Seven’s Illini

Chicago's ABC7 News anchors Judy Hsu, Cheryl Burton and Rob Elgas. (Image by Jeff Dahlgren)
Alumni Cheryl Burton, Rob Elgas, Judy Hsu, Eric Horng and Mark Rivera help keep ABC7 Eyewitness News No. 1 in Chicago

Stop by the plate glass window on State Street in Chicago to watch the ABC7 Eyewitness News, any time, any day, and you’re likely watching an Illinois graduate. You’d think there was a direct pipeline between Urbana-Champaign and the Loop. Cheryl Burton, ’84 LAS, a stalwart of the station for 25 years, is at the evening anchor desk. Catch the weekday 4 p.m. segment, and you’ll find Judy Hsu, ’93 MEDIA, and Rob Elgas, ’94 LAS, anchoring. (Hsu also anchors the 11 a.m. morning news, and Elgas doubles as a reporter.) The ABC7’s newest weekend anchor (and most recent Illini) is Mark Rivera, ’11 MEDIA, who shifts to reporting duty on weekdays. And then there’s Eric Horng, ’04 LAS, one of the hardest working reporters in the city. For Illinois, when it comes to dominating the local news, State Street truly is that Great Street.

 

Judy Hsu (Image by Jeff Dahlgren)

JUDY HSU

Her interview with President Obama aside, the anchor enjoys telling the little stories that have an impact on the community

It’s another hectic day for Judy Hsu. Last night, two sisters were mugged and robbed in a Chicago neighborhood and the ABC7 reporter needs contacts fast. Hsu has plenty of them. Only problem is she just finished her 11 a.m. anchor slot and is on-air again to anchor the 4 p.m. news.

“People don’t realize we’re on a very tight deadline,” Hsu explains. “People aren’t used to that. They say ‘We’ll get back to you.’ But they need to respond now. So I’m going to keep my phone out just in case.”

You’d think the pressure might be off Hsu these days. In October 2017, she got promoted to the daytime anchor spot after 15 years of Waking Up with Chicago, which meant she got roused at 2:30 a.m. to head downtown for work.

“It sounds like something so simple, but I didn’t have one of life’s little necessities for 15 years, which is sleep,” Hsu says. “I came back to my hometown, which I loved, as the early morning news anchor—and I also came back pregnant with my first child.”

I actually cried when I got the job offer [in SanDiego], because I just did not want to be there. I wanted to be in Chicago.”

Hsu’s fourth pregnancy not only kept her from work—it made the news. That’s because the baby came early as Hsu’s husband was speeding her along the Eisenhower  Expressway to the hospital. They pulled over barely in time. When the paramedics arrived, Hsu had her fourth child whom she and her husband nicknamed Ike.

“I remember exactly where we were and I wave every time I drive by,” Hsu says. “I always tell people that if you happen to be on the Eisenhower there’s a nice little pullout just before you hit Cicero Ave. where you can squeeze in your car.”

A native of Taiwan, Hsu came to the U.S. when her father, a grandmaster of Tai Chi, accepted a position in Chicago when she was 11. Hsu didn’t speak a word of English.

“It was, to say the least, difficult. They were very challenging times,” Hsu says. “But I made a promise to myself that I was going to do everything I could to master this beautiful new language. I studied really hard.”

She also watched television, a lot of television.

“There’s no better representation of pop culture than what’s on television,” Hsu says. “So guess what was on TV when I came home every day after school? The 4 p.m. news. And I watched Channel 7 because ABC was the powerhouse.”

Her first interview was with the principal of her high school, Niles West, which was like a fantasy come true. “I was still relatively new to this country, but there I was—a little freshman able to sit down with the principal at a big old desk and ask him questions,” Hsu recalls.

Judy Hsu joins UI Chancellor Robert J. Jones at the pre-game reception for the Nebraska/Illinois football game last fall, and Judy and her children: (left to right) A.J. (Baby Ike), Luke, Samantha and Caitlin. (Images courtesy of WLS ABC7)

She was hooked. She had no clue, however, “what it really took to be a reporter,” Hsu says. “My experiences at Illinois literally built the foundation that launched my broadcast journalism career.” She worked at the campus radio station, WPGU-FM; wrote for the Daily Illini; and followed an internship at WCIA-TV in Champaign with a reporting job there. But it was always her goal to come back to Chicago.

