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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.”