The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Pat Collins, ‘beat poet’ of local news, will retire after 49 years

Pat Collins, longtime reporter for WRC/NBC4, in the newsroom. (Courtesy of WRC)

Pat Collins …

is …


The veteran Washington TV reporter — known for his quirky style and dramatic pauses — will end his 36-year run at station NBC4 and nearly 50-year TV career this month, he said Wednesday.

Collins, 76, has reported thousands of news stories, most about local crime and mayhem, but also lighter fare, much of it in memorable fashion. One of his enduring features was his snow reports, in which he poked a wooden yardstick into sidewalk piles to show a storm’s accumulation.

“I think it was time for me,” Collins said in an interview Wednesday. “I’ve had a good run. I don’t know many 76-year-old street reporters. Do you?”

Never an anchor, Collins was a throwback to an earlier era in local TV journalism in which reporters — often newspaper expats — were hired more for their local knowledge, contacts and writing ability than for polished presentation and telegenic looks.

Collins stood out for his storytelling chops, appearance and memorable delivery, which was rife with cliffhanging stops and starts. Diminutive and bespectacled with a ruddy face, he typically prowled the region’s crime scenes in baggy khaki pants and sneakers, his hair just a bit too shaggy. He almost always appeared on camera wearing a hat, typically a wool newsboy or baseball cap. In winter, he’d add a V-neck sweater, fleece jacket and long scarf.

His wife, he once said, told him that he looked like a man who got dressed in the dark.

Collins took viewers to back alleys and front parlors, where distraught relatives and witnesses shared emotional reactions to tragic events. He broke stories about many of the city’s major crimes and traumas, from Mayor Marion Barry’s drug arrest in 1990 (Collins obtained a tape of the arrest in a downtown hotel room) to the disappearance of Chandra Levy in 2001, to the Washington sniper case the following year. His shoe-leather reporting earned him 13 local Emmy awards.

He also once dressed as a bunch of grapes while interviewing a high school student who had been suspended for disrupting a school event while wearing a banana costume.

“I believe TV is intimate and emotional,” Collins said Wednesday. “If I do a good job, I’ll leave you feeling something. You’ll be happy, sad, outraged — but I want to leave you with something.”

While Collins was mostly known to viewers in the Washington area, he enjoyed a few moments of national renown. Comedian John Oliver repeatedly highlighted his work on Oliver’s HBO program, framing clips of Collins as “Local News Beat Poetry.”

Oliver featured Collins’s report about a local woman whose car had been spray-painted, “Mike is a cheater” — presumably by a jealous vandal who mistook its ownership.

Collins wound up his report in memorable fashion: “Mike, Mike, Mike, Mike, Mike, Mike, Mike. See what you’ve done?” he tsk-tsked. “I don’t know who you are. I don’t know where you are. But you may want to start changing your ways.”

He then paused and bowed his head, assuming an almost prayerful pose, before adding, “Or changing your name.”

An autotuned music video of the monologue subsequently went viral.

Collins grew up in Washington, learning its neighborhoods by accompanying his father, a doctor, on house calls. He has spent most of his life in the area, except for four years as a student at Notre Dame, a stint in the Army including serving as a surgeon’s assistant in Vietnam, and three years in the early 1980s as a reporter for a Chicago station, WLS.

He began his television career at Channel 9 in 1973 after working as a reporter for the old Washington Daily News. He later worked for Channel 7, before landing at NBC4 in 1986.

“Pat uniquely stretched from class-clown silly stories, to warm and fuzzy features, to scared-to-death crime stories, all in the same week,” said Tom Sherwood, a former NBC4 reporter. “Somehow, he didn’t lose his credibility, but only enhanced it.”

Sherwood recalled that when he joined the station from The Washington Post in 1989, Collins gave him a bit of advice: Stop asking complicated questions on TV. “He said ‘why’ and ‘what happened’ were two simple questions that would get anyone to talk,” he said. “People certainly talked to Pat.”

Former NBC4 anchor Doreen Gentzler, who worked with Collins for 33 years, said, “There’s no one else in local TV who can do what he does. He’s an old-school, hard-news reporter who works the sources he’s collected over decades. He’s the reporter who gets the scoop before the competition, gets it right the first time, and stays on the story until the end.”

Collins is the third leading figure to leave NBC4 in the past year. Longtime reporter and anchor Wendy Rieger retired at the end of last year before succumbing to a brain tumor. And Gentzler retired just before Thanksgiving, ending a run in which the station regularly led local ratings.

Collins said he planned to spend more time with his family in retirement, which includes his wife, two adult children (a third child, Michael, died last year due to complications from cancer), and five grandchildren.

“I like to say I’ve had the best job in Washington,” Collins said Wednesday, “and I didn’t have to win an election to get it.”