Dan Kleckner took the evening anchor’s chair at KHQ-TV more than two decades ago, the same night an eager nation watched the votes pile up in a razor-thin presidential race.
“Our first night, evening anchors, was November 2000,” said Kleckner, who took the desk that night with partner Stephanie Vigil. “Hanging chad, Bush versus Gore.”
“It never ended. It went, and finally 2 a.m., we pulled the plug,” the 64-year-old newscaster continued. “Here we are, a couple morning personalities, and we have to do this important presidential election.”
Something must have clicked that night. Kleckner and Vigil have been on a nearly 21-year run as the hosts of the nightly news on the NBC affiliate, a tradition that will end at 6 p.m. Thursday with a special sign-off show for Kleckner. He’s been with the station since 1985. KHQ, Inc. is owned by the Cowles Co.. The Spokesman-Review is published by Cowles Publishing Co., which is owned by the Cowles Co. The television station has not announced any plans regarding its nightly news broadcast.
The decision to step away has been a long time coming, but was really only solidified in the past few weeks after a visit with his wife, Donna, to Seattle to visit grandchildren, Kleckner said.
“My wife and I just decided, you know what? We need to be a bigger part of their lives,” Kleckner said.
That family has grown since Donna and Dan Kleckner loaded up their then-9-month-old son, Daniel, and a German shepherd named Shiloh in the back seat of a Honda Civic to make the drive from Reno, Nevada, to Spokane in the mid-1980s. Kleckner had been courted to serve as sports anchor for KHQ by its news director, Dean Mell, whom Kleckner had met as a graduate student at Cal State Fullerton.
“When you’re 27 years old, and you get an invitation to be in a bigger market with more money? You go,” Kleckner said.
The sports gig kept Kleckner away from home as his household grew, with another son and a daughter. He credited his wife , who worked as a registered nurse, with keeping the house in order while he returned to what was then KHQ’s South Hill studios to call the highlights.
“In raising our children and working herself, as a nurse, just kept our family together,” Kleckner said. “I could not have done these 37 years here without her support.”
In 1997, Kleckner was moved from the sports desk to the news desk, one of many “chapters” that the anchorman said have continually rejuvenated his career in broadcasting. He was paired with Vigil, who’d done some reporting in Sacramento and arrived for an anchor job with KHQ.
“I wanted to be here for two years, until I realized what we had. It was something special,” Vigil said.
Both said it was the ability to joke and laugh with each other that allowed them to work well on the screen.
“Even though it was 5 o’clock in the morning, we found something to laugh about,” Kleckner said.
“When you’re sitting, literally, 2 feet apart, if you don’t like somebody I kind of think it’s transparent,” Vigil said.
The two received the difficult task in 2000 of replacing Randy Shaw and Penny Daniels on the KHQ desk. Shaw was a common choice among Spokane viewers as the most trusted anchor in the market, and the pair left the station amid harassment rumors.
Kleckner had worked with Shaw on the same desk as the sports anchor and said he had strong respect for the man he replaced at the time.
“When I first started as the sports guy sitting on the desk with him, it was nothing but admiration,” Kleckner said. “I said to myself, ‘When I grow up, I want to be just like him.’”
Kleckner doesn’t remember an unkind word from viewers when he was chosen to replace Shaw. In fact, he doesn’t remember many unkind words from viewers at all, other than a couple of cracks about his physique.
He remembered doing a standup shot at the Spokane International Airport for the return of an Honor Flight, in which veterans are flown to Washington, D.C., to view the war monuments . Waiting for the camera to roll, Kleckner noticed a man in a veteran’s cap and vest leaning in and calling him by his first name.
“I said, ‘Yeah, how you doing? Thanks for your service,’” Kleckner remembered. “And he said, ‘Oh, I wasn’t sure it was you. You’ve put on a lot of weight.”
In the past few weeks, before Kleckner announced his retirement, he was playing at Downriver Golf Course with a KHQ coworker and two other golfers they’d been paired with.
One of the strangers asked Kleckner if he’d been considering retirement, and Kleckner admitted he’d been kicking it around in his head.
“He said, ‘Yeah, I thought so. You’ve lost a step,’” Kleckner said, chuckling. He admitted he hadn’t heard the man too well, and didn’t realize the slight until the next day when his coworker asked, “Can you believe what that guy said to you?”
Kleckner said he plans to spend more days at the golf course in retirement, including continuing to host the annual Dan Kleckner Golf Classic.
The charity tournament has raised more than $600,000 for community organizations assisting local veterans. Launching the tournament in 2011 was another “chapter,” Kleckner said, that he plans to continue in his life post-retirement.
“Many of those organizations depend on our donations to them on an annual basis,” Kleckner said. “To simply see that money dry up is not something that’s going to happen on my watch.”
Vigil and Kleckner filmed a segment for Thursday evening’s broadcast at the course. Vigil said she wiped away tears for much of the interview.
“There is definitely going to be a void,” she said. “I will definitely miss him in that seat and miss him to even banter back and forth with when we have those moments.”
Traci Zeravica, director of content and marketing for the station, said they have not yet decided on a replacement for Kleckner on the 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. newscasts.
Kleckner’s goal, since making that trip to Spokane in the Honda Civic, has been to become a trusted nightly guest in viewers’ homes. Having spent the past four decades of his life beholden to the clock, Kleckner said it’s now time to walk away from the desk.
“I love my work. I love my job. I love my coworkers,” Kleckner said. “But you get to a point where, OK, I think I’ve accomplished everything I can.”
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