When Vernon Odom arrived in Philadelphia in 1976, Frank L. Rizzo was mayor, and the city was getting ready for the celebration of the nation’s 200th birthday.
“I was here the week Rizzo announced, ‘I need [15,000 federal] troops to maintain order during the Bicentennial,’” Odom, 70, recalled Friday, chuckling, as the longtime 6ABC reporter took some time out of his last day before retirement to reminisce about more than four decades covering the news in Philadelphia and around the world.
It’s a period that’s seen tremendous changes in both the city and the TV news business, but through it all, Odom’s been a steady, deep-voiced presence, someone viewers could trust to put the story first.
It’s one of the things the 1970 Morehouse College graduate said he learned during his postgraduate studies in broadcast journalism at Columbia University.
“We had a great teacher there, a professor named Mel Mencher,” who told his students, “‘Just tell the damn story.’” That, Odom said, is “what I’ve tried to do. I’ve always tried to be empathetic and sympathetic, and see both sides of every issue. Unless there’s just a pure bunch of, you know, knuckleheads out there raising hell.”
Another thing Odom learned from Mencher, and on the job, is that “most people can tell their stories better than I can. No matter how inarticulate they might be or afraid they might be. I can put all the rhetoric down there in the world, but nobody can tell their story … better than the person affected.”
“He understood the job of a reporter, and he never let his personal feelings affect the job that he did. And that’s awfully hard to do. You have to be a terrific professional to do that. It’s something that I’m not sure I could’ve ever done if I had his job,” former Gov. Ed Rendell said Monday.
“I just always remember being happy to see him,” said Mike Dunn, who frequently worked alongside Odom on stories during the 25 years Dunn spent at KYW Newsradio, 19 of them at City Hall.
Dunn, now senior deputy director of communications for the City of Philadelphia, said that when he started at KYW, Odom “was already an institution in Philadelphia. So for me, when I was starting out, working alongside Vernon Odom was a great thrill. But he never acted the part of being a big name or a big celebrity. He was always down-to-earth and always very helpful, particularly to the younger reporters.”
Dunn recalled being in Washington with Odom, covering the controversy over President Bill Clinton’s 1997 nomination of Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Frederica Massiah-Jackson to U.S. District Court, “and let me tell you, Vernon was just as much at home in the U.S. Capitol, covering the Senate, as he was here covering City Hall.”
Odom’s “to-the-point questions” of elected officials or attorneys in trials he covered sometimes made those being questioned “squirm a bit, but he got right to the point. He didn’t mince words or beat around the bush,” Dunn said.
Seeing the world
In his years on Action News, Odom’s reporting took him from Philadelphia’s neighborhoods and the surrounding suburbs to hot spots like Somalia, where he covered the invasion in 1992, and post-Cold War Russia, where Mikhail “Gorbachev had just taken over.” He was sent to El Salvador, to South Africa for the release of Nelson Mandela and the country’s first free elections, and to Europe to cover the aftermath of the 1991 release of Norristown native Joseph Cicippio, who had been flown to Germany after five years of being held hostage in Lebanon.
“It’s been a great ride and a ringside seat to the world,” said Odom, who called reporting from Somalia “dangerous but exciting,” and described getting off the plane in Mogadishu and seeing members of the French Foreign Legion marching around. “I recognized their hats from the old Buster Crabbe shows" —the 1950s Captain Gallant of the French Foreign Legion.”
Closer to home, “there have been so many big" stories, he said, including the accident at “Three Mile Island, the city’s MOVE disasters” in 1978 and 1985, and “Wilson Goode’s election as the city’s first black mayor, because that sort of consolidated the black political power in the city.”
“Vernon, more than anybody else in the city, in the TV business, understood politics,” said Rendell, one of the seven Philadelphia mayors during Odom’s Action News tenure. “He was such a likable guy. Even when he was doing a story that had negative connotations for you as a political entity, you couldn’t help liking him, and you couldn’t help answering his questions.
“By the time I ran for governor, he knew more about politics than most people in politics. He asked intelligent questions, and he got to the heart of the matter. He never asked useless, waste-of-time questions.”
