Richmond four years later, she was anchoring the 6:00 news. She was the first prime time female anchor in the entire state of Virginia. She also had her own show, The Wilma Smith Show, which she also produced. "You didn't have producers then, you did everything. You were really a one man show."
The Wilma Smith Show was a talk show which aired every morning at 10. "I have been very fortunate in the interviews I have done. I have always loved talked shows. I miss interviewing a lot. I've loved interviewing."
Her family was still in Cleveland while she was in Richmond. She remembers watching the Morning Exchange and thinking that some of the things they were doing may work well on her show.
Wilma Smith 1996 Baseball Card
She called the station to see if she could come and watch The Morning Exchange, just for ideas. Once again, she was not looking for, or expecting, a job offer. In addition to working on her own show, she was working on her marriage (not to the young man she met at Bowling Green but to Mr. Smith).
They offered her a job three times before she realized that her marriage to Mr. Smith was not going to work out and accepted a job opportunity from Channel 5. She wanted to come back home and have some stability in her life in an environment she knew. "That's how I came back to Cleveland; I was looking for comfort in a very difficult time."
It was 1977 and Wilma Smith was coming home to host the Afternoon Exchange on Channel 5 (WEWS). She added the title of "anchor" of the 11:00 news and held that position for over ten years. In 1994 Wilma went to WJW (Channel 8).
When Afternoon Exchange first aired in 1978 the hosts were Wilma Smith and Fred Griffith. It later became Live on Five and she co-hosted with Don Webster. Her anchoring career has included partners such as Ted Henry, Tim Taylor and Lou Maglio.
Co-anchors Lou Maglio and Wilma Smith in 1994
Wilma has interviewed thousands of famous people. It is hard for her to pin down favorite interviews, but the one woman who stands out in her memory is Audrey Hepburn. "I couldn't believe I was actually talking to Audrey Hepburn. She was the most charming, delightful lady. Nice, open friendly. Just really nice. She's still my favorite although there are so many others."
She has interviewed presidents including Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Again, she remembers feeling disbelief that she was actually sitting down and talking to them.
The only time she interviewed anyone she didn't like was when they were being nasty or unprofessional. "But" she says," you still have to remember that you are a professional and keep going. It may confirm why you didn't like them in the first place, or may show a different side you may have missed. "
Trying to determine how many interviews she has actually conducted she says, "I was on Live on Five and Afternoon Exchange and the show in Richmond. We figured it out one time and it was well over 14,000 people!" That included Pulitzer Prize Winners, famous actors, academy award winners, presidents and politicians.
Tom Gerber, Wilma Smith and Larry Morrow
She says that it is rarer now to have people actually come in and sit down with you for an interview. "Now they do a satellite interview and it's not the same." She says some will still sit down in person, but for the most part television has changed drastically and that one-on-one very personal interview is almost a thing of the past. She doesn't think it will return to that style of interview again.
She did most her interviewing during what she calls "the best time to do it." She finds interviewing to be almost a nurturing experience. "People sometimes open up more to a woman because you trust them, maybe because of mothers. I don't know, but I think it's true."
Wilma Smith at the Galleria
The other part of interviewing she really enjoys is that it gave her the opportunity to have a personality. "You have so many time constraints doing the news and you can't really interject your personality so much. When you do the news, everything is very scripted."
She does not think news people should influence with the news they give, but rather keep people informed and communicate what people need to know. Obviously, in a fun or light story, a bit of the personality or opinion of the newscaster may come out, but she does not see a place for that in serious stories including politics. "Your opinions should not be interjected."
Wilma hopes she is a role model, but doesn't think you can give yourself that title. "That is something for people who are observing you to decide...I would be honored to be considered a role model."
Wilma Smith speaking to a group
She believes she has an obligation and responsibility to her audience whether she is on or off the air. She says that a sense of decorum and honesty and integrity are vital to maintain the trust people place in her.
