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BayouIcon | Behind the Scenes

By Nathan Coker
In Bayou Icon
Jan 6th, 2023
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Article by GEORGIANN POTTS
Photography by KELLY MOORE CLARK

For over 30 years, television viewers in our region felt like they knew Judy Wagoner. After all, she was a voice for KNOE-TV8 Broadcast News whom they trusted to deliver the information that they needed, when they needed it. Working closely with her during those years were two other familiar names at KNOE – Ken Booth and John Denison. Together, the three made their newscasts the “don’t miss” programming of the day. Never one to stop learning and accepting challenges, Judy became a small business owner in 2003 when she and a partner started Professional Laser Center, a Medi Spa that has expanded to include Integrative Medicine. Today, helping clients learn how to integrate traditional medicine with natural therapies is Judy’s passion. Because of her successful careers and her love and continuing influence in this region, Judy Wagoner is our January Bayou Icon.

When Judy Ann (Howell) Wagoner was growing up in Winn Parish, she delighted in doing things that most children did. Little did Judy know when she and her sister were drawing houses in the sand or pretending to be movie stars that one day she would be a star – not in the movies, but in television!

The Early Years
Judy had the best of both worlds growing up – her home was in “the city” of Winnfield, but her paternal grandparents had a large farm with animals and crops to explore in nearby Packton (about 12 miles south of Winnfield). “The country is a great place for children to learn and use their imaginations,” Judy says. “My childhood was the most wonderful time of my life!”

Judy’s maternal grandparents lived right next door in Winnfield, so the two families spent lots of time together. While she adored both sets of grandparents, it was her paternal grandfather, George Finney, who did something that was to become a family legacy. Finney loved birds and in the early ‘70’s built what the Guinness Book of Records later certified as the “world’s largest bird house.” It still stands in front of Finney’s house, held up by four large telephone poles.

Judy’s father, Robert Howell, was born August 10, 1932 in Atlanta, Louisiana, in Winn Parish. He went to school there and then joined the Navy where he served as a Medic. While he was overseas, his mother, Hazel Howell, delivered her 10th child. Her hospital nurse was Jean Finney. His mother gave Jean her son’s address so she could write to him while he was deployed. She had been born in 1932 in Atkins, Arkansas, but had moved to Winn Parish when she was five so was familiar with the area. She went to school in Winnfield and became a nurse at Winnfield General Hospital. Perhaps it was their mutual experience in medicine that led to romance. Jean would become his wife in 1954. The couple would have four children – Jane, Judy, Brian, and Patrick.

Judy’s father was her fifth-grade teacher (“One of the best teachers I ever had!”) and later became principal of Atlanta High School until he retired in 1983. Her mother worked as a nurse and pharmacy assistant for 44 years before she also retired. Both of Judy’s parents worked hard and instilled in their children a powerful work ethic. If Judy needed extra spending money, she earned it by doing a chore. “Money wasn’t passed out freely,” Judy recalls. “They also taught me that excuses didn’t equal performance. I learned to do my duty and be conscientious in everything that I did.”

The Howell family was a devout Christian family. Judy’s parents taught her to love everyone, to “Choose the Right” in everything that she did, and to listen when that still, small voice inside of her told her something wasn’t right. “I even had a ring with ‘CTR’ engraved on it,” Judy says. “The most important rule in our family was to treat others as we wanted to be treated and to look for the good, not the bad, in people. Gossip was forbidden in our home.”

The family enjoyed wonderful summer vacations. “We stopped at every historical marker along the way because Daddy wanted us to know all about history,” Judy remembers. Several summers were spent entirely in family housing on university campuses around the country while her dad studied for his doctorate. When they weren’t vacationing, Judy’s dad managed Winnfield’s recreation center. He involved his children in every athletic event the center offered. “We were competitive swimmers, and played basketball and softball,” Judy explains. A natural athlete, she was a cheerleader at Winnfield Junior and Senior High Schools and was on the Winnfield High School basketball team.

Judy’s parents also enrolled her in piano and organ lessons with Edith Price. Judy studied with Price for five years. Judy continues to play both instruments and has been a pianist and organist for her church for over three decades. “I’m very thankful for that assignment because it helped me keep those skills sharp,” Judy says. “Playing and listening to music is very important and therapeutic to me.”

