It was in that lull during the back half of WSVN's hour-long ten o'clock newscast, on a Friday night, when everybody finally lost their minds. Actually, their minds -- our minds -- had been lost long ago, but that little particular space of time is where the cracks showed and everyone let it be known that we were all burned-out lunatics in desperate need of time off -- or at the very least, a drink. We worked in TV news. Who could blame us?
Maybe this is why I remember so well that one Friday night when Kelley Mitchell cracked up while on-air. It was during a story we were running, a pre-recorded package that required nothing more from the anchors than a brief set-up followed by two-and-a-half minutes of doing absolutely nothing since the show was in its final quarter-hour and there was no breaking news to speak of. Kelley and Rick Sanchez were my anchors that night and somewhere during the story, to only those within the studio and control room, Rick made possibly the crassest joke I've ever heard made in a TV newsroom (which is really saying something). It took Kelley a split-second to fully process it -- then she fell apart. Her head slowly descended and attached itself to the desk in front of her and her clothing muffled the laughter through her mic. She was supposed to read the next story coming out of the package, but she was so unsuccessful at stifling her tears that we had to give the read to Rick, and compounding the beauty of the moment was the fact that Rick put on a smile and spoke to the camera like nothing was happening right next to him.
No one in the audience ever had any idea that Kelley couldn't regain her composure for the next several minutes. This is my favorite memory of Kelley Mitchell. Because Kelley laughing was the best. Period.
I could talk at length about her tenacity as a journalist, her natural curiosity, the genuine empathy she brought to every story she did, and how beloved she was by those she took under her wing -- myself included. I could do that until late this evening without even taking a second to catch my breath. But what I valued most about Kelley, what she specifically meant to me that I can never forget nor can I ever properly thank her for, was that brilliant, blistering sense of humor that was at the core of who she was.
TV news is full of people who can tell a good story, but I can honestly say that nobody could do it quite like Kelly because no one possessed the razor-sharp irreverence that she did and no one had the ability to wield it as effectively as she could. For a smart-ass little shit like me, someone in his early 20s, that was something to look upon with profound awe and respect: the idea that a journalist can be so astonishingly good at her job precisely because she's so damn funny and opinionated; the notion that her wealth of personality was what fed her passion for storytelling and that the latter couldn't exist without the former; the reality that sometimes attempting to play it completely straight would harm her work rather than help it.
There was more truth in Kelley than in almost anyone I've ever worked with, simply because, despite her professionalism as a reporter and anchor, she never pretended to be anything but who she was. She was a perfectionist who didn't try to be the perfect newsperson archetype, in a business where doing so is lauded, and because of that she actually was the perfect newsperson. She knew how to engage with all kinds of people because she never considered herself better than anyone. She was ridiculously smart and funnier than anyone in the room, with a big brain to bounce ideas off of and a hearty constitution to go grab beers with. She was an exceptional writer and a goddamn fantastic journalist.
More than any of that -- she was a mentor and a friend. She was someone I learned from in terms of how to be a quality storyteller, one who listens to the world around him as well as speaks to it, and how to appreciate that all the oddball things that make someone special is what makes that person special as a journalist. She was no-nonsense and yet never took anything too seriously -- and that's what made her such a serious force in the business.
She deserves her icon status in South Florida news. She earned it.
Kelley Mitchell died on Sunday night at the age of 58.
She will be missed in ways I can't properly describe.