Lester Holt dropped out of Sacramento State University to take his first job in journalism at an all-news radio station in San Francisco. He roamed the city in a blue Ford Granada equipped with police and fire scanners and a two-way radio.
"They used to run a promo that said, 'Breaking news with Lester Holt, the fastest mike in the West,'" recalled the new anchor of the "NBC Nightly News."
Holt's NBC News office overlooking Rockefeller Plaza is a long way from his days as a siren-chasing street reporter. But even during the four months he was asked to step in as anchor while Brian Williams was suspended, Holt was the first out the door when major stories broke, covering the street protests in Baltimore, wading through floods in Wimberly, Texas, and hovering above the wreckage of an Amtrak train in Philadelphia.
"He's always been like that," said "Dateline NBC" correspondent Josh Mankiewicz, who first worked with Holt at WCBS-TV in New York. "He has always been a great citizen of the newsroom."
Holt describes himself as a guy who "tends to not say no." That may explain how he ended up with three high-profile roles at NBC News — serving as anchor of the weekend edition of "Today," the Saturday and Sunday editions of "NBC Nightly News" and "Dateline NBC."
The good will he engendered among colleagues and executives over the years made it an easy choice to put Holt in the weekday "Nightly News" job permanently once network executives determined that Williams was out for good (he's been reassigned to handle breaking news at cable network MSNBC).
That feeling was evident when Holt walked into his first staff meeting Monday morning as permanent anchor. He was greeted with a standing ovation.
There is also a sense of relief at NBC News that the controversy over Williams' false statements about his coverage of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq is finally over. "People feel like they have had a long, warm, sudsy shower," is how one former NBC News executive described it. "It's all down the drain."
Even Williams acknowledged that "Nightly News" was in good hands when he gave an interview to "Today" co-host Matt Lauer last week. "Brian and I are good," Holt said. "We're very good." At the end of his broadcast Monday, Holt thanked Williams for his support.
Ironically, a few months before Williams got into trouble, Holt had talked with management about pulling back from his intense schedule. "I said, 'Maybe it's time to start tapping the brakes,'" he said. "My family had put up with an awful lot."
Those plans have been deferred as Holt lives by the words a mentor once said to him early in his career: Prepare yourself to walk through doors of opportunity that will swing open when you least expect them to.
It first happened to Holt in 1986, when he landed a major local TV anchor job. He got the gig after CBS' Chicago station WBBM demoted longtime anchor Harry Porterfield, removing an African American from the lineup of a station that had little diversity on its weekday newscasts. The Rev. Jesse Jackson and Operation PUSH led a 10-month boycott against WBBM, and Holt was moved from WCBS in New York to take over one of the nightly newscasts in Chicago.
"I got that call and I was 27 years old," Holt said. "There was a tremendous amount of pressure. I didn't realize how much pressure it was going to be."
Holt, now 56, is being called in to smooth over a crisis again, because no one at NBC imagined Williams' career at the network would immolate the way it did.
"Everybody accepts that it's not the circumstances that I would have liked to have gotten a role like this," he said. "But it is what it is. I've worn a lot of hats at NBC. I've done a lot of things. Everything has prepared me for whatever may come. This door of opportunity has swung open in a place I didn't see coming. But I got the call to walk through. I'm confident. All my life experience has prepared me for something like this."
Holt left Chicago to join MSNBC in 2000 during what now looks like a golden age of 24-hour-cable news. Many continuous hours in the anchor chair and out in the field covering the presidential election vote recount in Florida, the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq made Holt a known quantity nationally and earned him the internal nickname of "Iron Pants." His approach to breaking news, he said, was "I don't want to get up and not find out how this ends."
Holt, who was born on an Air Force base in Marin County and grew up mostly in Sacramento, keeps an apartment on the Westside of Los Angeles. He's not planning big changes to "NBC Nightly News," but he does hope to make newscasts fresher for West Coast viewers and work out of NBC's Los Angeles studios more frequently.
Although not known for being the kind of talk show raconteur that Williams had been, Holt revealed a playful side as co-anchor of weekend "Today."
He keeps a bass guitar and a small amplifier in his office, having played since he picked up the instrument in junior high school. He's good enough to sit in with artists booked to the "Today" show crowds in Rockefeller Plaza, including the Steve Miller Band, Earth Wind & Fire and country star Luke Bryan (as a teenager, Holt worked as a disc jockey at a Sacramento country music station, taking requests from truckers who called in). A fan of the big band sounds of Count Basie and Maynard Ferguson, Holt has even plucked a stand-up bass with jazz combos at clubs in Manhattan, where he lives with his wife, Carol.
Holt has not dwelled much on the history he is making with his latest transition. Only one other African American has served as an anchor on a broadcast network's flagship evening newscast, ABC's Max Robinson, and he had to share the role with Peter Jennings and Frank Reynolds. Yet Holt recognizes its significance.
"To the extent that it fills people with pride, I take pride in that," he said. "It's not a small matter. I'm mindful — these are big jobs. There are only three of them. I take a lot of pride in it mainly because some kid will turn on the TV and say, 'I can do that.'"
One of those kids is Holt's oldest son, Stefan, the morning news anchor at NBC's WMAQ in Chicago — just a few blocks from the location of the now demolished studio where his father once toiled.