After 37 years, Ralph Iannotti retiring from KDKA-TV
For 37 years, Ralph Iannotti has been a steady, stoic presence on the nightly news, doing his best to make sense of the chaos around him. He never let his emotions get in the way of his reporting.
But he cried softly Friday during a phone interview from his South Hills home on his last day of work for KDKA-TV. He was recalling a phone call he had received June 13, the day that two 18-year-olds were killed by lightning during a thunderstorm in a Mt. Pleasant park.
“It was a man in Hempfield Township who said his son was killed by lightning on the same day in 1984, June 13, that these two people were killed by lightning,” said Iannotti. “And I talked to him … excuse me, you become emotional, you know, you think about these things because they stick with you.”
Iannotti did a story about the man, 84-year-old Harold Miller, who took him on a tour of his son Gary’s bedroom. He was 15 when he died.
“He had his boy’s photographs there, pictures of a dirt bike, baseball cards, his clothes that he was wearing that night. I thought to myself ‘35 years after and this 84-year-old man has had to live with this all of his life.’ It was so touching and so ironic that it happened on the same exact day and so tragic, just unimaginable. It does have an impact.”
But now, after covering about 11,000 stories by his own estimate, Iannotti has decided to retire. He is 74 and it feels like the right time to go. He said he has loved his work, even though it has taken an emotional toll over the years.
“The toughest part of my job is still, as I retire, talking to someone about a tragedy or a loss and asking them what they want to say or want me to say about a son or daughter, brother or sister,” he said. “It’s tough.”
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Iannotti said that out of a lot of tough stories, the worst might have been the 2000 murder of an 11-year-old boy named Scott Drake. He was strangled by a homeless man on the North Side.
“It was one of the worst crimes in the Pittsburgh area that I have covered,” he said. “One of the most horrendous crimes that even the police veterans had witnessed. Police detectives who handled the case were shaken by it. It was just terrible.”
Another tragic story that stands out for Iannotti is the September 1994 crash of USAir Flight 427 in Hopewell that killed all 132 passengers and crew on board.
“It was the worst thing I ever covered here,” said Iannotti. “We knew it was going to be bad because as we were going out to the area just past the airport, there were no ambulances coming back into town. When we got to the crash site, witnesses started coming forward and telling us what they saw, how there was nothing left of the plane. It was pulverized. The biggest plane part was the size of a car door. It was troubling.”
Iannotti, who is single, said that over the years he has tried not to take his work home. It’s not always easy.
“I try to separate my professional life from my personal life, outside of work,” he said. “You have to draw a line there. Otherwise, it takes hold and it bothers you. When I go out to supper with my friends, I try not to talk about what I have seen at different crime scenes.”
After dropping out of Emerson College in Boston, Iannotti began his broadcast career in 1968 as a radio talk show host in Amsterdam, New York.
He started working for the New York Daily News as a special Albany correspondent in 1974. Two years later he began working in television for WTEN-TV in Albany as a weekend anchor and general assignment/features reporter. That’s where KDKA found him.
“I didn’t apply for the job but they were looking for somebody who worked the streets — and I worked the streets,” he said. “I did a little anchoring up in Albany but I had no desire to do that. I just like to work and find out the whys of things, why things happen.”
Night after night, Pittsburgh regional news watchers have watched him on television, often bundled against the elements at the scene of a violent crime or in front of police headquarters. He was on the scene earlier this week in Ross when an undercover narcotics officer was shot and wounded in an exchange of gunfire during a drug bust that left a suspect dead.
When Iannotti started working here in 1982, he said Pittsburgh was a very different city.
“When I first came to Pittsburgh, it was not like this. It was not shootings every day,” he said. “We had a shooting once every couple of weeks. The Second Amendment I understand. People have a right to bear arms. But something is desperately wrong when you have too many guns and too many kids with guns and too many guns in places that are not secure.”
One way that Iannotti has dealt with the crime problem is by producing the “Crime Stoppers” segment on TV where police ask for help with unsolved cases.
Iannotti said that while crime and violence are part of the nature of the news, the stories aren’t all negative. One of his favorite stories was a profile of Princess Ileana of Romania, who founded an Orthodox Convent in Ellwood City after fleeing her homeland after World War II. He interviewed her after she became a nun, Mother Alexandra.
“She was just a fabulous interview. What a woman,” said Iannotti.
As the end draws near, Iannotti said he’ll remember his colleagues the most.
“The talented and creative people I have worked with are family. I have lasted this long because of the people I work with. They’ve put up with my mood swings. They’re great.”
Iannotti says he plans to stay in Pittsburgh during his retirement. As for what he’d like people to remember about his work, he was pretty straightforward, as always.
“I always tried to be fair in my reporting and I tried not to have an agenda.”
Paul Guggenheimer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Paul at 724-226-7706 or [email protected].