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Unassuming Wiggin reflects on 26 years in Pittsburgh

| Sunday, Aug. 13, 2006

In 1980, Sally Wiggin turned down job offers from stations in Atlanta and Miami to work at WTAE-TV. She was 28 and married, most of her life ahead of her, the promise of a family close at hand.

Twenty-six years later, Wiggin is single. Her dreams of having children never came true. She has watched the markets in Atlanta and Miami boom while Pittsburgh has bled away population.

Regrets• She has a few. But earlier this year, any doubts about the decision she made to come to Pittsburgh faded. Wiggin, whom colleague Andrew Stockey calls "the best-known television personality in town," finally found fulfillment during a brief encounter on a cold February day.

But first, who is Sally Wiggin?

By her own admission, Wiggin is regularly ashamed of herself, keeping a "self-flagellation" notebook in which she records a list of transgressions and apologies owed. She loves the "organized chaos" of a newsroom because it mirrors her lifestyle. She also admits she's no stranger to road rage, although she tries to temper it because she's afraid someone will recognize her.

Everything Wiggin does, however, is primarily driven by one emotion.

"It's fear of being rejected," Wiggin says. "That's the motivation. Or making someone mad, and I regularly make people mad at me. I'm amazed I can sleep at night."

Wiggin feels this way despite lasting more than a quarter-century in a single market in a profession defined by flux. She feels this way despite being one of the more active public personalities in the region, tirelessly devoting herself to charitable causes. She feels this way despite loyal friends who perk up when her name is mentioned.

"She is what I call common folk," says Joe DeNardo, longtime meteorologist at WTAE. "She is at the top of our profession, and she's not impressed with herself. But she's very intelligent."

She also is a complex individual who is not easily defined. When asked about her background she says: "You have to get this right."

So, verbatim:

"I grew up in Alabama. I was born in Michigan and lived there until I was 6. My family on both sides go back in New England for generations and generations. I grew up in the South during the civil rights movement in a New England home with no sense that I was a Southerner."

She was only 7 years old when she decided that she deserved acknowledgment from an audience beyond her small town in the Muscle Shoals region of Alabama. Playing pick-up baseball, a boy hit a line drive at her, hitting her in the stomach. Bent over for a few seconds, she straightened up and screamed, "I caught it!"

"I was saying, 'We have to write a letter to Mickey Mantle. We have to tell Mickey Mantle,' " Wiggin says. "I was very serious about it, but a couple days passed, and you're on to the next thing."

Wiggin dreamed of being an actress, then a zoologist or a veterinarian. After a year at Emory University in Atlanta -- her first choice was the University of Michigan, but she stayed closer to home "because of a young man" -- she transferred to the University of Alabama, where she majored in East Asian history. She finally went to Michigan for graduate school, again studying East Asian history. She returned to Alabama and found employment at a radio station in Birmingham before coming to Pittsburgh.

"If you don't know what you want to be when you grow up, journalism is a wonderful field to go into," Wiggin says, "because you can be a little bit of everything, all the time. You can be a jack of all trades and master of none. You can be a professional dilettante."

The range of her experience includes examining a cow's rectum and climbing the rigging of a tall ship during a celebration of the Statue of Liberty's centennial in 1986.

She is constantly engaged by her work, unless something is nagging at her, something she can't let go.

"When I'm bored with the job, it's generally when I'm letting my personal problems interfere," Wiggin admits. "When I'm focusing on the job, it's never boring. When it seems like a hindrance to whatever I'm obsessing about personally, then it's boring. That's when you know when you're off track."

And there are two things, one physical, one emotional, that have occasionally thrown Wiggin's life into chaos.

In her late 40s, Wiggin was diagnosed with heart disease.

That colors everything she does, as it did when she recently visited Ford's Stables in Allison Park. Riding Romeo, a great gray Holsteiner, her exertion was evident. Wiggin thought that was because she hasn't been riding as much as she'd like recently; she's a trained equestrienne. She also allows that her physical regimen has dramatically changed.

"Do I think about it every day?" she says. "Every day, all through the day. I can become ischemic when my heart rate goes up too high. So if I walk up a steep hill, if I try to run too far, if I walk in the heat, if I gallop for too long, I am reminded of it. Every time I have acid reflux, I wonder 'Is this a heart attack?' I had to call an ambulance just last month. I have an unstented, unangioplastied blockage in one artery -- the reasons it has not been treated are too complicated -- and several other types of heart problems.

"But when I think about it, I am not afraid anymore. If it happens, it happens. I initially vowed to exercise moderately and regularly, and eliminate both fat and stress from my life."

She sometimes lapses from her proscribed regimen for an occasional doughnut or a visit to a fast food drive-through window.

She is not perfect, she is the first to admit.

But love -- love is another thing.

It's not that Wiggin fears it.

She just hasn't found it.

And she blames herself.

In 1986, she turned down a job at WCBS in New York, in part, because she had been passed over for the main anchor's job at WTAE "and I had something to prove. And there was also a guy, and I really wanted a family, and this is a great place to raise a family. Now, looking back -- no family," she says.

"Because of that, I don't have children," she says, "because of some stubborn choices. I won't call them bad choices, but I've let that time pass me by. That's a great big hole that will never be filled. But you grieve; you move on."

Instead, there are "Aunt Sally's" children, the offspring of friends on whom she dotes to mitigate the remorse of being childless.