“I [sent] my tapes out [but heard] nothing. Absolutely nothing. I ended up getting a job offer in San Diego,” Hsu recalls. “I had never been to California. Going out there wasn’t quite what I had in mind. I actually cried when I got the job offer because I just did not want to be there. I wanted to be in Chicago.”

Hsu had resolved to stay a year in San Diego but ended up staying six. In hindsight, she calls it one of her best decisions. Hsu went from honing her reporting skills to being named the weekend anchor, then the weekday anchor. She also met the man who is now her husband. Hsu decided it wasn’t “in the cards” to come back to Chicago and had just sold the last of her winter coats when she got a call from the news director at ABC7.

“I actually thought it was a prank!” she says.

In person, Hsu is animated and a lot more vivacious than her often sober image at the anchor desk. Does she find the job at all limiting?

“It is limited,” she acknowledges. “It’s a craft and you have to practice being good at it. The camera is locked into place and you have to rely on your voice to tell the story. It’s a great training ground to do radio, which I also did in San Diego. Sitting up straight is something I’ve always done probably because of my martial arts background, which I’ve practiced since age five. Talk to Jerry Taft or Mark Giangreco. Everybody tells me I have the best posture on the set.”

In talking, she gestures a lot with her hands. When she’s on-air, does she rest them on the desk? “I try but it’s hard,” she says with a laugh.

An immigrant herself, Hsu has a “particular interest” in immigration but she quickly adds, “I really keep my thoughts to myself. My feelings when it comes to my job are irrelevant. The job that we do every day is to check our feelings at the door and report the news.”

Stories Hsu likes to go after, her passion, are what she calls “the little stories that impact our community,” such as the small food pantry in Naperville, Ill., that started in a church basement 30 years ago and now boasts a warehouse to serve the working poor of DuPage County. One person Hsu interviewed was a young mother whose husband was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and had lost his job. Thanks to the pantry, the woman got food she couldn’t afford and the husband got training, which helped him find another job.

“I really wanted to do that story,” Hsu says. “So I pitched it and went out and did it.”

One story she didn’t have to pitch involved Barack Obama. In eight years, the President had not granted a single interview to a local Chicago news station, despite multiple requests. Then, a few weeks before he left office in 2017, his office granted one interview to a handful of stations.

“It was right after New Year’s,” Hsu recalls. “I was in San Diego planning a vacation with the kids who were off from school when the call came from the White House. ‘We’d like to invite Judy Hsu. This is a one-on-one opportunity.’”

She immediately flew to Washington, D.C., to represent ABC. Following a randomly selected order, Hsu went last.

“That was both bad and good. Bad because I had a shorter time to turn around the interview and feed it back to Chicago; good because we ended up getting a couple of minutes longer.” With time running out, she squeezed in a last-minute question: Did the President have a message for the youth of Chicago impacted by violence? “There are going to be ups and downs but there are folks who care about you,” answered Obama, “including the President of the United States.”

“It was a pretty momentous occasion,” Hsu says. “Yeah, it was.”

 

Cheryl Burton (Image by Jeff Dahlgren)

CHERYL BURTON

The 25-year WLS-TV veteran has covered everything from President Obama’s Inauguration to Chance the Rapper

You will have to forgive Cheryl Burton for waxing nostalgic. Tomorrow, the day after our Nov. 1st interview, is her 25th anniversary at WLS-TV. This is her Silver Jubilee, the perfect occasion to reflect on her special memories. She doesn’t hesitate to name number one.

“Right off the bat, I can tell you, was covering both inaugurations of the first African American president of the United States of America, Barack Obama, whose political career began right here in Chicago. And it’s very special because his wife, Michelle, then Robinson, was a student of my uncle.”

That would be Thomas Burton, who taught elementary school and was “very specific” that his nieces and nephews master their language skills. As were Cheryl’s parents, who made their five children line up in front of an easel board every day after school and answer the question, “What did you learn today?” What Cheryl learned, among many things, was that “you needed to work hard, really hard, know who you are. Be passionate about your dreams.

“Look at Oprah,” Burton continues, “who gave me the only television interview she ever gave to anybody when she left her talk show after 25 years. Another highlight was going to South Africa with her when she opened her school for girls. Or covering the Toronto visit of Pope John Paul II. It was one of the most important stories ever, and he passed by me and waved and I was like, ‘He’s in the Pope Mobile and he’s waving at me!’ Can you imagine being that close? I just felt honored and blessed.”

I got the big stories … but [the stories] that move me are the ordinary people doing extraordinary things.”

