It was a warm May afternoon in 1977. A 23-year-old Jay Hildebrandt waited at the Twin Falls Greyhound station, scanning his eyes down the road.A moment later, the bus from Boise pulled up, and the driver handed him a roll of film. Five minutes of film to be exact. It was all the Twin Falls KMVT-TV news station could afford to shoot. The station didn’t have a darkroom either, which was why it had to send film to Boise every day on the bus. Hildebrandt now had an hour and a half to run back to the newsroom and frantically edit the film in time for the 5:30 p.m. broadcast.
“On the weekends I was a one-man band. I did news, weather, sports, I put in all my own graphics,” Hildebrandt said, remembering his first television job.
The weekend anchor position in Twin Falls was the first anchoring role for Hildebrandt, at that time a recent graduate in communications and broadcasting from Brigham Young University. Two years later, he took another anchor position in Fort Wayne, Ind. As a Milwaukee native, he liked the idea of being closer to home. In 1984, however, he headed back to Idaho after accepting a position in Idaho Falls.
Forty-two years after waiting for that Greyhound bus, Hildebrandt has become a local institution. The Mr. Rogers of every Idaho Falls’ neighborhood. But Saint Hildebrandt, as his co-anchor refers to him, is preparing to leave, marking the end of an era for area TV news.
Hildebrandt became beloved not through a larger-than-life personality, but through a calm, gentle demeanor. His warm voice reassuring his audience that, even if planes are crashing or rivers are flooding, he will be there with them through it, in their living room on Channel 8’s 5 o’clock news.
“What has working with Jay Hildebrandt been like? It’s been like working with the most gentlemanly man I’ve ever met,” said Karole Honas, his co-anchor of 30 years. “There was just never a day he brought in emotions or garbage or baggage. He’s just solid and steady. Kind, positive, and tried to lift up your spirits every day for 30 years.”
When asked about his most memorable stories from the past, Hildebrandt’s eyes light up as he talks about his “Wednesday Child,” “Distinguished Students,” and “GR8 Neighbors” segments. All those recurring segments involved going out into the community and recognizing ordinary people.
This past summer, while at the Eastern Idaho State Fair, two young men in their 20s approached him. Hildebrandt is used to whispers, stares, and being hailed by viewers in the grocery store or on the streets. (“I would be worried if people didn’t recognize me because that would mean that they weren’t watching.”) These two brothers, however, were not average viewers. “Jay! Do you remember us?” they asked him. “We’re Chase and Anthony! We were on Wednesday’s Child and got adopted afterward.”
“It was almost like a calling for him to try to get those Wednesday’s children adopted,” Honas said.
When asked about some of the more difficult stories, the stories that haunt him, the stories he can’t get out of his head to this day, Hildebrandt looked more perplexed. “Hmm, I’m trying to think, I really can’t think of one offhand,” he said. “I think they happened, but maybe I’ve tried to block them out of my memory.”
Surely, there must be one story in 42 years that still makes him shiver? “Oh there is one!” he said finally, before telling a horrific story about a family of six who was burned alive in their trailer.
“I thought at the time, if this had happened in New York City or in Los Angeles, it would have made the national news. But because we were in a rural area here, for some reason, it wasn’t reported as widely, but it was just as tragic. Somehow that didn’t seem right.”
After, he quickly turned the conversation back to a high-achieving student (“so bright and talented”) or the time he interviewed Mitt Romney (“a very kind man”). Saint Hildebrandt does not like to dwell on darkness.
Honas laughs when told this. “That is Jay. He is the tender-hearted man. It doesn’t mean he can’t go do a tough story, but isn’t his strength; it isn’t what he likes. The older I got, the tougher I got, and I think the older Jay got, the more kind and loving he got.”
And that is Jay Hildebrandt and Karole Honas in a nutshell. Hildebrandt is reticent and mild-mannered, politically conservative and an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Honas is passionate, progressive, cracks jokes and loves to ask politicians the tough questions. However, “the yin and yang of Channel 8,” as Honas calls them, seem to work. The “diverse but not divided” audience likes to get both sides, Honas said.The longtime co-anchors often discuss their differing opinions while sitting around at airports or between takes, but they have learned how to do it in a loving way.“I don’t know why the rest of the world can’t do it. We’ve done it for 30 years and remained dear friends,” Honas said.
The closeness of the two anchors seems to be an oddity in the transitory world of today’s media market.
“I don’t think it will ever happen again. We were an anomaly 15 or 20 years ago. Consultants come in, and they say ‘How long have you two been together? You’re kidding! That never happens,’” Honas said. “One consultant said he had dealt with co-anchors that literally counted the words to make sure it was equal. No, I don’t think there will be anyone like us again.”
Talking to the two, their reactions are often humorous in their differences. Honas, always responding with exuberance; Hildebrandt always with measured modesty. When asked the same question, about whether he thought there would ever be two hosts like them again in Idaho Falls, he responded, “I think it is unusual for someone to stay in a market this long, but it does happen.”
Yet some of Honas’ personality seems to have rubbed off on him over the years.
“When I very first came on board, he was just very reserved. But he has gotten funnier and taken himself lighter. He cracks jokes now that just have everyone on the floor. People from the old days say, ‘Oh he didn’t use to do that.’”
And there have been plenty of laughs between the two of them over the years, often due to mistakes on the part of one of the anchors.
“Years ago, while talking about a rocket that took off and was going to the edge of the solar system, I said, ‘It went past Mars and Jupiter and Saturn, all the way to Pocatello.’” Hildebrandt recalled with a laugh. ‘Karole said, ‘I think you mean Pluto.’”
A running joke between the two of them was Hildebrandt’s tendency to read whatever was on the teleprompter, no questions asked. Often, there will be “natural sounds” indications on screen, meaning the anchors are to pause as the studio inserts sounds into the broadcast. Once, during a story on a school shooting drill involving rounds of fake bullets, a newbie reporter had written in the actual sounds to indicate Hildebrandt should pause as the audio from the drill is played.
“He actually read them. ‘Bam! Bam! Pow! Pow!’” Honas said. “I was laughing so hard they were worried I wasn’t going to be able to come back on air.”
But all the moments on air — the good, the bad, and the funny — are at last coming to an end. Hildebrandt is not burned out or sick of his job, as so often happens.
“I’ve interviewed so many people who have touched me in a lot of ways,” Hildebrandt said. “I couldn’t imagine having done anything else really.”
Rather, Hildebrandt believes there are seasons in life, the same way there are seasons in the year. And he can feel the winds change, the leaves falling. He wants to spend more time with his wife and his five children. He is excited to look after his 13 grandchildren, instead of at a teleprompter.
“Idaho, you were lucky to have him,” Honas said.