From ‘Girl Reporter’ to Wisconsin’s First Female Sports Anchor

I was born in Madison in 1970. My mom is Jewish and from Long Island. My dad is Catholic, Mexican, and from Chicago. They met in the VISTA program (Volunteers in Service to America) and settled in Madison. 

Photos by Gary Porter

Jessie Garcia | Milwaukee, WI

“In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Madison felt magical to me. At age ten I rode the bus downtown and walked around State Street by myself. It felt very safe and quaint and was just kind of Hippyville. Both of my parents were hippies. My mom and I were in an acting troupe called ‘Kids and Adults for Nuclear Disarmament.’ We would perform little plays on the steps of the Capitol building.

My parents got divorced when I was two. I was raised by my mom, and I grew up in a really strong community. There were a lot of single mothers and their kids in the neighborhood, and we all hung out together. The moms took turns, each taking a day off on different weeks so that they could take care of the whole group.

My mom was always a reader. She read me tons of books and we got two newspapers a day, the Wisconsin State Journal and the Capital Times. I read them obsessively. That’s how my love of journalism was born. From the age of eight, I wanted to be a reporter. I referred to myself as ‘girl reporter’ and walked around with a tape recorder. I interviewed the cat. At the store with my mom, I walked around commentating into the tape recorder. ‘My mom’s getting plums now, and now we’re going to the checkout counter.’ Just commentating the whole way. I remember making up lists of questions to ask her friends if she had a party. I was obsessed with reporting what was going on around me.

My mom was a carpenter and an architectural designer when I was growing up. She was a female carpenter in the 1970s, walking around with a hammer in the loop of her overalls. To me this was completely normal.

Now I can look back with perspective and see how much she influenced me. She made it so normal for women to do anything that they wanted.

All her friends believed women could and should do anything they want in the world, so I grew up with that influence around me. I grew up not thinking that there are any barriers for women. Later, when I became Wisconsin’s first female sports anchor, it never seemed daunting to me. It never seemed like a big deal. It just seemed natural.”

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“When I first joined my high school newspaper, I knew I wanted to be a reporter, but I wasn’t set on a sports career.

My step-dad was the first person in my life to like sports. My mom met him when I was ten. He used to take me to Badger basketball games. My love of sports was born at the old UW Field House. I give him a lot of credit for really instilling a love of sports in me. I had the love of writing and I had the love of journalism; I just didn’t have sports on my radar until he came along.

After that, I started to gravitate toward sports. I just found it to be really fun. It dawned on me that I didn’t want to spend my career covering bad news. I wanted to cover something that, for the most part, made people happy.

In college, I joined the campus newspaper, wrote sports, became the assistant sports editor, and covered every sport imaginable. I was really bad in the beginning. I remember writing about the women’s swim team and using all these water metaphors in this horrible way. ‘They really dunked them today.’  ‘They splashed to the surface.’ I cringe when I think back on some of those.

One summer, I got an internship in the sports department at Channel 3 in Madison. I worked with Van Stoutt, who was a Madison sports legend, and Jeff Lenzen. Both were amazing mentors to me. I just knew that this is what I wanted to do.

I found sports characters to be endlessly fascinating, whether it be a professional athlete or the local bowler.

After I graduated, Channel 3 hired me as a part-time sports reporter. There had never been a female sports anchor or reporter in Madison before. I think they were a little nervous about it. That was the sense I got, that they just weren’t sure how the public was going to react.

I got my first chance to anchor at Channel 3 because Van Stoutt was out sick. At that point I had only been a reporter out in the field; I hadn’t anchored before. I was so nervous. I was two months out of college and had no real TV clothes. All my clothes were concert t-shirts. I borrowed a dress from a friend of mine and went on the air. I was sweating bullets. 

I would hate to see that tape now, because I’m sure it was awful. I could barely even get the words out, but I made it through that first sportscast. That night wound up being historic, since there had never been a female sports anchor in the state of Wisconsin. After that, they kept asking me to anchor, and part-time became full-time. I worked there for two years.

One night, I had just finished anchoring and a man called and said, ‘I’m never going to watch Channel 3 again, because you’re a chick and chicks don’t know anything about sports.’ I remember being really taken aback. I said, ‘I hope you change your mind one day, sir,’ and hung up the phone.

I had a lot of support, since I was starting my career in my hometown and because Van and Jeff treated me like an equal. But that phone call reminded me not everybody was on board with this. I was going to have to prove myself. I didn’t want to make any missteps, because it felt like a mistake could hurt my whole gender. So I worked really hard. I won’t take credit for being a trailblazer because so many women on the national level had come before me, but if I helped increase the number of women sportscasters, then I’m happy about that.”

“In 1994 I started working as a sports reporter at WTMJ-TV in Milwaukee. As part of that job, I worked as the Green Bay Packers sideline reporter for seven seasons. It was my great fortune that I became a Packers reporter at around the same time that Brett Favre joined the Packers and the team had an incredible resurgence. 