Burton, one of the most conspicuous and admired faces in Chicago’s news business, is enchanted by celebrity but even more impressed by the humble path that carried many to the top. She is, by her own admission, very spiritual. Burton believes strongly in the power of affirmation. “I walk in the doors here every day and wear words of affirmation somewhere on me—necklaces, bracelets,” she says. “If I can inspire somebody and give them the confidence that this is possible, I have done my job. I’ve shared my gift—and I’m grateful.”

Burton grew up wanting to be a doctor and pulled off a double major in psychology and biology at Illinois. She aced the two-day MCAT exams, but there was a money problem. Three of her older siblings were already in college or graduate school. “I would have been in debt, tremendous debt graduating from medical school. So I thought, well, let me see, let me recalibrate.”

Rethinking her career led to a job at Xerox where she worked for two-and-a-half years. Meanwhile, another pursuit was slowly consuming her life: performance. She had studied ballet for years at Homer Hans Bryant: Chicago Multicultural Dance Center At Illinois, which Burton calls “an amazing, transformative experience;” she also starred as an Illinette in the Marching Illini. “It was very rigorous; we practiced every day,” she says. “It helped with my time management skills and taught me how to be a leader as well as part of a team.”

While still at Illinois, Burton won a coveted spot as a Honey Bear—a Chicago Bears cheerleader—and commuted her senior year from Urbana to Soldier Field and then performed the next two seasons. The same talent agency that handled the Honey Bears also booked Star Search, the popular TV talent show. Burton auditioned as a spokesmodel and won, earning her co-host status with Ed McMahon. Then she won again and took home more money but also a stern warning from her boss at Xerox: “If you’re not back at work on Monday we’re going to have to have a chat.”

Cheryl Burton interviewing the newly elected State Senator, Barack Obama; performing as an Illinette and celebrating with the Marching Illini Band. (Images courtesy of WLS ABC7)

The discussion ended with Burton back in Chicago with her Star Search earnings but no job. She hosted an hour-long cable talk show in Skokie, Ill. Called Simply Elegant, it featured Burton interviewing guests on everything from sports and lifestyle to medicine.

“It was really fun, but it didn’t pay,” Burton recalls. “So I worked as a teacher in the Chicago Public School System.”

Burton eventually got a job at WGN in Chicago, co-anchoring MBR: The Minority Business Report. She moved to Peoria, Ill., and worked as a reporter for a TV station there, then did a turn as an anchor in Wichita, Kan., and then joined WLS-TV in 1992.

Her quarter century at the station has resulted in too many awards to mention. Among the more notable: the 2009 Proctor & Gamble Award for outstanding community service; the Thurgood Marshall Award in 2004, the same year Burton was honored by the Chicago Association of Black Journalists for her coverage of the E2 nightclub tragedy; and the 1997 Phenomenal Woman Award. In 2007, she was the first alumna inducted into the Robert Lindblom Math & Science Academy (formerly Robert Lindblom Technical High School) Hall of Fame.

“I got the big stories,” Burton allows. “I got to spend three days in New York with Kanye West when nobody could pronounce his name. Chance the Rapper gave me his first local interview after making history and winning three Grammys. But [the stories] that move me are the ordinary people doing extraordinary things.”

Burton recalls a story about a girl she met with Oprah in Africa whose mother had died of AIDS and who lived in a shantytown. When Burton asked her why getting into Oprah’s school was so important, the girl replied, “If I don’t, my success will be determined by my circumstances and not my possibilities.” Today, Burton likes to point out, the girl just graduated from an Ivy League college. She also cites as examples a woman who is bringing underprivileged children to art museums and the 10-year-old who was made fun of in school because he was coding and who now owns an IT company that employs 200 people.

“Princeton didn’t come [to recruit] at our schools. Harvard and Stanford weren’t the colleges that made visits when I was growing up,” Burton says. “You need to see beyond your zip code.”

Even in an increasingly digital media landscape, Burton believes people make the difference. “The human experience of watching the news is like no other. You can put robots on who do the news. That’s easy. You can get it from social media and from the internet. But that human interaction is what’s important. People need to come home after a long day and think, ‘You know what? She made me feel good today.’ So if I can bring joy to somebody like that. I’m good.”

 

Rob Elgas (Image by Jeff Dahlgren)

ROB ELGAS

A close encounter with a tornado sets him on the path to becoming an award-winning journalist

Rob Elgas got his big break chasing a story—literally. This was a tornado in Urbana where he was an intern at WICD-TV. It was the mid-1990s, and he was driving a tiny Ford Escort with a bulky “bag phone” when he spotted the approaching funnel. He jumped out and tried to place his camera on a tripod. With the huge tornado closing in fast, he managed to get five seconds of tape before being forced to flee (the twister would kill two people). The Weather Channel picked up the video and offered him a full-time job as a reporter the next day.

