Bill Hemmer came home from fifth grade one afternoon and quietly walked upstairs to his bedroom in his family’s Cincinnati residence. He intently calculated a formula, plugging in a specific number of years and days. Then he came downstairs to report his results to his father, who was then in his mid-30s.
"He said, ‘Dad, if you stop smoking today, by the time you are 50, your lungs will be pink,’" recalls his mother, Georganne Hemmer. "He hasn’t smoked since then."
It’s these very characteristics—preparation, a convincing presentation, honesty, compassion and even confrontation—demonstrated by Hemmer at age 11 that have helped him emerge as one of the most respected news anchors in America. As co-host of CNN’s American Morning with Soledad O’Brien, he has a front-row seat at history in the making, whether it’s the funerals of President Reagan or Pope John Paul II, the aftermath of Sept. 11 or the elections in Iraq.
"I’m exceedingly lucky to have the job that I have, to not only explain to people what is happening and put words with the pictures, but also to be able to stop and think, ‘This is a moment in world history. They are to be cherished,’" says Hemmer, 40, who is celebrating his 10th anniversary with CNN this year. "That’s the reason I’m in this business, to be there when those moments happen."
When Hemmer wakes each weekday at 4 a.m., he never knows what breaking news story might be waiting at the office. That’s why he spends two hours each morning reading the latest news reports and researching the morning’s topics, in addition to the hours he spends each night preparing for the next day’s show. "People ask me all the time, ‘How do you get ready for a show?’" says Hemmer, an admitted news junkie. "Preparation is your best defense because you are the last line of defense when it comes to accuracy, because once it comes out of your mouth, you can’t pull it back. That is our number one responsibility here as anchors and correspondents: to know what we’re talking about and to be able to communicate in a way that other people can understand."
What sets Hemmer apart from many other national anchors is his earnest optimism and cheerful demeanor. Although he loves living in New York, he’s retained his Middle America charm and values. "When Johnny Carson passed away, everyone who came on our air talked about his Midwest sensibility," Hemmer says. "I don’t know what that is or how you define it, but I am certain it has something to do with how you relate to other people. Despite the amount of technology that continues to surround our lives, in so many ways the success or failure of an individual is dependent upon how they interact with others.
"So if that is what defines Midwest sensibility, I think I’ll take it," says Hemmer, who notes that he enjoys in-person interviews more than those conducted via satellite. "I think the process is helped so much when two people can just sit across from each other and talk with one another. Do they teach you that just in the Midwest? No. But maybe I’ve been able to carry a lot of that with me still."
Hemmer’s Midwestern sensibilities are reflected in what he values in others, says Soledad O’Brien, his co-anchor. "He’s less interested in flash and more interested in people who have at their core kindness, generosity—people who are hard working," she says. "He’s a dedicated listener—really interested in what other people have to say, where they’ve been and what they’ve done. It’s what makes him a great reporter and a really cool human being."
The importance of honesty, integrity and kindness were instilled in him by his homemaker mother and his father Bill, a mattress manufacturing company executive, while growing up in a loud, boisterous Catholic household of five children in Cincinnati. "I’m the middle child and the only one not married," Hemmer says. "I would like to change that at some point. It hasn’t happened yet."
As a teen who excelled in football, tennis and piano—"I wish he would have continued piano," his mother says—he showed no interest at all in journalism; instead, he hoped to be a disc jockey. "He would never read a newspaper, and you can put that with a capital N," Georganne says. "You can’t get a paper out of his hands now."
A passion for travel
Hemmer earned a bachelor’s degree in communication at Miami University in Ohio in 1987 after spending his junior year in Luxembourg studying European history and politics. This sparked his lifelong passion for travel. "It was my first time I was ever out of the country, and it just opened my eyes to such a great, wonderful world," Hemmer says. "It piqued my interest in so many cultures and countries."
After graduation, Hemmer began his television career at WCPO in Cincinnati, where he anchored weekend sports. After a few years, he realized that ultimately he would not be satisfied with a journalism career limited to sports, so he began considering his other options. In 1992, the 27-year-old took a sabbatical from his job and spent the better part of the next year traveling the world with just a backpack and camera to document his four-continent trip for WCPO.
"The most-asked question to me is ‘What did you learn?’ And what I tell them is the same thing every time: I learned that just about everybody on this planet is pretty much the same. We might have a different skin color or religion, but all human hearts beat the same pace, one at a time. What I have found about people all over the world is that their primary concern in life is to improve their own life and the lives of those directly around them."
Hemmer says the life-changing trip provided invaluable experience for his duties as a national journalist. "In my job, there is rarely a day where something that I learned over there is not incorporated into how I come to understand the news and relate it to viewers," he says.
Upon his return to the United States, he easily made the transition into regular news as a reporter, earning three local Emmy Awards in 1993. He then hired an agent, who helped him get a job at CNN in 1995. "My words to him when he left for Atlanta were ‘stay humble,’" his mother says. "His initials are BH, and I always said, ‘Believe—believe in yourself and believe in God—and stay humble.’ I figured he would remember that." Says Hemmer, "I would like to think I’ve heeded her advice."
Originally hired as an anchor in Atlanta to fill in as needed on the 24-hour news channel, he later hosted several CNN shows before joining American Morning in 2002. He’s covered hurricanes in Florida, the capture of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and military attacks in Afghanistan and Kosovo. He also received an Emmy for his coverage of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta.
"(Sept. 11) set the world on a course of action, and I believe that we are in a period of history now—I don’t know how it is going to go or where it is going to end or when it ends and no one can answer that," he says. "But I believe we are in a period much like we saw in the last century, where it was World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, Vietnam, whatever you want to draw on from the past 100 years. We are locked in a period like that that is world-changing. That’s what helps make this job so fascinating. No one knows the headline for tomorrow."