In my previous post I wrote about Tom Conner—real name Emil Sepich—the wonderful anchor/news director I worked with at WEEK-TV in Peoria in the mid-70s. I talked, briefly, about his death. There’s more to the story. It’s a haunting memory, so I don’t talk about it much. But Tom/Emil has been on my mind lately, so now’s the time.
First, a little more background. I wrote that I had been brought in to run the Channel 25 newsroom after WEEK slipped—for the first time in history—into second place in the news ratings. Tom, I wrote, just couldn’t be running the newsroom at 9:00 a.m. and anchoring at 10:00 p.m. The station’s fiercest competitor, WRAU (now WHOI) brought in an outsider (Steve Cohen, later news director in Philadelphia, later a bigwig with Court TV¸ later a successful general manager) to give them their push forward. I was hired (just after Cohen left town) to take WEEK back to #1, to give it a shot in the arm.
As I wrote, we (I emphasize “WE”, it was a collective effort) did. From a 26 share to a 43 share in a year and a half.
For me, then a young(ish) guy, it was great success. For Tom, it was vindication. The “Dean of Local Anchors” was on top again. When the ratings started slipping there had been some talk that maybe what WEEK needed even more than someone to run the newsroom was a new lead anchor. No one could say that now about the #1 anchor at the #1 station in the market. The future looked bright.
It came at a great time. That fall (’77), for the first time in a long time WEEK-TV held a “client party” to show off the fall lineup. The station had gotten out of the habit during the economic hard times of the early 70s. But in ’77, NBC's fall programming looked strong and local programming was going gangbusters. It was decided we’d show off a bit for station clients, and the local country club was rented out for diner, drinks and dancing.
It really turned out to be a party to honor Tom. There was a receiving line, and there he was front-and-center, the “center,” if you will, of attention. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to pat him on the back, wanted to shake his hand, wanted to acknowledge his presence as the “Main Man” in local news. I stood in the background feeling very satisfied with myself, and extremely pleased that this wonderful guy was again getting the respect he had rightly earned over so many years.
I don’t know if Tom was ever much of a drinker—I had been (and would be, for a time, later)—but back then both of us were pretty much teetotalers. EXCEPT ON THAT NIGHT. As the evening wore on, he and I adjourned to a quiet table with a bottle of champagne and toasted our pasts, our present, and our futures. We “indulged in the bubbly” and got a little tipsy.
I don’t know how it came up, but at one point in the wee hours he said something like, “I’ve been very lucky, and I have few regrets.”
But he proceeded to tell me a story of a woman he had loved and lost more than a quarter-century before. He was in radio at the time, in Chicago I think. The bottom line, he said, was “I had a lovely woman who really cared for me, and I treated her badly. I always regretted it and wished I could make it up to her.”
I told him it was never too late, that he was divorced, and that maybe he should try to find her. He told me he knew where she was, and that a mutual friend had told him that she was now divorced as well. I told him he should really find her. “No,” he said, “I caused too much pain and too much time has passed for me to ever make it right.” I wasn’t in a position to argue.
A few weeks later, Tom Conner was dead.
And a few weeks after that I got a call in my office from a woman who said she was looking for Emil Sepich. I didn’t know what to say, so I asked if I could help her in some way. She said no, that she was an old friend, and she gave me her name.
I’m sorry. I’m crying now as I write this.
I recognized the name. And I said to her, “I’m terribly sorry to be the one to tell you this. Emil passed away a few weeks ago. But I have a message . . . for you . . . from him.” And I told her what he had said.
Her heart was broken, and I felt bad for her, for Tom and for their missed opportunities. I never found out—I never asked—what made her call that day. I put it down as fate. But I somehow felt blessed thinking that Tom had given me the opportunity to make amends for him, had entrusted me with his message. Today we call it “closure.” If that’s what it was, fine. I’d like to think I provided it for her and for him and for myself that day.
There were several little mysteries surrounding Tom’s passing, several signals that no one picked up on until after the fact. Added up, they make it seem he had a premonition of his own death.
The Friday night he died, after the 10:00 p.m. news he went out of his way to go back to Engineering to talk to one of the old-timers who’d been at the station since day one.
“I just want to tell you how much I’ve enjoyed working with you all these years.” Out of the blue.
“Well, thanks, Tom. That’s nice of you. Me too. Have a good weekend. Goodnight.”
And, heading for the door, Emil Sepich said “Goodbye.”
Isn’t there a book about the five people you meet in heaven? I’m not sure I’m going to heaven—I’m not sure they let news directors in—but if I con my way in, one of the people I’d dearly like to see again would be Emil Sepich. In life he was a sweet, gentle man and extremely kind to me. I hope he knows how sincerely I cared for him. I hope he can put in a good word for me: I think he’d have more “pull” up there than just about anyone I ever worked with.