Twenty years later, Elgas still reports, but often he is safe behind the anchor desk. In October, he was promoted to co-anchor of the 5 p.m. news with Judy Hsu.

“The reporting comes a bit more naturally to me,” Elgas admits. “It’s what grabbed my eye in the business first. That’s how I grew and learned to tell compelling stories. Anchoring is completely different—you’re reading stories written by someone else. You have to read those on-air as if they were your own words; I’m still mastering it.”

Wearing two hats means Elgas is often out the door and running. After he anchors the 5 p.m. newscast, he can be assigned a story that will air live at 10 p.m. Not everything goes as planned with breaking news. The day before our interview, he had traveled halfway to 87th and King Drive on Chicago’s South Side to report on an attack when he was told, “It’s not what we thought. Come on back.” Then the entire afternoon show was cancelled because ABC News did an hour of special coverage on the New York City truck rampage that killed 12.

As an anchor, you have to sit there on-camera and tell people about bad things and it’s difficult.

An accomplished journalist, Elgas has won numerous honors for his reporting, including an Associated Press and a Peter Lisagor Award for his live coverage of Chicago protests in 2014. He’s also traveled to Italy and Russia to report on the Olympics. But his greatest experience was a lot closer to home: game seven of the 2016 World Series in Cleveland.

It was a nail-biter and Elgas, a Cubs fan, reported it like a true professional. “I knew if [the Cubs] lose, here’s what we’re going to do. If they win, here’s what we’re going to do,” he says. “And then that game happened. It was like, alright, it’s 6-1, and we’re going to win here. Oh, no, now it’s 6-3. Oh, now it’s 6-5. Wait, now it’s tied. And in that moment in my mind, as a reporter, I’m thinking, ‘Wait, if they lose, I’m not going to be able to get on the field. The fans are going to be nuts.’ So I’m trying to focus on how to do my job as this greatest thing in the world is unfolding before my eyes. It was unbelievable.

“You learn to harness that energy,” Elgas adds. “And that probably helped me. If I was there as a fan, I might have had a heart attack.”

Not all his stories end in a wild celebration. Many have a grimmer outcome. It’s an aspect of his work that Elgas finds an ongoing challenge.

“I think Cheryl and Judy will tell you that we cover a lot of really sad stuff and that’s our job. As an anchor, you have to sit there on-camera and tell people about bad things and it’s difficult. That’s a hard part of this business. When you have to knock on someone’s door and ask them about their loved one—that’s the toughest part of this job [as a reporter]. In this city, in particular, there is so much violence. We wrestle with that, we talk about it constantly in the newsroom, especially for the 10 p.m. news. [But] you have to report these things. They’re affecting our communities.”

Rob Elgas covering the Cubs in game seven of the 2016 World Series and Elgas, Janet Davies, Burton and Hsu at the ABC7 Chicago Magnificent Mile Lights Festival broadcast, which earned them a 2017 Emmy for special events coverage. (Images courtesy of WLS ABC7)

Elgas’ first love was the outdoors. He enrolled at Illinois planning to study the environment, possibly to become a forest ranger. With a major in Agricultural Communications, he took the basic journalism class and discovered he liked writing. He wrote for the Daily Illini, including a column called, “Living Cheaply in the Summer.”

“The value of Illinois’ journalism program was immeasurable,” Elgas says. “It was in those classes that I learned how to write stories and edit them for broadcast. It was my first experience in a field that constantly changes with technology. It was the first time I [used] a video camera to [produce] a piece of journalism.”

Elgas got his first job working with a video camera at WICD-TV in Champaign- Urbana. After the Weather Channel, he started working at ABC7 in El Paso as a weekend (then morning) anchor.

“The issues are different in a smaller city like El Paso. It was a great experience to go out into another city and live in another community and see how it operates. El Paso is very tied to Juarez, which was a city of great violence. The border crossing has been an issue for generations,” says Elgas, who is Hispanic. He is reluctant, however, to share his personal opinions on what to do at the Mexican border. Elgas still has very close friends in El Paso at ABC and Fox. His own family relocated to Corpus Christi when Elgas left for college.

