The anchorman, who for decades embodied composure in times of distress, had tears in his eyes.
It wasn’t only because Al Ruechel’s nearly three decades on air in Tampa Bay were ending, or that he’d just attended his farewell party where colleagues had sung his praises over cake.
It wasn’t even that he’d just given four of his 12 grandchildren their first tour of the Bay News 9 studios, knowing it was likely the last time he’d guide someone through those halls and share what is, even after all these years, his clear thrill for the spectacle of live TV news production.
The tears were because in 1987 President Ronald Reagan made a statement when the bodies of sailors killed in a bombing on the USS Stark were returned to U.S. soil, and Ruechel had teared up on air reading it. It was because he’d been there to feel the rumble in his chest from the first Space Shuttle launch in 1977, and the final one in 2011, and thought, tears streaming, “where does mankind go from here?” It was because he helped anchor the Bay News 9 broadcast for the funeral of two Tampa Police officers killed in the line of duty in 2010. And because so many other things.
It was because Ruechel can seemingly squint his eyes, take a breath, and bring himself right back to so many powerful moments he’s had a part in documenting, and feel the same gravity that he felt then.
“Do I get emotional? Well, I’m not a sterile robot. Yeah, it affects me,” he said. “Now, I’m not sitting there bawling on the air, but have there been times when I’ve gotten choked up? You better believe it. Because I experienced these things, when we go live, just like the people at home do. And they want my honest reaction to what I’m experiencing.”
Ruechel, 68, who has been at Bay News 9 since the network’s launch in 1997, and spent six years at WTSP-TV before that, is retiring. His last appearance on air is Dec. 24. He taped his final episode of Political Connections, the Sunday morning show that serves as a sort of Meet the Press for state and local politics, on Friday. Anchor Holly Gregory, who took over Ruechel’s midday anchor spot earlier this year when Ruechel transitioned to part-time, will also now host Political Connections.
He plans to travel, having recently gotten the bug again, he said, after burning himself out in the early 1970s when he was a missionary in East Africa. He’ll continue woodworking in his garage — he’s built a lot of cabinets lately. And he’ll continue to serve as a worship leader at his church, Grace Christian Fellowship, where he composes and performs music. He’s been playing guitar for decades, and was in a Christian rock band in college.
He plans to keep riding his bike, even though he was hit by a car on U.S. 19 this month while riding his beloved carbon fiber Specialized Roubaix. The bike was wrecked, but he’s fine, he said, though he’ll drive a car to the Ream Wilson trail from now on. He and his wife Jennifer, a former administrator at St. Petersburg College, plan to spend time visiting the families of their four children, who all work in health and medicine. “I wouldn’t let them go into broadcasting,” he said. “I didn’t want the competition.”
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He’s also starting a consulting business, he said. He’ll teach people how to be better at being interviewed on TV.
Ruechel said despite his close-up view of the worst and best sides of humanity for so long, he’s only optimistic for the future after having watched people help each other, and come together over and over after tragedies. He said the story of Tampa Bay’s future will be transportation, but the overarching tale of his time here has been explosive growth. His description of the region to an outsider would be that “it’s big, and there’s a lot of people, but because we have all these individual communities where people all know each other, it still can really feel small. And that’s kind of the same whether you’re up in Fishhawk or down in New Tampa or over in Ybor.”
People certainly know him, whether they’re stopping him for a selfie in the grocery store, or pasting a picture of him on the wall of a Thai restaurant where he gets takeout. In person, he’s engaging and present in a way that can be disarming in an age of digital distraction. Those who worked with him praised his literal calm through the storm.
Michael Gautreau, a vice president with Spectrum who worked closely with Ruechel when Gautreau was news director at Bay News 9, said he remembered Ruechel’s work in 2004, the year that four hurricanes impacted Florida, not long after Gautrea had arrived in the state.
“It’s easy to build a false sense of urgency that compels viewers, but that’s kind of a short lived success. Al’s demeanor wasn’t trying to build that urgency or scare anyone, he was really just encouraging. Telling viewers ‘find a safe place to be, and once its over we’ll figure this out together.’ Al actually made me, as a new resident to Florida, feel more at ease. ... I think the days of that iconic sort of anchor ... are kind of waning, and Al might be one of the last.”
Pasco County tax collector Mike Fasano appeared on Political Connections many times over the years, going back to his time as a state legislator, and especially during the Bush versus Gore recount dispute. “He’s a true professional,” Fasano said. “He’s someone who was there to get the news, not to try to hurt someone, or push them into a corner, he just wanted to get the news out.”
Former Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, another frequent guest, called Ruechel "a guy who has his priorities in order: his faith, his family and his community. He will be missed but he had a heck of a run.” He also praised him for being fair, professional and “always prepared.”
That knack for preparation might stem from a mortifying encounter with Senator Ted Kennedy early on, when Ruechel was a student at Iowa State. He chanced into the interview with the senator, on the spot.
“I was clearly freaked out, and he said, ‘Just calm down and ask me anything you want’,” Ruechel remembered. “I blurted out ‘So what really happened at Chappaquiddick?’ The Secret Service guys started laughing. Then the senator started laughing, and said, ‘Just ask me about my platform’." Ruechel got better.
He grew up in St. Ansgar, Iowa, a town of 900 people. His father was a justice of the peace. His mother taught opera and waitressed. They divorced. He described his early life as simply “not good,” and left it at that, but described a blossoming that occurred when he got to Iowa State and had his eyes opened to a “new world.” He adopted the long hair and style of a hippie, and studied marine biology, though he struggled with organic chemistry and got a terrible infection from dissecting a fetal pig.
He was walking by a radio studio on campus when he heard a guy completely mangling the name of Oakland Raiders Fred Biletnikoff, and said, “Anyone can do better than that.” The station’s manager overheard and challenged him to try. So Ruechel went on the air, and read a flawless newscast, he says, without even practicing. He decided to study broadcasting.
At his first TV station he was the wacky weather guy for a while, showing up in Bermuda shorts and singing the forecast to the tune of “Tea For Two Cha Cha Cha.” Eventually a station in Albany, N.Y. hired him as a reporter and to host a weekly news magazine. He covered a poverty stricken community in the shadow of the state capitol, and exposed slumlords. That’s when the awards first started coming. He’ll retire with four Emmy awards for breaking news and investigative reporting and more than 20 others.
He first came to Florida to work at a station in Fort Myers, before jumping to WTSP 28 years ago. In 1997 he got an offer to help build a fledgling Bay News 9.
“All my friends were telling me, ‘you’re nuts.’ You’ll be out of work in a year if you go to work for them," he said. "They thought, how can this cable news station hurt us. But we didn’t think of ourselves as cable, we came to compete with them. And not only did we succeed in changing local news, a lot of them were forced to copy us. We did weather on the nines? They had to do weather on the eights.”
Why retire now? His contract was up, he said, and it just makes sense.
And on his last day at the studio there was another “sign”, he said. The container of makeup he wears on air, and will not miss? “It just ran out, today.”