Before coming back home to Denver and 7NEWS, Mitch was the main anchor for 13 years at KWTV in Oklahoma City. This was during the time period (1995) when the tragic bombing of the Murrah Federal Building took place. Mitch has a unique perspective on this devastating event since he was there “up close and personal.”
For someone who is always impeccably groomed, he is so refreshingly unassuming and unpretentious. He’s the consummate professional, extremely focused on his craft and one of the hardest working reporters on the Denver scene today.
In his answers to our questions, you will also see Mitch’s fun side come through – his upbeat, delightful demeanor never seems to waver. He’s consistently kind, respectful and friendly, and treats strangers as well as any VIP.
If you happen to be at a charitable event that Mitch Jelniker is emceeing, go up and say hi; Mitch will make you feel like you are the most important person in the room. You’ll come away wishing he were your next-door neighbor. There’s no better way to describe Mitch except to say “he’s just such a darn nice guy!”
Tell me a little about your career and how you got started in news broadcasting? I graduated from C.S.U. with a broadcasting degree in May 1982. I landed a job as a news producer’s assistant… a grunt… at CNN making $5 an hour. (I made more than that paying my way through college in Fort Collins waiting tables at the Moot House restaurant, which is still there!)
I had two weeks to kill before starting the CNN gig, so I loaded up my Jeep CJ-5 and drove down to Oklahoma City to see my girlfriend. When I got there I had several urgent messages from Atlanta. This was 1982; a time when most folks thought Ted Turner was nuts for entering the news game and questioned whether CNN would really make it.
Several hundred people were laid off that day, including the entire division I was supposed to work for. Unemployed and heartbroken I stayed with my girlfriend and applied for a similar entry-level job at Oklahoma City’s CBS affiliate, KWTV. I landed the job and married the girl. We stayed in OKC for 13 years as I worked my way up to 6 and 10 PM News Anchor.
Denver’s KMGH and KUSA called in early 1995, both were looking for a male anchor. All the stations in town were preparing for the big affiliation change that was to occur that summer. It was my chance to get back home. No sooner had the interviewing process began than the bomb hit the Murrah Federal Building in OKC. Needless to say, the job hunt was shelved for a couple months. I started with KMGH in July of 1995.
Is this what you always wanted to be? What did you say you were going to be as a young boy? As a kid I wanted to be a drummer or a racecar driver. Neither was ever meant to be since my parents wouldn’t let me have a drum set and my first car was a 1971 Ford Pinto.
While attending Niwot High School I signed up for a class to earn a Third Class Radio Operators License. That was required way back then to be on the radio. In my senior year, I was the program director for KCDC radio station in Longmont, a station owned by the St. Vrain Valley School District and run by students. I was hooked and went onto C.S.U. to study broadcasting.
How did the “7 Everyday Heroes” come about? Denver’s 7 is owned by McGraw-Hill. Corporate executives were in town one day and told us about the success our sister station in San Diego was having with its small business leadership award. It allowed the station to be involved with the community on weekly basis and helped boost community pride. A handful of us from KMGH asked if we could honor volunteers instead. We wanted to recognize people whom you might not otherwise hear about who are making Colorado a better place.
The corporate folks said, 'Great, why don’t you start this week?' That was the first week of January 1999. We turned our first “7 Everyday Hero” story that Friday and haven’t missed a Friday night since then. That’s a testament to how many great Colorado volunteers we have out there. I’m constantly delighted at the lengths people go to help perfect strangers. I have yet to meet a “7 Everyday Hero” who doesn’t have some special quality that we can all learn from.
What comes to mind for you when you think about the Oklahoma City bombing now? What were your thoughts and observations at the time? It is still hard to believe it happened. We lived about 15 miles from downtown, in a bedroom community called Edmond. When the bomb hit, it shook our windows and woke up our young children who were home sick from school. They thought it was a bad Oklahoma thunderstorm. My wife suspected a gas explosion in the neighborhood. I was in Dallas, standing next to several Oklahoma City officials and U.S. Senator Don Nickles of Oklahoma.
We were ready to head into an Air Force base closure hearing, concerning Oklahoma’s Tinker Air Force Base, when my satellite truck operator came running in. At the same time all of our pagers went off. We went to the satellite truck to see the live picture coming from my station. By sheer coincidence, our station helicopter was flying over downtown and the crew rolled the camera when it saw the smoke plume. It was the only aerial video of the scene ever taken since the air space over downtown Oklahoma City was soon shutdown. In the early moments after the explosion no one knew for sure what was going on so many things were secured for safety reasons like the Federal Reserve Bank branch located just a couple blocks from the Murrah building.