Odom, who last month was honored by the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia as the group’s Person of the Year, is married to former Inquirer reporter Wanda Motley Odom, with whom he has two children, a 23-year-old daughter and a 21-year-old son.
He was born in Atlanta and largely grew up in Akron, Ohio, the son of Vernon Odom Sr., a social worker, and Sadie Harvey Odom, a scientist. His sister, Maida, who was a longtime reporter at the Inquirer, now teaches journalism at Temple University. A street in Akron is named after their father, a civil rights activist who also graduated from Morehouse, where one of his classmates was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Odom’s great-grandfather, B.T. Harvey Sr., launched the nation’s second African American-owned newspaper, the Columbus (Ga.) Messenger.
“Vernon represents the best of the best. His voice and his demeanor are warm, and strike the right tone amidst the landscape of media clickbait and a 24/7 news cycle that’s at times in overdrive and unpolished,” Sarah Glover, president of the National Association of Black Journalists and a former Inquirer and Daily News photographer, wrote in an email Monday. “Vernon’s a shining example for black journalists, and all journalists, that hard work, doggedness and tenacity pays off.”
Odom began his broadcasting career working at a radio station in Atlanta while he was still in college, and his first big news story was the King assassination in 1968. Hearing that the civil rights leader had been shot, he grabbed a tape recorder and drove over to the King house, Odom said, and managed to get a brief interview with widow Coretta Scott King as she was leaving the house, and later talked to her at the airport. “I had the first and only interview with Mrs. King for a few days,” and it was picked up nationally.
He later moved into TV, and before coming to Philadelphia spent six years as a reporter, anchor, and talk-show host at the ABC station in Atlanta.
In more than 42 years at Action News, Odom’s seen big changes in Philadelphia.
“There’s more racial harmony here now than there ever was,” he said. “And I’m not going to dump it all on Frank Rizzo. He’s like [President] Trump — he’s just a symptom,” not the problem itself. “Frank had his good days.”
Still, in the decades since, “the Police Department has dramatically changed. It’s one of the best I’ve ever seen now, due to the reforms and things like that. The old spaco il capo [Italian for “break their heads”] crowd is really gone, retired. … It’s a whole new Police Department. Younger in many cases, better educated, better trained,” Odom said.
“When I first got here, they wouldn’t allow me in the FOP building.”
The story that won’t stop
Though Odom cherishes memories of "smaller stories, where I thought I actually accomplished something for someone,” the ones that have haunted him involved violence.
“I’ve had to interview so many people who’ve lost their children to violence, or their mother or father to violence or things like that. And that’s the ongoing story for me, just the awful carnage in the streets of the city. It’s been terrible, and it’s affected me,” Odom said.
Before he became a father — he didn’t marry until he was 45 — “at night, I could sort of leave it behind. I would get my Chinese takeout food and go home and … watch the ballgame.” But after their daughter was born, “I covered a story of a woman in Brewerytown who starved her young child to death in the basement over a several-month period … and I became far more angry.” He said his colleague John Rawlins told him, “‘It’s different, because you were remote from it before … but now you’ve got skin in the game.’"
Odom may not be reporting for Action News any more, but it doesn’t sound as if he’s planning to slow down much.
“I’m not dying,” he repeatedly told colleagues who stopped by Friday to thank him and wish him well. “I’ll be around.” Among the plans for his second act is a book looking back at his 50 years as a reporter, including his years in Georgia, covering stories “in the deep, still partially segregated South." He doesn’t have a deal with a publisher yet, but is working on it. He also hopes to be doing some public speaking. “I love the news, and I will continue to stay on top of it and will continue to be available for analysis, lectures … interpretation of the day’s events.” In addition, Odom said, he’s now free to pursue voice-over work he’s had to turn down in the past. “I’ll be very busy.”
As for the viewers he’s leaving behind, “I’m deeply grateful to the people of this entire area — the Philadelphia area and South Jersey and Delaware — for their tremendous support of me, and acceptance of me and my work over the years."