I was able to be at three Super Bowls, see the Brett Favre era from beginning to end, and host the Mike Holmgren and Mike McCarthy Shows. I think I was one of the first, if not the first, female host of an NFL coaches show.

I traveled to report on Super Bowls 31, 32, and 45. For 31 and 32 I didn’t have kids, so it was easy. Get somebody to feed the cats and boom, I’m gone. Then Super Bowl 45 rolls around and I’ve got two kids. I had dropped to part-time work after my first son was born, and I turned down a lot of promotion opportunities in favor of being there more for my two sons. They were ten and six during Super Bowl 45, and I had to be gone for eight days. 

It was an amazing professional experience, but also really hard. I was organizing carpools from the hotel room and Skyping with my sons while they’re playing their band instruments or showing me their homework. Even though my husband is wonderfully capable of taking care of the kids, I had a pit in my stomach most of that week, because I felt like I was being a bad mother. 

Shaking hands with Mike Holmgren (photo courtesy of Jessie Garcia)

I spent 25 years as a sportscaster. When I think back on all the stories that I’ve done, the stories about ordinary people stand out, like the 100-year-old bowler who drove himself to the bowling alley two times a week to play with his buddies. 

Some of my favorite stories that involved high-profile professional athletes were the ones that showed they were ordinary people, too. Everybody looked at Brett Favre as a king. He was a larger-than-life superhero. He could have run for governor and won. One day, we got a tip that the Packers’ wives had their own basketball league. They played games at this middle school gym in Green Bay. Deanna Favre was playing in the league, so I went to a game. There was Brett, sitting on the sidelines at this middle school gym. This was two, three days before he had a massive playoff game against San Francisco. Nobody knew he was there because there was no other media, no fans. He was watching his wife be the athlete. Their daughter, who was probably seven or eight at the time, was doing cartwheels on the sidelines.

That was an important moment that informed my storytelling. I realized these athletes were just regular people. I was never all that interested in stats. I always wanted to tell the stories of professional athletes as human beings.”

I quit sports reporting after 25 years. I was at the point where I wanted to try something new, and I wanted my weekends back. I was missing a lot of Christmases with my kids. You know, the news never stops. I’d always wanted to teach and write books, so I said, ‘If I’m going to do this, this is the time.’

Over the past decade, I’ve taught journalism at Marquette University, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Carroll University, and Mount Mary University. I’ve developed sports documentaries and written several books. One of my books, ‘My Life with the Green & Gold,’ highlights my experience as a sportscaster for the Packers.  

My reporting days are over, but recently I was missing active journalism. Last year, a position opened up at my old station, WTMJ, as broadcast director, and I took it. I feel like I’ve come full-circle. I love it. I oversee the anchors and producers, the weather team and the sports team. I’m able to think big-picture and talk about the future of TV. I still believe that TV is a very powerful medium. It reaches a lot of people; it has a big megaphone. 

We don’t take that responsibility lightly. Every single day we’re making decisions about what we’re covering. I know people think there’s a lot of bad news on TV. We try very hard to have good news, news about what’s going well in our community, and issue related-news. We talk about everything.  

We’re heading into an absolutely insane year in 2020. I honestly don’t think there’s a television station in America that will be as busy as we’re going to be. We have the Democratic National Convention and the Olympics this summer. We have the Ryder Cup golf tournament in September. The Bucks are incredible and could go deep in the playoffs. I am very, very excited for all of it.

There was a moment in high school when I first realized how powerful journalism can be. I was in a McDonalds in Appleton. There were two young white women there, and they started talking about me being a person of color. They used a racial slur against me that I will not repeat. I was shocked, because I had never experienced racism before. I went home, told my mom about this, and she said, ‘We’re not going to sit here and just take that. Write a letter and send a copy to the Appleton Post-Crescent.’ 

I did, and they published it on the front page of their Sunday Lifestyle section. They didn’t put my name on it, but it got a lot of responses. They forwarded me a big manila envelope filled with letters that people had written to them. Some people were saying things like, ‘Totally agree. We’re Hmong, and we’ve felt racism in this town since day one.’ Other people were saying, ‘Please don’t judge us by this, we’re not racist. We’re so sorry this happened.’

I think back to the lesson my mom gave me, because she empowered me to create a community conversation about this, not just swallow it. I believe that one of journalism’s powers is that it can get people thinking and talking.

When I taught journalism, some students would ask me, ‘Is there a future for journalism? Is journalism dying? Should I even be in this field?’ My answer was, ‘There will always be a place for great storytellers in this world.’ People have been telling stories to each other since caveman times, because as a species we want to know more about each other. 

I just love stories. I’m fascinated by human beings. Everybody has a million stories in them if you can get them to open up. I believe strongly that while journalism may evolve, there is still going to be a place for storytellers.’

-Jessie Garcia | Milwaukee, WI

Jessie’s story was produced by Jen Rubin. You can find her book, ‘My Life with the Green & Gold: Tales from 20 Years of Sportscasting’ here.

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