Back in Dallas, my photographer rolled on the reactions of the Oklahoma City officials and Senator Nickles when they first saw the video of the bombed-out building from inside our satellite truck. On any other news day that alone would have made a remarkable story but given the gravity of the day, that footage never made air. There were just too many more important stories to be told.
Airports in Dallas and Fort Worth were closed down because of tornado activity, so my photographer and I rented the largest car we could find (to hold all the TV editing gear) and drove like mad to Oklahoma City. The American Red Cross had already secured all of the minivans. Those were the days of 55 miles per hour speed limits – making a trip from Dallas to OKC about three hours. We put an “OKC NEWS CREW” sign in the window and flew past highway patrol troopers. They just waved us on by. We got to the bombed-out Murrah building in record time and started doing live reports.
Soon afterwards I went to the station to do reports from the anchor desk. My co-anchor and I stayed on the air until midnight. The morning news crew broadcast from midnight until 7am. Then, we did the 7am until midnight shift again. This continued, without commercials or regular programming for more than a week.
My co-anchor and I had a system to help us keep our composure while we were on the air. She was married to one of the firefighters who was searching for survivors amidst the debris, so she had a hard time talking about the risky search efforts and reports of falling debris. (One of the 168 people who died in the OKC bombing was a nurse who ran into the area to help and was hit on the head by a falling chunk of concrete.)
My two children were quite small at the time, so I had a hard time talking about the bodies of children being found. When one of us was having a hard time keeping it together we simply reached over and touched the other one’s arm. She picked up where I left off and I did the same for her. It allowed us to continue to get critical information to the thousands of families waiting word on their loved ones and to the viewers who were watching intermittently via CBS and CNN.
People ask me all the time: ‘How can you talk about something so horrible and still keep it together?’ I’m not always successful at it but I do have a distinct advantage over everyone else, I’m looking at a camera lens. If I had to look into everyone’s eyes during a time like that I’d never make it. In fact, it took me many years before I could talk about that week in OKC. The other thing to keep in mind is that any anguish I’m feeling is but one-one millionth of the pain being suffered by those who lost someone in a tragedy.
The hardest parts, for me, during the Columbine tragedy, in Colorado, was the standing there without a co-anchor to lean on for more than eight hours, and concentrating on NOT looking at the families starving for information who were huddled around the cameras. If I had looked at their faces, while on the air, I never would have made it through that day. By staring into that camera I, hopefully, provided some useful information to a community that was as shocked as I was.
What’s important in your life? Faith, family and friends. I’m of average intelligence and talent and the only way I get by, is by someone above watching over me and family and friends supporting me.
Who is your hero, and why? John Glenn. He’s a man of warmth, wisdom, faith and courage. I’ve met many famous people in my career and he’s the only one I have ever bothered for an autograph.
Who is your mentor? George Baskos. He was my teacher at KCDC – the radio station in Longmont where I got my start. He was an excellent teacher and is still a friend today.
What makes you the happiest? When I connect with my kids. Those little moments when you know you’re making an impact. They’re priceless.
If you could go back in time and do something differently, what would it be? I’d love to be an artist but I have trouble drawing stick figures!
If there were one thing you would change about yourself, what would it be? I’d take more chances.
If your life were a movie, whom would you like to play you? Well, I’d chose the late William Holden but the casting director would probably go with Martin Short.
What is your pet peeve? Damn those slow drivers in the left lane!
What would you do if you were king of the world? I would lock Rush Limbaugh and Michael Moore in a dungeon.
What is your favorite clothing store? Bolderdash in Cherry Creek.
What is your favorite restaurant? Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse. Turtle soup, crab cakes, Porterhouse steak, red wine…does it get any better?
What is the best advice your Mom/Dad ever gave you? Eat your carrots.
What or who is the greatest love of your life? My wife, of course. She has the sweetest spirit. After 22 years of marriage she still greets me with a big smile EVERYTIME she sees me. She’s a joy to be around, much smarter than me and endures my crazy hours. It doesn’t hurt that she is drop-dead gorgeous.
Is there something you still want to learn to do - like play an instrument, take tango lessons, etc? I’d like to learn to speak French much better. I can order a glass of wine and after that I am lost.
What might your epitaph read or what would you most like to be remembered for? He meant what he said and said what he meant.