Elgas came to Chicago in 2002 to work at NBC where he anchored the early afternoon news and reported for the late evening news. “They gave me an opportunity to come home and I’ll always be grateful for that,” he says. “But sometimes in careers you realize there’s a need for change; you realize you could go down this path instead of that path. And my wife grabbed my hand and said, ‘Let’s jump,’ and I jumped.”

He jumped into what he smilingly calls “the void” because he had no offer at the time from Channel 7. But when it did come, he was thrilled.

“We’re respected,” he says, citing ABC7’s large viewership as evidence.  “A lot of the people who work in this building are from Chicago; they have a little more invested in the community. I don’t mean to be cocky, but we’re just good at what we do. When breaking news happens, this newsroom becomes a cohesive unit and we execute. We’ve got great contacts and we’ve got great people.

“Local television news is a battle,” he acknowledges, “and we’re fighting for viewers; we’re aware of that and we have to deliver.”

The station’s social media and website are “the best in the country,” Elgas says. “How do we get to the Millennials and the younger viewers who don’t have a TV in their living room? We use our social media platforms. We’re very active on Twitter. Our Facebook page has 2 million followers. You can watch us on your phone. You can download our app. It’s free. My mom lives in Corpus Christi and she can watch me on Facebook. She’s like, ‘How can people not?’

“‘Some people don’t like me, Mom,’ I tell her, and she says, ‘Oh, that’s impossible!’”

 

Eric Horng (Image courtesy of WLS ABC7)

ERIC HORNG

After 12 years reporting on the national scene, he’s now focused on Chicago’s breaking news

Eric Horng could be the hardest-working reporter in Chicago. One minute he’s wearing his cold weather parka in driving snow. Then he’s reporting on an Eisenhower Expressway car wreck and a South Side shooting. But breaking news, a Horng specialty, is not always a jolly assignment.

“Sometimes work takes us into what are not the best neighborhoods,” Horng says, “but we’re intrepid. We realize the importance of going into those areas and reporting news. In terms of logistics, traffic is sometimes an issue but time can be the biggest obstacle. We put out a lot of news. I always say it’s a minor miracle we get the news on the air, period.”

Horng has been televising the news since his days at Illinois. “What was great about Illinois—beyond the classes and courses and professors—was that it was a three-dimensional experience for a young college journalist [such as myself]. I worked at the radio station, I wrote for the Daily Illini, and I had internships at WCIA-TV. Then right after I graduated, [the internships] turned into a job in Champaign. It was seamless. It was perfect.”

A year later, he was reporting for CNN in Atlanta, then Los Angeles. “I saw the space shuttle launch, I covered Katrina, I reported on the Oscars—all national stuff early in my career and an incredible experience. But I’d been living out of a suitcase for 12 years and coming back to Chicago was the right move at the right time.”

Horng, who grew up in suburban Darien and Northbrook, acknowledges that reporting the nightly news in Chicago can be a tough job. “We’re in the midst of a crisis of violence and you have to separate yourself from some of the terrible news we cover,” he says. “But you can’t wall yourself off too much or you lose the point of the story. You don’t get to how it’s impacting people. It’s a delicate balance.”

Horng has been at ABC7 for seven years now and it feels, finally, like work has brought him home. “WLS-TV is one of the jewels of local news; it’s a great place to work, an oasis in a turbulent industry,” he says. “When I made the switch, it felt like the place where I could spend the remainder of my career.”

 

Mark Rivera (Image courtesy of WLS ABC7)

MARK RIVERA

The weekend anchor is newest Illini member of the ABC7 news team

Mark Rivera, the new face at the weekend anchor desk, knew he wanted to be in broadcasting early—just not on television. “I grew up listening to National Public Radio,” he says. “I loved NPR and wanted to get a job there. That was my goal.”

A native of Crystal Lake, Ill., he majored in broadcast journalism at Illinois and found it “an incredible experience. Everything I learned there set me up for success.”

It did not, unfortunately, land him at NPR. “Getting a full-time job right after college is hard to do,” says Rivera, who was reporting for an AM radio station when a friend tipped him to an opening in TV news in Decatur, Ill. “I decided, ‘OK, let’s do it.’”

Following Decatur, Rivera decamped for Florida to a CBS affiliate in Tampa and reported on any number of big stories, ranging from Hurricane Irma to covering the Florida presidential campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. His interest in politics, says Rivera, made the move to Chicago a lot smoother.

“Politics [in Chicago] is huge. [This year’s gubernatorial election] is probably going to be the most expensive in history. I’m excited.”