Wally Zimmermann, the broadcast executive who ran television newsrooms in Honolulu for the better part of three decades and influenced scores of TV journalists, died late Thursday at the age of 73.
Zimmermann succumbed to liver cancer following a short period under hospice care at his home near Nashville, Tenn., according to family representatives.
“There’s a whole bunch of people mourning today — because he was loved,” said former news anchor Jodi Leong, who was hired by Zimmermann at KITV in 1991.
“His influence was immeasurable,” said former KITV News Director Chuck Parker. “He was a newsroom leader, a mentor and, most importantly, a friend.”
Parker and other former colleagues said Zimmermann had a keen eye for talent, launching the careers of many high-profile journalists, some of whom are still on the air, others who have gone on to public relations and other careers.
With a renowned sense of humor, Zimmermann set a high standard for journalism and innovation, colleagues said. While at KITV the station became the first to offer a 5 p.m. newscast.
“He was uniquely creative,” said NBC cameraman Larry Barr, who worked at KITV in the early 1990s. “He had incredible ability and phenomenal drive, but, at the same time, he was the most down-to-earth person you’d ever meet.”
Born and reared in Chicago, Zimmermann attended Ripon College in Wisconsin, where he worked at the campus radio station and worked at radio stations in Chicago his senior year. Following graduation he joined the Army, working for Armed Forces Radio and Television.
When he returned to civilian life, he worked in network radio in Chicago before accepting a television reporter job in Green Bay, Wis., in 1970. Three years later he was promoted to news director.
While in the Army, he was stationed at Johnston Atoll. Passing through Honolulu, he vowed to return — and that’s what he did in 1981, hired as executive producer by KHON and promoted to news director a year later.
Six years later Zimmermann took a job running the ABC affiliate in Detroit, but he returned to the islands a year later to accept a position as vice president of news at KITV, a post he held until 2001.
Zimmermann served as director of communications for the Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii before jumping back into the news business in 2002 as executive producer at KHON, responsible for the weekday morning newscast.
The station was sold in 2006, and Zimmermann went back to public relations, joining Honolulu’s Bright Light Marketing as senior vice president of client services in 2006 before striking out on his own in 2012.
Zimmermann moved to Tennessee in September 2015 after his wife, Jolie Zimmermann, accepted a teaching position there.
“He was an amazing newsman, an amazing person,” said former TV newsman Dan Meisenzahl, now spokesman for the University of Hawaii. “The things I learned from Wally I do every day — from the way I tell a story to how I treat people. I can’t overstate the impact he had on my life.”
Former anchor and reporter Ann Botticelli worked for Zimmermann at KITV.
“I don’t want to sound hyperbolic, but I just really had the utmost respect and admiration for him,” she said. “Wally was simply a very special person. He felt a calling to provide our community with good journalism that engaged viewers in the important issues facing our state.
“He cared about truth and accuracy and fairness, and that was apparent not only in the way he directed our newsroom, but in the way he conducted himself. At the same time, he had a tremendous sense of humor, and he laughed more readily than anyone I have ever known.”
Botticelli, now senior vice president of corporate communications and public affairs at Hawaiian Airlines, said social media tributes in the wake of his death attest to how much he is beloved by his former employees.
“I think that’s because you could trust him and his leadership to always come from a place of good. That can’t be said of too many people, but it was absolutely true of Wally. His passing is a really big loss,” she said.
Zimmermann is survived by his wife and daughter Dawson Zimmermann.
Services are pending.