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Spot On: Bob McNamara (BA ’66)

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“I didn’t put a lot of emphasis on being a performer as much as I did being a writer.”

Throughout four decades, Bob McNamara was welcomed into family rooms all over America. The five-time Emmy Award-winning journalist filed reports for the CBS Evening News, The Early Show, 48 Hours, and Sunday Morning. And he credits Columbia College Chicago with helping him get there.

A self-proclaimed news and geography junkie, McNamara says he knew he wanted to see the world but had little idea about how to do it. While attending Milton College in his native Wisconsin, he learned about a broadcast school called Columbia College and soon transferred. He got his foot into the broadcast business as a copy boy at WBBM TV.

“I went to school from eight until noon and worked as a copy boy from two through 11 at Channel 2,” says McNamara. During his time at school, McNamara forged connections, paid some dues, and eventually made a name for himself at a CBS affiliate in Minneapolis.

His resume reads like a lesson in US history, which he helped to document on a nightly basis. He covered five school shootings, several hurricanes, and the Oklahoma City bombing, to name a few historical events. But he says he enjoyed the human interest stories most.

“One of my favorite stories was a piece about a small-town guy who brought bluebirds back to North Carolina,” McNamara says of Jack Finch (real name), who built and distributed birdhouses with his wife. The nesting sites created a bluebird trail that helped revive the dwindling population. After the story aired, the New York phone lines were flooded with inquiries about how to get the birdhouses.

Another favorite McNamara recalls was when he covered the 1992 Los Angeles riots from the perspective of a 10-year-old boy, Rudy Campbell.

“We found [him] on the playground after school,” McNamara says. “We filmed him watching the riots, which were very close to his house. A guy in San Francisco saw the story and ended up putting Rudy through college.”

McNamara says his goal throughout his journalistic career was to tell a story that viewers would remember beyond the course of the evening. Storytelling remains his strong suit. “I didn’t put a lot of emphasis on being a performer as much as I did being a writer,” McNamara says.

One of Columbia’s three “Alumni of the Year” honored in 2010, McNamara remembers fondly what seemed like the “one-room” school days of his Columbia experience.

He says he learned valuable lessons from his working professors, including writing instructor Tom Fitzpatrick, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and Al Parker, a radio instructor who “worked nine to five, seven days a week as an announcer at Channel 7. These were folks who knew what they were doing because they were doing it every day.”

Through hundreds of stories—from the Lebanese Civil War in the 1970s to the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster—McNamara brought the world home to his viewers. And many of those stories, like the one about a Kansas woman who cashed in enough beer and pop cans over a 30-year span to fund a swimming pool for her hometown, will never be forgotten.

—William Meiners (MFA ’96)