Perhaps the most beloved television personality in Greater Cleveland, Shaker’s Leon Bibb was the first African-American prime-time news anchor in Ohio and one of the first in America.
By Diana Simeon
It’s a Friday morning in the studios at Cleveland’s WEWS Channel 5 and Leon Bibb is welcoming guests for a taping of his popular Sunday show, “Kaleidoscope.” “I didn’t sleep well,” Bibb jokes to his guests in his hallmark deep and melodic voice. “It was one of those nights when I went to bed at 11 and woke up at 1:30.”
The guests, who include Dr. Jacklyn Chisholm, head of the Council for Economic Opportunities in Greater Cleveland, and Jenner Tekancic, director of community relations for the Cleveland Browns, visibly relax and, for the next few minutes, the studio buzzes with laughter.
“Good to see you,” Bibb says, shaking hands. “Good to have you with us.” Then Bibb, a Shaker resident for more than three decades, takes his seat, the camera rolls, and the Emmy Award-winning newsman gets down to business.
But “Kaleidoscope” is just part of Bibb’s busy day. An hour later, he’s preparing for the station’s noon newscast, which he anchors five days a week. He reviews the program’s lineup, writes an introduction for a segment he did earlier that morning at a local elementary school, and shortly before noon heads back to the studio for the live broadcast.
And then there’s the work Bibb still has to wrap up for the evening news. That includes putting the final touches on a segment for his popular “My Ohio” series – about people and places in the state – that today features a huge, beautiful weeping willow, which sits on the shore of Lake Erie in Edgewater Park.
It’s a schedule that can make your head spin, but for Bibb it’s just a typical day in a career that’s spanned more than four decades – he was the first African-American prime-time news anchor in the state – earned him numerous awards and accolades, and made him a familiar face and voice to millions of Ohioans.
Bibb was born in Alabama, but raised in Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood, where his parents settled when he was a year old. His passion for journalism developed early.
“In sixth grade, I wrote the school’s graduation play,” he says. This was at Miles Standish Elementary School (now Michael R. White School). “I had a teacher, Mr. Robert Taylor, who helped me write the play. On graduation day, he told me, ‘You have a talent and if I were you, I’d think about a career where you can write.’”
“I call that the ten seconds that changed my life,” adds Bibb.
Bibb graduated from Glenville High School in 1962 and then from Bowling Green State University in 1966 with a degree in journalism. Shortly thereafter, he was hired as a reporter for The Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Then came the Vietnam War. Bibb was drafted, served with the 4th Infantry Division, and was awarded a Bronze Star, which he still wears on his lapel. It was during his time in Vietnam that Bibb decided he wanted to go into broadcast journalism. “I watched the television news reporters who were over there and I thought, ‘I can do that.’ Believe it or not, I applied to graduate school from the jungle of Vietnam and the letter of acceptance came to Vietnam.”
After his tour ended, Bibb and his wife, Marguerite – the two were college sweethearts who married while Bibb was in basic training – returned to Toledo, so Bibb could pursue a master’s degree at Bowling Green.
But he never graduated. While working at Bowling Green’s television station, Bibb caught the attention of executives at Toledo’s CBS affiliate, WTOL, and they offered him a job. “I did everything but the thesis,” says Bibb, who in 1996 was appointed to Bowling Green’s Board of Trustees by then Ohio Governor George Voinovich, eventually serving as chairman.
While at WTOL, a chance encounter brought about Bibb’s next career move. “I’m driving along West Bancroft Street,” he says. “I’ve got a camera in the back seat because in those days, I’m the reporter and the photographer. A oneman band. I see this guy hitchhiking and I passed him. I felt guilty about it because it was a really cold day. I recognized his face, but I did not know his name. I drove for about a mile, then made a u-turn and went back and picked him up.”
“He got in the car and he said, ‘You’re Leon Bibb from Channel 11. My girlfriend’s mother wondered what happened to you. You should give her a call.’”
Turns out, his passenger was talking about the director of community affairs for WCMH, the NBC affiliate in Columbus, where Bibb had applied for a job while still a graduate student at Bowling Green. Bibb called her that evening and learned the station had an opening in its newsroom. Not long after, he was on a Greyhound bus to Columbus (thanks to a dead battery in his Volkswagen Bug). “And three weeks from the day of the interview I was on the air.”
