Breaking news: WGN-TV's Sean Lewis tells (almost) all

Posted on Wed, 08/01/2018 - 11:30am

By Tracy Poyser

Sean LewisHere I was, a bit daunted by agreeing to interview and photograph a skilled interviewer/news anchor and report on a professional reporter – our neighbor Sean Lewis, a Malibu East resident since 2009, an Emmy-award winning journalist and anchor of WGN-TV/Channel 9’s Saturday and Sunday morning news, in addition to reporting for WGN News throughout the week. But, as soon he opened the door to the A/B combination unit he shares with his WGN colleague and friend, Chicago’s favorite weatherman Tom Skilling, Sean’s easy smile and sunny personality put me at ease.

Plus, he had help from Waldo the cat, a.k.a. Bubba, a two-year-old adoptee he met while hosting the Annual PAWS Chicago Fur Ball Gala at the Drake Hotel a couple of years ago. “It was love at first meow,” Sean confesses, and I had to agree. He’s just about the cutest little black fur ball ever, with distinct white markings for personality.

Not to be outdone by a mere feline, the condo’s co-rulers are dogs Kallie and Maddie. Sean got Irish Terrier Kallie as a puppy in 2007 from a rescue in Madison, Wis. And, shortly after Sean had done a story on the Anti-Cruelty Society some eight years ago, he and Tom stopped by Anti-Cruelty and fell for pink-nosed white terrier mix Maddie, who instantly bonded with Kallie. You can frequently see the happy pair in and around Malibu East, pulling Sean (or Tom) around on their leashes.

So, back to Sean’s life story. He’s a native of Kenosha, Wis., where he lived until he was 18, and considers himself an American mutt, with German, Irish, Italian, Welsh and French ancestry. His maternal great-grandmother was Sicilian. His father’s side was German/Welsh. He was an only child (his parents divorced when he was quite young).

Sean was only seven and in second grade when he decided he was going to be a TV reporter, spurred on by his mother and encouraged by his Aunt Jodi, who was a TV news anchor in Nebraska – where Sean caught the bug for journalism. Coincidentally, Jodi’s daughter (Sean’s cousin), Christina Souter, moved into Malibu East in 2011 and built her family here. The Souters recently moved back to their native Minnesota.

True to his childhood calling, Sean spent two years each at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and UW-Milwaukee, interned in Minneapolis and Milwaukee, and graduated in 1997 with a double major in broadcast journalism and political science. Two weeks later, he started his first stint as a newly minted reporter in Fargo, N.D., where he covered the most devastating flood of the Red River of the North since 1826 (it flooded again in 2010) – and whatever assignments were lobbed his way, including city council meetings and the local police beat, which didn’t quite match the wacky “Fargo” TV series. He moved on to a TV reporter job at CBS affiliate WISC-TV in Madison, Wis., and was there in 2001 for Gov. Tommy Thompson’s tearful resignation speech as the longest-serving governor in the country when he was appointed U.S. secretary of health and human services under George W. Bush.

Two and a half years later, just before his contract was up, he signed for his first full-time anchor job with ABC affiliate WTVO in Rockford, Ill. Was he nervous before his first newscast, I wondered? “Sure, but you just jump in, and nerves plus adrenaline are part of the job that never really leaves you,” Sean explains. “It takes a bunch of tries before you find your own, authentic style,” he recalls. His is conversational enough to put viewers and interviewees at ease, with a touch of humor, a lot of compassion and a large dose of integrity and respect for the power of the word. Plus, he had amazing role models in TV news. Growing up, he admired Peter Jennings – always classy, knowledgeable, yet down-to-earth – and, locally, he looked up to Ron Magers, Steve Sanders and Carol Marin – exceptional professionals and human beings.

In late 2004, his love for American history and politics next brought him to Richmond, Va., as weekend anchor/reporter for NBC affiliate WWBT-TV. He lived in the heart of Richmond’s colonial historic district, five blocks from St. John’s Episcopal Church, site of Patrick Henry’s stirring “Give me liberty, or give me death!” speech he made to the Second Virginia Convention on March 23, 1775. Sean made lifelong friends in Richmond and had hoped to stay. But, his mother, who still lived in Kenosha, had been stricken with recurring metastatic breast cancer, and he used all his vacation time and free days visiting her.

