TAMPA — The 6 p.m. broadcast is two hours away, but Kelly Ring is nearly ready. She’s slipped into the navy dress she’ll wear on-air, and not one hair is out of place.
Ring stops at her usually neat desk, which is becoming more cluttered in her final weeks. There are framed pictures of her husband and three kids. A bobblehead of Sheriff Grady Judd, who declared her an honorary Polk County deputy earlier this year, wiggles on the edge. And stacking up more every day: mail from viewers.
“You have always been a constant in my life, and I will miss you greatly!” wrote one woman.
“Oh, if we could clone you in order to continue your special way of doing things with a twinkle in your eye and a lilt in your voice,” wrote another.
Ever since February, when Ring shared her plans to retire from Fox 13 Tampa Bay in the spring, the memories have been multiplying. There are handwritten letters and photographs with followers. Headshots her co-workers dug up, tracing a visual timeline of hairstyles over her career. A framed painting a fan sent in a few years ago, which depicts Ring anchoring the evening broadcast. The piles have spilled to the next desk over and onto the floor.
“I’m going to try to answer them all,” she said. “I will answer them all.”
On this late March afternoon, about two dozen people are preparing for the evening newscast. After a year and a half of working from home during the pandemic — even now one desk has a 2020 calendar flipped open to March — employees have started trickling back in. But Ring never left, the only nighttime anchor working in the studio at the station for 15 months. She loves being in the thick of it.
It’s especially important for Ring to have her co-workers back as her career winds down.
“I knew that I was gonna retire, but I was waiting because I wanted my friends to be here,” said Ring, 61. As she walks briskly through the newsroom, she pauses to greet each person she passes with a warm, “Hi, hon!”
Ring doesn’t take for granted how special it has been to make bonds like this, and she’ll miss being a part of the evening routine of her viewers. She knows after 37 years at WTVT Fox 13 Tampa Bay, change will be hard. But after traveling the world, winning three Emmys and appearing on nearly 20,000 newscasts, she is ready. She’ll sign off for good during the 6 p.m. news on May 25.
She’s just taking some time to look back first.
Ring was born and grew up in a tiny Arkansas town at the foothills of the Ozark Mountains. Her dad was a town doctor who delivered more than 3,000 babies during his career; her mom, Bonnie Brown, was a singer in the folk trio The Browns and would go on to be inducted in the Country Music Hall of Fame.
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“She was hugely successful because her mom pushed her, but just in the most loving way,” said Ring’s husband, Ed Bulleit. “Her dad was beloved — when he went to the grocery store, he could never get out of there. Kelly really acquired both of their compassion and talents.”
Ring loved to write for the school newspaper and yearbook, and when a 10th grade English teacher told her she was gifted with words, she decided to make it her career. Her mom called up the local TV station and the Arkansas Gazette to set up tours. Later, when Ring headed to the University of Missouri School of Journalism, a professor suggested broadcasting. First came a lot of radio, which meant working to neutralize Ring’s Southern accent. Then she tried TV.
“Then I got lucky,” she said.
At 21, Ring landed a reporting gig right at WXII Channel 12 in Winston-Salem, N.C. Freshly out of college, her starting salary was $17,000 a year. She drove an old silver Mazda and wore the same suit jacket every day — until her mother took her shopping for a work wardrobe.
Ring didn’t feel like she was good at her job at first, but she loved reporting and dreamed of becoming a foreign correspondent. After just a couple years, she saw an opening at WTVT Channel 13 in Tampa. She had been to Florida only once before that, on a family vacation to Walt Disney World. By the end of 1985, she was hired on as a reporter.
Ring never planned to become an anchor. The first time she filled in on the desk, she broke out in hives.
“I’ll never do that again,” she said that day.
“Oh, you’ll be fine,” her mother told her. “Wear a turtleneck next time.”
She advanced quickly, becoming a weekend anchor and then settling in as the co-anchor of the evening news in April 1990. She continued to report whenever she could.
In perfect Tampa fashion, Ring met Bulleit at the 1994 Gasparilla. She first laid eyes on him on Bayshore, decked out in a bandana and a parrot earring. They got engaged at midnight exactly one year later at the exact same spot. The couple married in Arkansas four months later. Three babies followed between 1996 and 2002.
“I would go on the air and have throw-up on my suit,” Ring remembered. “Those were before the days of HDTV, so I probably got away with it.”
The couple figured out a schedule that worked around Bulleit’s full time job as an investment banker and Ring’s evening broadcasts at 6 and 10 p.m. She got up at 6 a.m. every morning to get the kids ready for school. A nanny came to help during the day. Then at 5 p.m, Bulleit “became Mr. Mom,” staying home with the kids every night to coordinate homework and events and sports practices. The couple purchased a South Tampa home that wasn’t too far from the station, so Ring could head over during her dinner break after the first newscast ended at 7 p.m.
“She somehow almost never missed a game,” her husband remembers.