"Goodness and kindness and humility are so important. If it weren't for the audience and the good numbers we get because they tune in we couldn't be on the air." So Wilma is not offended when someone approaches her in public, in fact she considers it a compliment. Additionally, she enjoys talking with the people she meets.
On Christmas Eve 1980 Wilma married Tom Gerber. She is blissfully happy with him even now, 27 years later. "He is my gift from God. He is my best friend...He's a real support system to me." Tom works in land development for Forest City. Wilma has three sons through marriage and seven grandchildren (five boys, two girls).
Wilma is well known for her glamour and style and always being dressed well and appropriately. She is happy to have people feel this way. "Television is a visual medium. I want to look good for people. I am coming into their homes; I owe them some respect for that."
Larry Morrow and Wilma Smith
Wilma received the "Best Dressed on Campus" Award at Bowling Green. She was also honored as May Queen. During the "Best Dressed" competition, the contestants had to answer a question, much like the Miss America pageants. Her question was "Why do you think it's important to be well dressed?" Wilma remembers her answer, and still believes it. She said:
"I think it is important to be well dressed because how you are dressed tells people not only what you think of yourself, but what you want them to think of you." She stresses that expensive clothing is not the answer ("we certainly didn't have money for expensive clothes when I was in school") - neatness, cleanliness and how you carry yourself is the important part.
"I think sometimes people get sloppy in their clothing and then they wonder why they're not getting any respect."
Proud of her Czech heritage, Wilma Smith celebrated at the 2006 Hungarian Festival of Freedom
Wilma uses the "Rule of Ten" to be sure she does not have too much "bling". "If it adds up to over 10 you're over dressed." She counts earrings as one, each ring, bracelet and necklace as one and if there are fancy buttons or cuff links on her outfit, they count as well.
She is aware that people watch every day to see what necklace she has on, and she has fun trying to find new ones. "It's an easy way to change an outfit. Clothes are so expensive and you usually only see from the waist up anyway. It could be the same blouse or the same suit, but the necklace is different."
Many women have found there to be a glass ceiling in the business world - an invisible barrier that keeps women from moving up. Wilma sees it a little differently partially because of the timing of her entry into broadcasting. She certainly acknowledges that for some women it has been an issue, but for her more often then not she had some opportunities because she was a woman that may not have been offered to her otherwise, as was the case in Richmond.
Of course, even though she was interviewed partially because the station needed a woman, she was hired because of her professionalism and Masters Degree. Being a woman at that time may have opened the door, but Wilma's talent kept her on the air. "They didn't really expect much from women at that time and I think they were surprised."
Wilma was always very competitive. For a long time she would not even take a vacation not wanting to miss any opportunity. She watched tapes of her shows and critiqued herself, making notes on all the things she thought she could improve.
Wilma Smith and friend in the 2007 Woolybear Parade
There were two major mentors in Wilma's life. The first was John Mackin in Richmond who is now deceased. Mackin did the show with her and was generous with his support and advice on her career.
Her Cleveland mentor was Don Perris, who was President of Scripps Howard Broadcasting when they were located here. "He was always so solid for me. Always gave me such good advice. He was like a big brother - a wonderful man. So smart and so kind." Perris passed away last year.
Wilma knows how competitive her business can be. "We're all in our own boat. It's not gender oriented, it depends on the individual." That's why she is so happy with the television family she works with now at TV 8.
"It sounds so cliché to say we are like a family, but we really are. We all really like each other." She has been in situations where that was not always the case, so she is especially happy with her current situation.
Fox 8 Anchors Bill Martin, Stacey Bell and Wilma Smith
Wilma stays in Cleveland because simply, it is her home. "I can click my heels together every day and I am home. I am very lucky. I was born and raised here." There were opportunities for her to go elsewhere, but she turned them down.
In addition to her husband, Wilma shares her home with her "babies" - three rescue beagles named Clifford, Clarence and Cassandra Marie.
