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Published: Monday, 10/15/2012

PEOPLE

New ‘Today’ co-host Willie Geist learned by example from his dad

BY VIRGINIA ROHAN AND KARA YORIO
THE RECORD (HACKENSACK, N.J.)
Wille Geist was named co-host of the 9 a.m. hour of NBC's 'Today' show. Wille Geist was named co-host of the 9 a.m. hour of NBC's 'Today' show.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge

HACKENSACK, N.J. — On the ball fields of Ridge­wood, N.J., Wil­lie Geist once looked to his well-known father, Bill, for play­ing tips. Now, it’s Wil­lie’s mo­ment in the spot­light, hav­ing been of­fi­cially named co-host of the 9 a.m. hour of NBC’s To­day show.

On the phone, Bill Geist, the CBS News Sun­day Morn­ing per­son­al­ity, de­clared, “This is the father of the fa­mous Wil­lie Geist,” in that dis­tinc­tive, be­mused, folksy voice. “I’m ex­tremely proud. At first, I was re­luc­tant to say ‘proud,’ be­cause that kind of in­sin­u­ates that I had some­thing to do with it. I mean, we never had any sit-down talks where I told him how to be suc­cess­ful.”

But Wil­lie was watch­ing.

“He’s been a great ex­am­ple to me of how to carry your­self and con­duct your­self and not take your­self too se­ri­ously,” said Wil­lie, who will serve as co-an­chor with Al Roker and Natalie Mo­rales be­gin­ning Nov. 12.

Father and son may be on ri­val TV net­works, but the duo — whose Ridge­wood coach-and-player days Bill im­mor­tal­ized in his 1992 best­seller Lit­tle League Con­fi­den­tial — are still very much on the same team.

They both took non­tra­di­tional paths to be­ing on-air per­son­al­i­ties — Wil­lie from sports pro­ducer and Bill from the news­pa­per world. And even though Wil­lie and Bill, who re­cently ac­knowl­edged he’s suf­fer­ing from Par­kin­son’s dis­ease, now live in Man­hat­tan, they are still con­nected to North Jer­sey.

“I feel a great loy­alty to Ber­gen County and a great loy­alty to Ridge­wood,” said Wil­lie, 37, who met his fu­ture wife, Chris­tina Shar­key, on the first day of sixth grade at George Wash­ing­ton Mid­dle School.

Bill and Jody Geist moved to Ridge­wood in 1981, where they raised Wil­lie and their daugh­ter Libby Geist, now an award-win­ning doc­u­men­tary film pro­ducer at ESPN.

“It just looked like an ideal,” said Bill of the town, where the cou­ple lived un­til 2002. “We’re from the Mid­west, and it sort of re­minded us of a leafy Mid­west­ern town, lots of trees and beau­ti­ful houses and a nice down­town.”

Bill be­gan to coach both his chil­dren’s base­ball teams, then wrote Lit­tle League Con­fi­den­tial about the ex­pe­ri­ence.

“There were a cou­ple of names that I for­got to change … but luck­ily, it was all pretty pos­i­tive about the kids,” he said.

One per­son he wrote about, by his ac­tual name, was Wil­lie, who even has his own chap­ter in the book. Among other things, Bill rem­i­nisced about the days be­fore his son was old enough to join Lit­tle League and played “imag­i­nary games of base­ball sol­i­taire” in the back yard (he also did the an­nounc­ing), the “Dear Win­field” post­cards he’d send to Yan­kee Dave Win­field from wher­ever the fam­ily was va­ca­tion­ing; and the fact that, by age 16, Wil­lie had dropped base­ball for foot­ball and bas­ket­ball.

“He wasn’t quite the hit­ter he thought he should be and didn’t like the game enough to work at it,” Bill wrote.

But “in the end, Wil­lie has turned out to be the high school ath­lete I was not, and I guess that’s part of what I was af­ter,” he wrote.

Dur­ing the fam­ily’s years in Ridge­wood, where a lot of Wall Street peo­ple lived, Bill says he once tried to gen­tly steer Wil­lie to­ward the fi­nan­cial world.

“I said, ‘You know, Wil­lie, in­stead of tak­ing an in­tern­ship at a TV sta­tion for the sum­mer, maybe you ought to go down to Wall Street and see how the other half lives,’” Bill re­called. “But I think he just kind of qui­etly, in his own way, grav­i­tated to­wards (tele­vi­sion).”

That Wil­lie fol­lowed Bill’s lead pro­fes­sion­ally is no sur­prise to those who know him best.

“Wil­lie al­ways had the tal­ent to do this, even at a young age,” says long­time friend Mark Kos­sick. “He was al­ways funny, witty, char­is­matic, well-liked. Add to that the ped­i­gree and the tu­te­lage of his father, it is ob­vi­ously an ex­plo­sive com­bi­na­tion.”

Bill was first a re­porter and col­um­nist for the Chi­cago Tri­bune, then a col­um­nist for The New York Times be­fore he joined CBS News in 1987 as a Sun­day Morn­ing cor­re­spon­dent. His spe­cialty is tell­ing quirky and heart­warm­ing sto­ries about peo­ple and places across Amer­ica.

Wil­lie, who grad­u­ated from Van­der­bilt Univer­sity, worked as a pro­ducer for CNN/Sports Il­lus­trated and then Fox Sports Net. He joined MSNBC in April, 2005 as a se­nior pro­ducer of The Sit­u­a­tion With Tucker Carl­son, then seg­ued to be­com­ing a reg­u­lar on-air con­trib­u­tor to the show. He next be­came co-host of MSNBC’s Morn­ing Joe, and will re­main in that role, in ad­di­tion to his To­day du­ties.

Wil­lie joins To­day at a time when the morn­ing show has been in a rat­ings dive and con­tro­versy has swirled around the show’s de­ci­sion to re­place Ann Curry with Sa­van­nah Guth­rie.

Even though he has to be more se­ri­ous on Morn­ing Joe, his mom can still de­tect glim­mers of his father when Wil­lie is on the air.

“It’s just that lit­tle twin­kle and that lit­tle re­mark now and then … the same sense of hu­mor,” Jody says.

Although their on-air styles dif­fer, Wil­lie car­ries on Bill’s nat­u­ral man­ner, says CBS News Sun­day Morn­ing an­chor Char­les Os­good. He quotes the late Sun­day Morn­ing found­ing pro­ducer Shad North­shield’s view that “the closer your on-air per­son­al­ity to your true self, the bet­ter.”

“People just sense that, whether you’re just put­ting on some kind of an act or whether you are what you seem to be,” Os­good says. “And I think that’s Bill’s se­cret and Wil­lie’s too, I sus­pect.”



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