“Growing up in Cleveland, I was always in and out of Shaker Heights and it has a wonderful school system.”
It was in Columbus that Bibb first sat in the anchor chair, initially as co-anchor with longtime Columbus newsman Hugh Demoss, then solo as the station’s weekend anchor.
Then, in 1976, Bibb was promoted to anchor WCMH’s weeknight evenings news, making him one of just a handful of African Americans nationwide sitting in the anchor chair of the prime-time news broadcast.
“I’ve been anchoring a newscast ever since then,” says Bibb. “With the exception of maybe two years.” Bibb made broadcast history again, when in 1986 he became Cleveland’s first African-American prime-time news anchor. This was at WKYC Channel 3. Bibb had returned home to Cleveland and to WKYC as a reporter and weekend anchor in 1979, settling in Shaker Heights with his family, which by then included two young daughters, Alison and Jennifer.
“Growing up in Cleveland, I was always in and out of Shaker Heights and it has a wonderful school system,” says Bibb, who lives in the Sussex neighborhood. “We’ve been there for 36 years and now we’ve got grandchildren in the system.” Moreover, Bibb’s son-in-law, William Clawson, who’s married to daughter Jennifer, is president of the Shaker Schools Board of Education.
Bibb was lured away to WEWS in 1995 to anchor the weeknight evening news, while also continuing to work as a reporter (which he’s done his entire career). In 2012, Bibb shifted to the noon broadcast, while also continuing to host and narrate a variety of shows and series for the station, like “My Ohio” and “Kaleidoscope.”
Stories to Tell
Spend time with Bibb and you can’t help but be swept up by his prowess as a storyteller. And Bibb has stories to tell. Over the past four decades, he’s interviewed presidents, politicians, celebrities, and hundreds if not thousands of Ohioans. These have included Akron’s Judith Resnik, a NASA engineer and astronaut who died in the Challenger explosion in 1986, and Neil Armstrong, who was the first man to walk on the moon, and many not so prominent, like those he often features in his “My Ohio” series.
He has covered hurricanes, the Gulf War, and even interviewed James Earl Ray, who was convicted of assassinating Martin Luther King, Jr. He’s been to the White House twice and reported from the cockpit of a U.S. Air Force Thunderbird. Bibb has won many awards for his work, including six local Emmy Awards and the Distinguished Journalist Award from the Cleveland Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
He’s been inducted into the Broadcasters’ Hall of Fame and the Cleveland Association of Broadcaster’s Hall of Fame. And these are just some of his accolades.
A career highlight: interviewing President Barack Obama in 2011.
“When I walked in, he said, ‘So you’re from Cleveland. Are you guys over LeBron James going to Miami yet?’ I said, ‘We’re working on it.’ He said, ‘You’re going to be fine, but Miami is going to win.’” The two spent about 10 minutes talking about Ohio’s economy.
But Bibb has not limited his storytelling to television news. He’s published articles in Cleveland Magazine – winning an award for an article he wrote about his grandfather – and is also a poet. He’s performed in local productions, including “Grandfather Blues,” a poem he wrote and performed with jazz guitarist and fellow television news reporter Brian McIntyre, who died in 2012. And Bibb can frequently be found hosting events around the area, where he’s a favorite with Clevelanders.
“TV is like a conduit. People get to know you and when you meet them, they often say, ‘I feel like I know you,’” says Bibb.
He often hears from his fans, like the time he received $10 to pay for a cup of coffee from a viewer who told him, “You always seem to know the right thing to say.” Or the 89-year-old viewer who, in 2005, sent Bibb her husband’s cufflinks with a handwritten note. “These cufflinks belonged to my husband, who passed away in 1985. Don’t know anyone else who wears them. See you live everyday wearing cufflinks.” Bibb keeps them in his desk drawer, sometimes wearing them when he forgets his own.
“It’s been wonderful,” he says, reflecting on his career. “The people I’ve met and the places I’ve gone.” And while Bibb, who is now 71, is contemplating retirement, on this particular Friday, there is still much to do and more stories to tell.
“It’s always about the deadline,” says Bibb and with a smile gets back to work.