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Legendary Lowcountry television anchorman retires after 48 years with WCSC-TV

Bill Sharpe
WCSC TV
Bill Sharpe

Longtime TV anchorman Bill Sharpe of WCSC-TV is retiring after nearly a half-century of bringing the news to the Lowcountry.

A nearly half-century of bringing the news to the Lowcountry will come to an end this week when Bill Sharpe, long-time anchor of WCSC-TV in Charleston, retires. Since 1973, Sharpe has brought the stories, big and small, to the homes of Lowcountry residents, many of whom have never known a time when he wasn’t on television. Sharpe recently recalled that his beginning in broadcasting was prompted by a push from his mother.

“She said ‘Billy, my friend owns a radio station in town and there’s an opening for a newscaster.’…I said ‘I’m not interested, mother.’ She said ‘Billy, I’m paying your tuition at Emory. You will try out.’ So I did. I was scared to death, first time. But I soon recognized I loved it. I loved it.”

Over his distinguished career, Sharpe has interviewed nearly every president since Gerald Ford. One of his biggest thrills came when, as a young reporter, he interviewed President Ronald Reagan.

“He was just a jolly, funny guy,” said Sharpe. “He was always telling jokes, and he was just so easy to be around. So it comes time for questions, and all the reporters are ‘Mr. President! Mr. President!,’ raising their hands. We were at lunch, so it was a little more civil than it is at a raucus news conference, and he said ‘you go ahead, young man.’ So I got the very first question… He liked me, for some reason. So the next day, my question and his answer was in the New York Times. Headlines, and I thought ‘man, I have made it now.’”

Along with the high points, Sharpe also has had the sobering duty to report great tragedies, such as the horrendous damage to the Lowcountry – and the state – wrought by Hurricane Hugo. Sharpe recalled working that terrible night in September 1989 with esteemed weatherman Charlie Hall.

“The night the hurricane struck, it was he and I in a building downtown…and I could see Charlie growing increasingly concerned that night. And back then we had a teletype machine… And the last bulletin, he ripped it off, and we were on the air live, and I said ‘Charlie, what’s the matter?’ And he said ‘Bill, it doesn’t look good. It doesn’t look good.’ And he paused for a second, and he said ‘it’s coming straight for us.’… So the hurricane came, and it was as bad, if not worse, than we thought. Everybody without power, flooding everywhere. Where can you get water? Where can you get food? It was terrible.”

For many of his 48 years with Channel 5, Sharpe’s co-anchor was his longtime friend Debi Chard, who called him “the epitome of broadcast journalism.

“He does everything right,” said Chard, whom Sharpe affectionately calls “Chardo.” (She calls him “Billy Boy.”)

“He tries to get both sides. He wants to get the perspective of the average Joe. We don’t want to hear everything from the leaders of the community. Although we want their perspective, we also want to know how (everyday) people feel, and I think that that has made him so comfortable in everyone’s living room or their homes, their kitchens throughout the years. He has essentially been the one they trust for what’s happening in our community, and essentially, in this day and age, the world.”

Things are very different from when he started in broadcasting in 1973, said Sharpe. Asked what has changed over the years, he replied “everything.”

“When I first started, we had no teleprompter. You had a script, and you’d look up at the camera, and hopefully you could memorize a little of your script. And the more you memorized, the more you could look at the camera. We shot on film back in the 70s. Film!” the anchor said, with some amazement at the memory of how young he was and how relatively primitive conditions were compared to today’s broadcast world.

“I had learned to edit my newscasts, so I was the anchor, the producer and the film editor. And the projectionist, he would listen to my cues and, hopefully, roll the story according to what I was saying. And there were so many possibilities for error back then. And we made ‘em.”

When he’s off the air, Sharpe is a family man, enjoying being dad to six children in his “Brady Bunch” blended family. In addition, “I’m a big reader, I’m an avid reader. I play a little tennis, I walk a lot, I go to the gym a little bit.”

Actually, Sharpe is an avid tennis player and fan, having been raised by a tennis coach father who built a court at his home when Sharpe was growing up. His friend and frequent tennis partner Rick Buchanan told a story that illustrates another of Sharpe’s traits – generosity. Years ago, on a trip to England, Sharpe entered a contest, on a lark, for tickets to Wimbledon. “And as anyone who knows tennis, Wimbledon is the holy grail of tennis,” said Buchanan. “It is the cathedral of tennis. And Bill won two tickets to go to Wimbledon.” Instead of using the prize himself, however, “he gave it to his mother and father, the person who taught him tennis and the love of the game.”

Buchanan said Sharpe is as warm and genuine offscreen as he is on the air. “He has a love of life, but I think mainly an interest and love of knowledge. He has a very good sense of humor, he loves a joke,” said Buchanan, adding that Sharpe does an excellent Groucho Marx impression. “He loves to cut up, and he likes a good joke, not only telling it, but hearing one. He is a very good storyteller, but he’s also an excellent listener.”

His listening skills and passion for learning have helped make Sharpe, in his friend’s view, often “the smartest person in the room. And along with that,” observed Buchanan, “he has the gift of making you feel special, and at times that you are the smartest person in the room.”

Most people don’t know that Sharpe loves to sing – badly, he claims - and another thing that would surprise people, he said, is that this outgoing broadcaster was once painfully shy.

“TV brought me out. Radio brought me out when I was in college. I was fine with my friends. But meeting new people was tough,” he remembered. But “I forced myself to do it. In the news business, you’ve got to! Forcing myself to do that got me over that shyness.” Now, his love of being with other people is obvious.

Sharpe is a Lowcountry icon, but said that he’d be happy if people thought of him as a decent anchor man who brought the news to his hometown and did a pretty good job at it.

Judging by the comments of his many admiring friends and colleagues, that humble goal seems to have been surpassed long ago.

Chard doubtlessly spoke for thousands when she said “I know everyone’s going to miss him on the air so much. I cannot imagine not hearing his voice on the evening news.” She then added the silver lining, “but at least I will get to see him in person more often. Lucky me!”

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Tut Underwood is producer of South Carolina Focus, a weekly news feature. A native of Alabama, Tut graduated from Auburn University with a BA in Speech Communication. He worked in radio in his hometown before moving to Columbia where he received a Master of Mass Communications degree from the University of South Carolina, and worked for local radio while pursuing his degree. He also worked in television. He was employed as a public information specialist for USC, and became Director of Public Information and Marketing for the South Carolina State Museum. His hobbies include reading, listening to music in a variety of styles and collecting movies and old time radio programs.