Wilma Smith and her dogs
Clifford, Clarence and Cassandra
She loves all animals but especially hers. "The thing about animals is they always stay babies and they are just so loving and understanding."
She also enjoys baking, although she says cooking is her husband's area of expertise. "I bake and he cooks. He is an excellent cook. I think he learned to do it as a means of survival." Wilma often brings her cookies to the station to share.
Her average day now is ideal for her. Since she is only doing the 6:00 news she can get to the station at 3 and leave at 7:30. She started doing the news when she and Tom were only married a year or so. She almost turned the anchor position down but Tom said you have to try it. "23 ½ years later I get to have a normal life and dinner at home with my husband."
Tom Gerber and Wilma Smith
"I'm in a stage now where I'm thinking about what I want to do next. I'm hoping it's like the other things in my life where they just happened. Something I never would have thought of but it comes along and you think, 'That's interesting.' Something serendipitous. That's another thing Don Perris taught me - about serendipity. How important it is. How things will just happen. I just give it to God and count on serendipity."
Wilma is a devout Catholic and her faith plays a major role in her life. She says she prays a lot; little silent prayers throughout the day. "I have a little room at home, where I go and kneel down and pray to God. God, the Blessed Virgin, angels and saints are very important to me." She also has statues in the room of St. Anthony, St. Jude, the Infant of Prague and the Blessed Virgin.
Wilma Smith in front of Christmas wreath
"The Blessed Virgin has always been my friend. When I was a little girl I was really, really sick. I almost died. I had scarlet fever when I was 7. But I got over it and got it again so when I got it the 2nd time my resistance was down and it was worse. I got very close to the Blessed Virgin then."
Wilma did not realize how sick she was, but she remembers everything being very foggy - a symptom of a high fever. She heard her mom crying.
She remembers, "I saw my mom was ironing in the hallway and crying and watching me in my bedroom. I remember saying to her "Don't cry mommy, Mary will take care of me." And then she really started crying. And Mary did take care of me. And always has."
Her parents are both deceased now and Wilma's only sibling, Jewell is very ill.
Co-anchors Lou Maglio and Wilma Smith signing autographs for fans
Wilma is involved in a number of charitable undertakings including serving on the boards of The American Cancer Society, Alzheimer's Association and Juvenile Diabetes Association. Her love of animals brought her to be a board member of the Animal Protective League. Wilma has been the host of the Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon numerous times.
She has earned 10 Emmy awards as well as "Cleveland's Most Watchable Woman", "Best Anchorperson in Cleveland", "Anchor of Excellence" and, "Newscaster of the Year".
She is a member of the Ohio Television/Radio Hall of Fame and one of few women to be admitted to the Cleveland Association of Broadcasters Silver Circle. ClevelandSeniors.Com visitors chose Wilma as their Favorite Female Anchor.
Wilma Smith receiving award from Dan Hanson after being voted 'Favorite Female News Anchor' by the fans.
In 2099 when the City of Cleveland Time Capsule is opened, Wilma's letter will be the only from a broadcaster.
Yet she says, "I'm much shyer then people think. If I don't know people at a party or event, I am very quiet...just because I am fearful. It is easier to perform than not to perform."
TV legend Virgil Dominic had this to say about Wilma: "Wilma Smith. Such a lady. She was always the best. I competed with her for years and then when there was a short window in her contract I was able to hire her. I was thrilled."
Wilma hopes to be thought of as someone who is a good person that people really like and enjoy watching. That seems to be an understatement. People have come to think of Wilma as "The Queen of Cleveland Television" and it is a title she wears well.
She represents what is good about Cleveland. She puts faith and family above all else. She treats co-workers, friends and strangers with respect.
Wilma Smith makes us feel a little better each time we see her. She makes us comfortable and glad we invited her into our home.
Profiled by Debbie Hanson (1/08)
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