There alsois charity work. Every week, there are occasions when she flies out of WTAE's studios after her shift is over en route to a functione. It's nothing out of the ordinary, as many local celebrities are willing participants at charity functions.

"Let me tell you something about this field we're in, the media," DeNardo says. "People demand so much in the way of your time. In Sally's case, I would say she's one of the easiest people in the world to approach."

But Wiggin's level of commitment seems to go beyond showing up five minutes before an event, reading a canned speech, shaking hands and smiling pleasantly. When the Jewish Healthcare Foundation in Pittsburgh was establishing Working Hearts, a coalition of approximately 80 women's groups that promotes increased awareness of heart disease in women, Wiggin was the first person chairwoman Pat Siger approached.

"Without hesitation, she said yes," Siger says, noting that Wiggin is a friend. "And if you think it about it, that was a big risk, to expose her own personal health frailties in a job in which you have to be beautiful. I think that's the most revealing thing: She is all about what is the right thing to do rather than what is right for her."

A few weeks after the group's first meeting, Wiggin gave Working Hearts immeasurable exposure when she appeared on Oprah Winfrey's show to talk about her heart disease and the organization. But Wiggin is no mere figurehead. At grassroots meetings throughout the community, Wiggin invariably appears to talk about her experiences.

"She'll take time on a Saturday, or she'll go and work at the station, leave and come be with us, then go back to the station," Siger says. "It's really hundreds and hundreds of hours (she's donated). She is literally a treasure for our region."

In the newsroom, as in conversation, Wiggin is a whirlwind of energy, going off on tangents with co-anchors during commercial breaks. She jokes with meteorologist Don Schwenneker and co-anchor Michelle Wright, and when a glitch occurs -- for 30 seconds during a stand-up segment about Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, only Wiggin's shoulder appears on-screen -- she handles it with aplomb. After break, when news director Bob Longo bursts into the newsroom to chide the staff, she quickly picks up where she left off.

She is Sally Wiggin, after all, a celebrity in this town. During an interview at a Squirrel Hill coffee shop, a man approaches and says, "I'm a big fan."

It must happen all the time. But Wiggin says no, not as often as one would think. Sometimes people mistake her for someone else. Recently, when she was getting her morning coffee at a convenience store, she was approached by a man who thought she was an anchor at another station.

Wiggin replied, "No, I'm Sally."

The man said, "Oh, you're Sally Field."

Wiggin at first thought she was being made fun of. Who in Pittsburgh doesn't know Sally Wiggin?

Then, she had second thoughts.

"Why should I be so arrogant to think he would know who I am?" she says. "When I walk around, I really don't think that people are recognizing me. ... I always have this sense that if I don't see someone, they don't see me. But he didn't know who I was, and as I got in my car I said 'OK, God, you just humbled me.' And no matter who you think you are, there is someone who doesn't know you, who could not care less what your problems are, because he probably has a lot of greater problems than you do. God has a way of routinely humbling us, and I think that's great. I need to be kicked in the rear more often."

Stockey laughs when he hears the story.

"I don't think that she realizes how big she is," he says. "There are big names that are in other markets, the Sally Wiggins, and they act every bit of it. They think they're better than everyone else, and everything they do is perfect, and everybody should know who they are. Sally's never been like that."

One of Wiggin's career highlights, she says, came in the early 1990s, when she was playing in a charity golf invent hosted by Myron Cope.

She was hardly adept at the sport -- "I could barely get the ball off the tee" -- but was nonetheless thrilled to be part of the event, which she says previously had not invited women. But there she was with fellow broadcaster Eartha Jackson when play got backed up. Waiting at a tee, she turned around to find Steelers coach Chuck Noll, Pirates manager Chuck Tanner and the late Bob Johnson, who had just guided the Penguins to the Stanley Cup, behind her.

"I said, 'I can't believe this is happening,' " she says. "And that's what's so phenomenal about this job."

Having since become a better golfer, Wiggin devotes time to skiing and equestrian. Football remains her passion, and she is especially proud of her tenure hosting "Steelers Primetime" on WTAE with Stockey.

At first, Stockey admits that he wasn't sure whether Wiggin was a good fit for the show, which preceded Steelers games broadcast on ABC. But like anything else in her life, when Wiggin has a passion for something, she's voracious in her quest for knowledge.

"I know from a football point of view she knows the game, and she knows the people in the game," Stockey says. "She's the only person I know who can go to Bill Cowher before a game on the field and have a conversation. She knows so much. At the same time, she comes across as a person who can make fun of herself. Maybe even a little aloof at times. But she's just a normal person who, at the same time, comes across as a scholar and well-read. And it all comes in this one package, which is amazing."

Back to that cold February day earlier this year. When Wiggin interviewed in Pittsburgh 26 years ago, it was the day after a parade honoring the Steelers' victory in Super Bowl XIV. She admits the city's storied sports history played a role in her coming to Pittsburgh -- along with the fact that her then-husband was from Pennsylvania -- and she wanted to share in that glory, especially with the Steelers.

She waited, just once wanting to experience what it was like to live in a city as a team climbed to greatness. Last year, when the Steelers made their surprising run to the championship, the wait was over. At the parade, she and Stockey were broadcasting from a set of risers when Roethlisberger's car went by. She says he looked over, pointed and said, "There's Andrew and Sally."

That was the moment she'd been waiting on for 26 years, the "glorious recognition" that sanctified the decision she made to come to Pittsburgh. And stay in Pittsburgh.

"Was that worth it?" she says. "Hell yeah, that was worth it. It was worth it."

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