Even retirement in the time of coronavirus is tricky. Just ask Margaret Larson, the longtime journalist and KING 5 anchor and host, who is charging ahead with retirement with her husband Tim even though the plan has changed dramatically over the last few months.
“Our retirement plan was always to sell our house and then live here or there six months at a time, gypsy around the world and whatnot,” Larson said. “Nothing fancy, just spending some time in places that we loved and exploring some new places. But then we had the coronavirus.”
So the Larsons did something a little impulsive.
“I actually bought a house that I have not seen,” said Larson, 62. “I know that sounds crazy. My husband did go out and look at it. We wanted to be settled. We wanted to, in the middle of coronavirus, not go somewhere and then look.”
The new house is in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina, where they plan to spend time with their son, Kyle, and get to know the region while the virus story plays out.
“We’re looking forward to exploring the waterfalls and the coast, the Outer Banks and the mountains, such as they are,” she said. “They’re not mountains like ours, but they are beautiful, beautiful places. And I have good friends back east and people that we’re reconnecting with now. So it’s just a change of scenery and a fresh palate to sort of decide what the future looks like. I love it here. I mean, it’s bizarre that we’re leaving because I literally love this place.”
Larson’s last day hosting her daily show “New Day Northwest” will be Thursday, July 30. While that will mark the end of a journalism career that spans more than 38 years, Larson doesn’t plan to leave public life altogether. She’ll continue her work in the nonprofit world, where she spent time between journalism stints working for and with organizations such as Mercy Corps, World Vision International, Burkitt’s Lymphoma Fund for Africa and Opus Prize, among others.
“I only came back to TV to do ‘New Day’ because it was not news,” said Larson, who has hosted the show for 10 years. “It was something that was going to be informational, but positive and fun and local, and was kind of a different mental and emotional space from news. And so I think I’m kind of headed back in that other direction where there are issues that I’d like to work on and some things that I’d like to do before I wrap up a working life. I hope I’m not going to be working full time, but I’d at least be volunteering and doing some things that are useful.”
It’s not clear who will replace Larson at “New Day” yet, said Jim Rose, president and general manager of KING 5. While that person will take her seat, it’s hard to imagine them taking the same role as Larson. With more than three decades covering news at the highest levels, her experience is hard to replace. As is her friendship.
“Because she has the ability to navigate what I would consider very serious existential matters, whether it be on the national, regional or local level, she’s also a human being who can walk people through things in everyday life,” Rose said. “And I think that really showed pretty prominently in her role for the last decade on ‘New Day Northwest.’
“I also think most people would agree with the sentiment that she’s one of the most well-informed people around on any number of topics. And so I’m often seeking her counsel on things that involve KING 5 or news coverage or even, sometimes, life. She’s one of those handful of people that I know I can get a really thoughtful response from.”
Few understand this as well as KING 5 anchor Joyce Taylor. She’s known Larson for more than 20 years and spent a portion of that time sharing a dressing room with her, wiping off her makeup while Larson was putting hers on. She says her co-worker is “a true friend to many, and dear to me.”
“I would say she is the best kind of journalist because she is and has forever sought the truth and speaks truth to power, no matter who the power source may be,” Taylor said. “And she’s also one of those people who has for a long time been an ally of the underdog. And if you look at her track record with community service and the organizations that she has not just been on the board of, but actually been on the ground for, then you know that she’s a person who really has given a voice to people who often don’t have a voice.
“She looks for the stories that a lot of other journalists are not telling about immigrants, about refugees, about women, about abuse.”
Larson has won four Emmys and two national Clarion Awards for work that has taken her around the world over the last 38 years. A release summarizing her career noted she’s visited more than 60 countries, reported from combat zones, jumped out of an airplane, dodged African crocodiles and interviewed presidents. She has also spent a lot of time in the living rooms of millions of Americans on some of television’s most-watched shows.
Larson began her career at KCRA in Sacramento from 1982-90, twice traveling to the Soviet Union to make documentaries. She joined NBC News in 1991 as a foreign correspondent based in London and an occasional fill-in anchor, then became news anchor for “TODAY.”
She moved to Seattle in 1994 and served as an anchor at KIRO 7 (with the recently retired Steve Raible). She joined “Dateline” in 1997 as a Seattle-based correspondent and began co-anchoring the 11 p.m. KING 5 broadcast in 2000. She left for the nonprofit world in 2002, but returned in 2010 to host “New Day.”
Ask her about her most memorable stories and Larson comes up with a handful that will be very familiar to most of us.
“I think probably the most consequential story I covered was the first Persian Gulf War in southern Turkey and northern Iraq during the Kurdish refugee crisis,” she said. Larson crossed the border frequently covering the plight of Kurdish refugees. “And that was kind of my first real contact with wanting to be involved with work that dealt with people who had been driven from their homes, people who were in dire circumstances globally. And later that influenced my being on the board at Mercy Corps, and then working for international nonprofits.”
She got a close look at what she calls “the human mystery” while covering Mary Kay Letourneau, the former Washington state teacher who served time for raping a 12-year-old student who she eventually married. Letourneau, who died of cancer at age 58 earlier this month, is still an enigma to Larson.
“My first story for ‘Dateline’ was about Mary Kay Letourneau,” Larson said. “That was one of the most confounding stories that I ever worked on and something that I still think about to this day. … It was something that I couldn’t completely ever understand or get my head around.
“I was just kind of thunderstruck by what had happened and the way all of those people’s lives and their two families were impacted while she seemed to be very sure of what she was seeing. And I couldn’t see it.”
She also vividly remembers her work around the implosion of the Kingdome — simultaneously hosting a live broadcast for KING 5 while serving as a reporter for a “Dateline” segment and for a long-form show on Discovery. She was one of the last people to stand in the structure where Ken Griffey Jr. and Steve Largent roamed.
“It’s the very last minute before things came down,” Larson said. “And I remember in particular … the fellow who was the lead on the technical team pointed out some places where there were red flags and told us that if we bumped any of those places, we had 15 seconds to get out. And I remember thinking, well, that’s it, I’m just going to stand here. I’m going to die here because I’m afraid to move. I tried to hold it together. But I think in the interviews, I probably look like somebody who’s had the life scared out of me.”
Larson has been asked to reminisce about her career quite a bit since she told her colleagues she was ready for the next chapter in her life. But the flood of memories has done nothing to diminish the feeling she has that she’s made the right decision.
“For some reason, I just woke up one day and it felt like there was a period at the end of the sentence,” Larson said. “And I’ve felt pretty comfortable with that ever since.”