In March 2007, he moved back to Kenosha to look after his mom, commuting to Chicago and a new position as anchor/reporter for Tribune Company’s CLTV – the only opening he had found. Sadly, his mom died just two months later. So, in summer 2007, he looked for a home in Chicago and discovered his beloved Edgewater. His first home was a spacious gut rehab across from Senn High School, and the friendliness and diversity of our neighborhood reminded him of small Midwestern towns with real people. “It’s so great to walk down the street and hear languages you didn’t even know existed, and restaurants that take you around far-flung pockets of the globe,” he says.

Covering news in our huge city took a bit of an adjustment, but he was comfortable in Chicago. By 2008, while still with CLTV, he moved on to WGN-TV as a reporter. And, when WGN started a weekend morning news show, the station offered him the anchor position. He’s held onto it ever since, while still filing reports for WGN News at 4, 5, 6 and 9 p.m. during the week. You can watch his show live every Saturday and Sunday morning from 7-9 a.m.

During his first couple of years at WGN, he had become friends with weather guru Tom Skilling, a member of the WGN family since 1978. At that time, Tom lived in Malibu East’s 31C, when, in 2009, he became interested in an A/B combination unit with a glorious view and 280-degree front-row seat to those spectacular weather systems over the lake and city. Since the layout easily provided independent living quarters for two people, he and Sean became roomies, subletting rent-free to pets Bubba, Kallie and Maddie. Sean enjoys the fact that our building attracts so many young families now, plus it’s our own United Nations.

Despite crazy schedules and stressful professions, Sean and Tom find time to travel to exotic locales. Past destinations include Australia, South Korea, Thailand, Bora Bora, Alaska, the United Kingdom, the Caribbean and Mexico. Their upcoming adventure will take them to London and Southampton for a trans-Atlantic return voyage on Cunard’s Queen Mary 2.

At home, Sean relaxes with reading, working out, playing with the animals, cooking without following recipes – and, not to forget sleeping. He loves spending time with friends far and near.

Getting back to his life as a TV anchor/reporter, I asked Sean about the emotional impact of reporting on the dark side of life and the human condition. He admits it’s not for everyone, and it’s especially hard to deal with tragedy, trying to get a story without being too invasive or insensitive. “Meeting people on the worst day of their lives is so hard,” he says. It’s impossible not to be affected by gang violence and shootings of children.

He’s emphatic that no reporter loves to cover crime, and he’s glad that WGN has the staff and time to cover the good, positive side of life in our city, with four reporters concentrating on feature stories (including Sean).

On the joyful side, he remembers a couple of 10- and 12-year-old kids who raised thousands of dollars for cancer research with a lemonade stand in the suburbs.

I asked Sean how long he thinks he will continue to do what he does now. “Until it’s no fun anymore. I have to enjoy the process and not get jaded, and keep my sense of humor” he responds.

Getting back to the title line of “breaking news,” you really don’t know from moment to moment if the five or six stories you’ve lined up will make it on the air. And, he explains, whether you’re nervous, distraught, amused, annoyed or befuddled, depending on the story and the situation, you must be able to relate to people and come across as authentic, cool and composed, because TV cameras catch every expression.

And, before I forget – Sean’s work and passion for social justice have brought him a bunch of honors. In Rockford, Sean served on the board of AIDS Care Network and was named Best Newswriter by the Illinois Associated Press. In 2009, the AP recognized Sean again for his special report on the student journalists who were the first on the scene of the Northern Illinois University shootings.

He’s an active member of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association and frequently speaks to community groups. Also, he’s an avid supporter of Shelter Inc., a nonprofit focused on helping abused and neglected children in the northwest suburbs, as well as Chicago’s Legacy Project, which provides education about the contributions of LGBT people throughout history. He also donates his time to animal charities, including PAWS Chicago, Fetching Tails and Care For Real’s pet food pantry in Edgewater.

I would have loved to have stayed the entire afternoon listening to Sean’s experiences, while taking numerous pictures of Bubba the cat and watching his antics (Bubba’s, that is). I bet Sean could star in his own biopic, and I guarantee it wouldn’t be boring. And, I’m still waiting for him to tell me how long “breaking news” lasts before it is broken. Maybe you can ask him – a tall, smiling guy pulled off our freight elevator by two cute dogs.