Ring’s adult daughter, Kendall Bulleit, still can taste the rotation of slow cooker meals — the same five or so variations of chicken or pork over and over, with salmon thrown in for “brain food” before big tests. Ring never had time to make side dishes, which became a running joke in the family.
“She’s not the best cook, she’ll be the first to admit that,” Kendall Bulleit said. “It just shows that as much as she didn’t have time in the afternoon, she always did her best.”
After the nightly family dinner, as the kids prepared for bed, Ring would return to the station to get ready for the late broadcast. After that, around 11 p.m., she used to call her mother when she was driving home every night. Now, she calls her daughter, who’s an hour behind in the Midwest, to catch up.
Ring would head to bed around 11:30 p.m., and then the cycle repeated.
“I’m the best sleeper, praise the Lord for that,” she said, crossing herself.
Before the evening newscast, Ring enters a soundproof booth to record audio for that night’s packages. This afternoon, she’s cutting soundclips to play over B-roll during her favorite segment, What’s Right with Tampa Bay, at the end of the newscast. She has a soft spot for uplifting stories.
“Testing, testing,” she said. Her voice drops the Southern twang, just like she learned all those years ago back at Mizzou, and deepens into anchor mode as she reads the script her producer, Brian, wrote. Today, it’s the story of a woman turning 105.
“A milestone birthday for Dixonia Hale,” she pauses. “A milestone birthday for Dixonia Hale.”
It doesn’t take many more takes. She’s out in less than five minutes.
“All done, babe,” she tells her producer.
Ring hits the dressing room to spritz some hairspray and dab her face with a makeup sponge.
“I probably should put on more,” she said, peeking into a pink hand mirror. “My mom would say, ‘You need more lipstick.’”
Lately, Ring has been reminiscing about her past assignments: The time she went to Saudi Arabia to follow a group from MacDill Air Force base during the Gulf War, or the trip to Moscow, where she documented a team of All Children’s Hospital doctors helping kids in the 1990s. She recalls how terrifying it was to visit killer Oba Chandler on death row. He never admitted what he did, but he did trip up during her interview.
“It’s like remembering words to songs,” she said. “I remember everything about my big stories, all the details.”
Ring usually hates watching herself on TV, but she’s been digging up old clips and reaching out to old interview subjects. She spent years covering the story of the Ray family, three hemophiliac brothers who contracted HIV through blood transfusions in the ‘80s. Only one of the three boys survived. Recently she reached out to the last surviving Ray brother and his parents, interviewing them after more than 20 years.
“I was watching it back and I just cried like a baby,” she said.
With each throwback photo or news clip she posts on Facebook, more comments flood in from people who grew up watching Ring. Her family isn’t surprised. It’s not just that she’s been part of Tampa Bay’s evening routine for decades. It’s how she’s treated people, from interview subjects to strangers who come up to her in the grocery store after recognizing her, often by her distinctive voice. Ring always stops to chat with fans, even when she’s caught in gym clothes with no makeup on.
“She’s really big on names,” Kendall Bulleit said. “She’s always been someone who teaches me the second you meet somebody, you say their name like three or four times in your head.”
Director Bennington Derridinger started at the station the same year as Ring. Even as Ring advanced through the ranks quickly, she stayed kind and respectful. Then as the newsroom navigated the pandemic, Ring came into the eerie, empty building alone and ran the teleprompter for her co-workers.
“She’s always been a rock star, but especially during COVID,” Derridinger said.
Ring spent a lot of time mentoring other reporters, said John Hoffman, vice president and news director at Fox 13.
“She sends notes to people when she sees a story that she thinks was very well done,” Hoffman said. “If she sees something that somebody needs a hand with, whether it’s with voice delivery or writing or interview technique, I’ve seen her over the years take several people under her wing.”
Ring knows people depend on good local news, and she is proud to have helped tell the stories of Tampa Bay for so long. But she’s also excited for the future. She’s already planned to fill her retirement life with games of pickleball and mahjong. She’ll continue getting involved in charities she loves, like Metropolitan Ministries and Clothes to Kids. She’s excited to go to her Monday night Bible study and stay as long as she wants to, instead of squeezing some prayers during her dinner break.
“Eventually, I won’t have to rush out,” she said.
After decades of having only Saturday nights free to spend with her husband, she looks forward to movie nights and dinner dates whenever they want. They will plan international vacations and travel around the country to see the kids. The oldest son, Clark, is a medical student at Duke University. Kendall is in Chicago as an investment banker. And the youngest, Raleigh, is a junior at Notre Dame.
Ring isn’t sure what it will be like when she’s not at work. The news is a part of her. She religiously follows every Tampa Bay sports team and devours headlines in the New York Times, Tampa Bay Times and Wall Street Journal every day. Maybe she’ll reschedule her daily morning walk to the evenings, to pry herself away from the television come 6 p.m.
Even though she’s trying to detox, she won’t totally be removed from journalism. She wants to mentor journalism students. After all, people need local news.
“‘My daughter said, ‘Mom you’ve got to learn to calm down,’” Ring laughed. “‘I’m like, ‘Oh, I don’t know if I’m going to do that.’’”