MILWAUKEE, Wis. (WFRV) – I will never forget the day I met Tom Zalaski.
“Z,” as we lovingly call him, had the week off when I began working at WFRV-TV in June.
Of course, even without meeting him, I felt like I already knew a lot about him. “Legendary,” “humble,” and “the best” were all words that my new coworkers used to describe the now 46-year-long northeast Wisconsin veteran.
On his first day back, after our afternoon editorial meeting, I decided to go to his desk and introduce myself. With his daunting history of excellence in the industry, I am unsure if I was more nervous to meet anyone else at WFRV-TV than Tom.
But I had no reason to be.
“It’s an honor to meet you,” I managed to sputter.
“No, the honor is all mine,” he shot right back with the biggest grin.
That is how every interaction with every person goes for Tom. He is a genuine, caring, warm figure that will make you brighten right up on even the coldest winter days.
That’s because Tom treats every person he meets the same way. It is never about him; it is always about you. Whether interacting with colleagues, interviewing guests on Newsmaker Sundays and specials, spending time with his grandchildren, or talking to a stranger, Tom always wants to get to know you better.
One morning before arriving to work for his nightside shift, I pulled into the parking lot as Tom was chatting with a stranger, likely an admiring viewer, who stopped him while taking a morning stroll. More than half an hour, when I was heading back out into the field, they were still deep in conversation on the sidewalk.
“We grew up together, and I’m so thankful for all of them,” he said of his viewers. “Thank you every time that you come up to me in a grocery store or at a Walmart to talk and chat because you’re the reason that we’re here.”
Tom’s friendliness is welcomed into thousands of living rooms every night, and WFRV-TV vice president and general manager Jud Beck wants you to know the man on screen is just the same off it.
“That guy you see is the guy that we know,” Beck said. “He is that good of a guy. He’s very genuine, very sincere, has got a funny, funny sense of humor, and it’s just a joy to work with him.”
Tom is not just beloved for his personality on and off-air; it is also the integrity that he brings into the newsroom and onto the newscasts for which his colleagues have an incredible amount of respect.
“He really is that voice that we need to remind us where we’ve been and where we’re going, and that we always must maintain that sense of responsibility,” co-anchor Michele McCormack said. “Making sure we never lose touch with the basic responsibility that journalists have, no matter where the technology may take us.”
Tom’s reputation snowballed and has been cemented as time passes as he enters the lives of more and more viewers.
“I think there’s a reason he’s the most recognized and beloved anchorman in northeast Wisconsin, and that’s because he’s so good at what he does,” former co-anchor Erin Davisson said. “How many people have had him as a touchstone in their lives, and that’s a huge honor to be a part of so many lives over so many, well, a few, generations. He’s touched so many lives over the decades in northeast Wisconsin that I think it’ll be a connecting point for generations.”
Beck said that no matter what Tom has done in the past or what he will accomplish in the future, every time he is behind the anchor desk, he puts his total effort into enhancing newscasts.
“I just think Tom’s really special from what he did last night,” Beck said. “He’s got a tremendous history, he’s done some amazing things, he’ll continue to do amazing things, but every night he does a top quality job as a news anchor for Local 5.”
It is because of the quality that Tom brings to television across northeast Wisconsin that he was inducted into the Wisconsin Silver Circle, which recognizes outstanding individuals who have devoted 25 years or more to the television industry. It is a very selective award, with no more than six broadcasters being inducted each year.
Tom had no idea that he had been nominated for the award and did not see it coming when he received the news via text message that he had won it one Sunday morning last fall.
“It was an emotional deal; this is a big deal that I never, ever dreamed of,” Tom said. “I happened to be with my grandkids at the time; we were going to Walmart. And I got choked up when I realized I was getting this wonderful award, and here I am with my four-year-old grandson, walking into Walmart, praying to God that nobody recognizes me.”
Tom has had a career with overwhelming amounts of success and is appreciative of being able to do what he has.
“This award makes me think back of just how fortunate I am to have been in this business for over 50 years,” he said. “I have gotten to cover Super Bowls and national political conventions and spoken to congressmen, senators, and world leaders.”
An interview with sitting President Bill Clinton is what Tom considers the best single moment of his career.
“And for those few minutes, it was just me and Bill Clinton,” he said. “I had the attention of the most powerful man on the planet; that was just a special moment.”
Tom never viewed the Green Bay-Appleton market as the final destination of his career, just a stepping stone to bigger goals, but he soon realized that there was no place better to call home as his life was being built around him.
“I’ve gotten to travel the world because of this job. And that ain’t bad for a kid from the thriving metropolis of Terryville, Connecticut,” he said. “I was going to stay here for one year; that was it, and I was off to the big time. And here came a child, and here came getting married, our friends. And then I realized Green Bay is the big time.”
Some of Tom’s closest friends are the ones you see on-air with him and those you do not but who help prepare the news with him every night.
“It’s just a bond that’s kind of indescribable,” he said. “The best part about this business is the people that you work with. And I’m talking about working with you, working with all of our reporters, working with the people I’ve been privileged enough to anchor with. Because we all become not just friends, we become family.”
That is a statement of fact, and Tom leads our Local 5 News family daily; whether in the newsroom, on set, or in meetings, we can always expect encouragement from our revered colleagues and friends. And that is his number one priority in his career.
“Just to continue, perhaps, to mentor the people who are coming up,” Tom said. “Because I had so many people who mentored me, who saved me, who showed me how to do this thing.”
I will never forget the night of the GOP debate this summer, as broadcast rules and regulations required us to be very particular about the footage we used if the debate was still happening at the start of the newscast. I had a “plan b” in place and had to implement it at the last minute.
It was stressful as could be, but our anchors, Tom and Michele, moved right along, and the newscast went on without a hitch. When it was over, I was worried that they might be upset about the last-minute change in plans, even though we went over it before, but to my relief, they were incredibly understanding.
“You did your best with what you had,” Tom said. “And that’s all that I and our viewers can ever expect of you.”
Having Tom in your corner means the world, and he always expresses appreciation for hard work and innovation. He is quick to applaud any employee and always so humble himself.
“It’s a fun business. We all get to work on television; that’s our job!” he said, with the same energy of a professional athlete, grateful to be in the profession they are. “It’s something that I don’t ever want to end. I’m 71 years old, and I don’t ever see an end to this.”
We don’t either. Tom continues to take the anchor desk with the same excellence night after night. The only thing that time has brought him is more fans, friends, and family, as he welcomes new members to the newsroom with the same enthusiasm he welcomed me.
“I just want people, maybe when it’s all over with, to say, ‘he was a pretty good guy. And he helped a lot of people along the way.'”
A favorite saying of mine is, “You won’t remember everything people say, you won’t remember everything people do, but you will always remember how they make you feel,” and it could not be more applicable to Tom.
Tom does more than help people; he makes them feel at home, welcomed, valued, and appreciated. He even makes them feel at home in their living rooms because watching the news would not be the nightly tradition that it is without Tom.
So, from all who love and cherish you, Tom, and all the people you have touched, thank you for all that you fill our lives with.