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Carol Marin knows when it’s time to leave (unlike plenty of politicians)

‘I’ve seen people stay too long at the dance . . .. I want to leave at a time when I still feel the work is solid and that I know that I still love what I do and where I do it.’

Carol Marin has won acclaim and countless wards for scoops on corruption investigations.
Carol Marin has won acclaim and countless wards for scoops on corruption investigations.
NBC 5 Chicago

Knowing when to leave is one of the hardest things to figure out in life. Most people — and plenty of powerful politicians — never figure it out. Carol Marin is not one of them.

Marin, 71, announced this past week that the reporting and performing part of her award-winning journalism career is over. She is leaving the stage at Channel 5 and Channel 11 after the Nov. 3 election.

“I’ve seen people stay too long at the dance and sometimes get bitter or angry or something. I want to leave at a time when I still feel the work is solid and that I know that I still love what I do and where I do it,” Marin said.

During a wide-ranging interview with the Sun-Times, Marin reminisced about the 48-year journey that started as an English teacher and debate coach at Dundee High School and ended as an anchor and reporter in her hometown of Chicago.

Her first job was as a “female talk show host” in Knoxville, Tennessee, where she “failed” after being told she was “too newsy for them.” She was dispatched to the newsroom, where she “developed a prison beat” and started doing what she called other “kinds of stories that women didn’t do.”

That won her a promotion to the NBC affiliate in Nashville, a larger market. Back on the prison beat, she covered the conviction of then-Gov. Ray Blanton and punched her ticket to Chicago. In 1978, she was hired by WMAQ as an anchor and investigative reporter.

In those days, there was sexism without the freedom that came later with the #MeToo movement.

On a trip to Washington to cover a presidential inauguration, a news executive told her she looked tired and said, “I’m gonna come down to your room and give you a massage.” She hustled to join a colleague before the lecherous news chief arrived.

A second network honcho told her she was “too hard-news for a woman.” Another station chief told her she was “too big-J journalism for a woman.”

“One of the great things that #MeToo has provided … is the help to say out loud and proud, ‘Absolutely not’ and report ’em,” she said. “Emboldening women and especially younger women to not stand for it.”

In Chicago journalism lore, Marin will forever be remembered for joining Ron Magers in 1997 in resigning as WMAQ-TV’s 10 p.m. co-anchors to protest the hiring of talk show host Jerry Springer as a commentator on the late newscast.

What viewers didn’t know is that was the final straw. The station’s new management team already had done a ton of others things Marin and Magers had rebelled against, earning Marin several paid suspensions.

“Like having the sales department insinuate itself into the newsroom so, if there was a commercial advertiser selling smoke detectors, we would be urged to do a smoke detector story, and then the tagline would be, ‘You can pick up your First Alert smoke detector at Walgreens or Jewel-Osco,’ ” she said. “I refused to read what they wrote.”

Yet another indelible Marin memory is her near-death experience in New York City as she rushed toward the World Trade Center after the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001. The ground began to shake and rumble as the second tower crumbled. She tripped and fell as she turned to run, and a firefighter grabbed her by the waist, implored her to take off her high heels, then threw himself against her to shield her. She could feel his heart pound.

The man, whose identity Marin still does not know, then handed her off to a police officer, Brendan Duke, who led her through the thick, black smoke and darkness to safety.

On the 19th anniversary of the terrorist attacks, Marin and Duke had an emotional, on-air reunion. She learned that her on-camera interview with Dan Rather that day allowed Duke’s family in Ireland to learn he had survived the worst terrorist attack ever on U.S. soil.

Marin has won acclaim and countless awards for scoops on corruption investigations. But she won’t be around to report on the final chapter of what she called the “monstrous investigation” swirling around House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, and Ald. Edward Burke (14th).

But she thinks she knows why neither Madigan nor Burke learned what she already knows: when it’s the right time to leave.

“It isn’t ultimately about the money when it comes to politicians who haven’t left the stage. It’s about power,” she said. “At the bottom of all of it, it’s always about power. It’s the adrenaline. It’s the sense of being in charge.

“Ed Vrdolyak — one of the slickest, richest politicians around — is scheduled to go back to prison at 82 or 83…It’s unbelievable. Because they could have left so much sooner with plenty of cash on hand and not ended up facing the grand juries and the U.S. attorney’s wrath. But they stayed too long.”