It was May 1994, and sports broadcaster Lesley Visser was working her first Kentucky Derby for ABC Sports. As she conducted interviews along Millionaires Row before the race, Visser bumped into Phyllis George, the former Miss America, former First Lady of Kentucky and a sportscasting pioneer who, as Visser said, “was as popular as the Derby itself.”
George took one look at Visser and surprised her with a suggestion.
“Honey, that hat is just not up to network quality. Why don’t you take mine?”
Visser was wearing “a packable beige fedora thing,” she said. “What did I know?”
All of a sudden, she had a different hat. “Phyllis insisted, so I said, okay, thanks, and we switched and I took this beautiful pink and white hat that had to be worth at least $500 more than mine.”
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Visser told this story on Sunday, the day after we found out that Phyllis George had died at 70 after a long fight with a rare blood disorder. Phyllis paved the way for Lesley and me, and thousands of women like us, to enter the sports media. Over the years, she became a kind and gracious role model. When she sent an email saying she liked a column or a TV appearance, it was a treasured gift – as was that Derby hat in 1994.
“Think about what Phyllis did for me that day,” said Visser, now a Hall of Fame broadcaster. “It showed her sisterhood. It showed how she was rooting for you. She cared about you. If she thought one little piece of advice would give you some confidence, she wanted to take that moment and offer to help you. That’s why so many people felt close to her. She did not treat herself like a celebrity. That’s how generous she was. It was like, what’s mine is yours.”
In the mid-1970s, growing up as a sports fan, an athlete and a budding sports journalist, I never knew women could write about our most popular sports, football, baseball, basketball. I saw no hint of this in the sports sections in my hometown of Toledo, Ohio, or in the Detroit and Chicago papers we often read.
Enter Phyllis George. Every Sunday, there she was, one of the high-profile stars on CBS’s “The NFL Today,” the nation’s premier pre-game football show. It was an awe-inspiring role for a woman, and it showed me there really might be a place in the sports media for me.
Ironically, I never met Phyllis in person, although we talked on the phone a couple of times and exchanged emails, mostly after I had been on air with her daughter Pamela Brown on CNN.
It was during a phone conversation in 2010 about a possible new women’s sports talk show that Phyllis mentioned that her daughter lived in Washington, as I did, and worked on air with the local ABC affiliate, WJLA. When Pamela moved to CNN, and I was there talking about sports, we often bumped into each other in the makeup room or on set, and we always discussed our favorite topic: her wonderful mother.
“She was a trailblazer,” Pamela told me Sunday in a phone interview with her brother Lincoln. “She broke the glass ceiling, and when she first started, she got so much hate mail because people were angry that she was a woman in a man’s arena. But she persevered through that, and she did tell me that when she stopped reading the hate mail and only read the good letters, it gave her so much confidence, so I’ve used that piece of advice in my own career.”
Pamela, now CNN’s senior White House correspondent, and Lincoln, a technology entrepreneur, both laughed about how people reacted when they realized who their mother was.
Phyllis George, a former Miss America, television personality and ex-wife of Kentucky Gov. John Y. Brown Jr. died in Lexington at age 70.
Louisville Courier Journal
“I’ll never forget being at (North) Carolina where I went to school,” Pamela said, “and I took mom to the bar with me, and all my friends’ dads were bringing her shots. They just couldn’t believe that Phyllis George was there.”
“There was such respect for her,” Lincoln said. “Men really respected her and women were not intimidated by her.”
Visser was covering the New England Patriots for the Boston Globe in 1976 when she first met George in Foxborough.
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“She couldn’t have been warmer, sprinkling her charm around to everyone, from the coaches to the players to the ball boys to the media. She treated me like a sister. She oozed friendliness. She never made you think, oh, she’s Phyllis George and I’m not. I just observed her and thought, no wonder all of America is in love with her.”
For Visser, for me, for so many women following in George’s footsteps, it’s not our first weekend without sports, but it is our first without such an important icon.
Said Visser: “For women in this business, we have lost a gentle giant.”