TAMPA — Inside the WFLA-Ch. 8 studio, friends and family members gathered around the back wall, waiting for the final 6 p.m. broadcast Wednesday evening.
While the ventilation equipment hummed and the camera operator shuffled across the floor, Gayle Sierens scanned her notes a final time before closing the door on a broadcast journalism career that spanned 38 years in the Tampa Bay area, where she grew up.
But based on her modest nature, you would have thought it was somebody else's retirement.
"I'm going to miss all of you so much," Sierens said to the on-air reporters who weaved farewells into their reports.
Sierens, 60, may be best-known as the first — and only — woman to call play-by-play for an NFL game, which she did in 1987. But for more than a generation, she was part of the Tampa Bay market 's No. 1 TV news duo with former co-anchor Bob Hite.
A tomboy as a child, she started her career as a sportscaster in 1977 after graduating from Florida State University, and earned respect from her peers in a hypermasculine landscape by demonstrating her sports expertise. By 1985, she established herself as the station's lead co-anchor, where she remained.
"She has conducted herself this whole time as the professional, gentle lady that she is," said Hite, who retired in 2007 and was in the studio for Sierens' final broadcast.
Between sports reports and weather forecasts, her fans were patched into the broadcast to display their affection for a newscaster they considered luminous.
Sportscaster Erin Andrews, the daughter of WFLA investigations reporter Steve Andrews, called Sierens her inspiration before offering her a possible retirement gig: "Why don't you come to Dancing With the Stars?"
Bobby Bowden, the former FSU football coach, said, "We'll miss her because she's done such a great job."
Sierens took in the praise gleefully, taking time between commercials to riff to '80s sensation Wham: "Wake me up when it's all over," she sang.
At another point, she glared at a photojournalist pointing a camera in her direction and said in jest, "What do you want?"
Her eldest child, Cameron Martin, 26, said his mother, who was pregnant with him during the famous 1987 NFL broadcast, was always entertaining to watch.
"She would come home after work with Sharpie on her arms because she and Bob would get into Sharpie fights during the newscast," he recalled.
During her final speech to viewers, Sierens profusely thanked her family, her co-workers and the viewers, who she said played a crucial role in her career by sending her cards when her parents died or greeting her on the street.
"You are faceless in some ways, but you're not faceless to me," she said. "I still have those cards. I'm never going to throw them away."
Sierens choked up only during the tribute portion of the broadcast, when her co-workers aired a farewell video in her memory. She grabbed a tissue from the desk, just in case, but never used it.
Contact Zack Peterson at email@example.com or (813) 226-3368.