Finding Her Way to a Career
Judy benefited from a number of mentors both in high school and in her career in television. Her high school speech teacher, Nell Grigg, was one. Grigg was quite tall and was “a no-nonsense teacher” so Judy was a little scared of her at first. That changed as time passed and Judy realized how much Grigg loved speech and loved her students. “She taught me how to act on stage, and selected me to attend state rallies to compete in various speech contests,” Judy explains. “She was a perfectionist and tried to instill that in her students. The little things mattered. Her speech classes, which I took for three years, were so helpful to me before and during my broadcasting career.”

Broadcasting was not Judy’s first choice. She had always wanted to work in the medical field and had majored in biology at LSUA and ULM. In one of those happy accidents that often change one’s career path, Judy worked at KNOE-TV8 while attending college. She worked her way through just about every department, and eventually was moved to the newsroom to help produce the evening newscasts. Russ Wise was the anchorman and the first night she was in that position, Wise handed her an AP wire script and told her to condense it into a 20-second story. The script was quite long, and Judy asked Wise how to do that. He told her to just write what’s important. “At age 20, what’s important to a 20-year-old is quite different from what’s important to a 40-year-old,” Judy remembers with a laugh. “It took me about two hours to write that first story.”

Judy worked in the newsroom for two years and then accepted a job as News Director at a radio station in Jackson, Mississippi. After working there for six months, Judy returned to KNOE as a reporter. Two short months later, she was chosen as Main Anchor for the evening newscasts, a position she held for 28 years.

Booth and Denison – Two Keys to Success
Ken Booth recognized Judy’s potential as an anchor and was responsible for her becoming the first female co-anchor in the Monroe market. On her first day in that role, Booth told her that her life would never be the same, pointing out that everything she did would be scrutinized by the public. He advised her to develop a tough exterior to handle the criticisms that would naturally come during her career.
Judy and Booth co-anchored the 5 and 10 o’clock newscasts. About a month after they began broadcasting together, Judy mispronounced a word in the script on the air. After the show, Booth asked her why she had pronounced it that way. “I told him I pronounced it how it was spelled because I really didn’t know what the word meant. He pointed his finger at me and said, ‘Don’t you ever go on the air and NOT know what you’re talking about again.’ From that day forward, I learned comprehension and accuracy at warp speed!”

Booth knew that promoting his anchors and reporters was key to gaining and maintaining viewership because Southerners didn’t like “strangers” in their homes. He heavily promoted his anchors so that they would become “part of the family” to their viewers. Booth named John Denison to co-anchor with Judy the same year he hired her. The two were the same age and they grew up together over the many years they worked together. They became dear friends and remain close today.

Judy married her high school sweetheart right after high school and they had two children, a son and a daughter. Though the marriage ended, the children – and today, their children – remain the center of Judy’s world. One of Judy’s favorite stories about her early career co-anchoring with Denison concerns the evening her daughter and a friend decided to make tacos. At six minutes before the newscast was scheduled to begin, Denison and Judy heard a police scanner announce a house fire at a certain address. Judy told Denison that the address was her house. She quickly found a phone and called her daughter. “My daughter explained that they had broiled the taco shells instead of baking them, causing a fire in the oven. Seeing it, they called the fire department,” Judy says. The newscast went on as scheduled, although Judy was a little shaken.

There are many stressful things that can happen before and during a newscast. Certainly learning that there is a fire at your home is one. Another is when the teleprompter operator stops paying attention and forgets to roll the script. When that happens, the anchor is on her own! And then there are those unexpected noises . . . One evening while Denison and Judy were on air, their meteorologist approached the set, tripped, and fell hard — making a very loud noise. Judy was reading the story at that time and, seeing and hearing the accident, began laughing uncontrollably – so much so she couldn’t continue reading it. Denison calmly took over and saved her.

One evening during the 10 o’clock newscast, a large man in overalls walked into the studio and sat down across from Denison and Judy. Neither anchor knew him, so Denison told Judy to leave as quickly as she could and he would handle the stranger. When Judy started walking toward the door, the man followed her. Denison told him to stop, but the man refused saying that he needed to talk with Judy. John told the man once again to stop, and he did. It turned out that the man believed that Judy had read a story about him (which was not true). “The police were called and the very next day, the doors to the station had locks on them and cameras were installed in the long hallways,” Judy remembers.

During their time working together, Denison and Judy received a very prestigious award for their newscasts. Thanks to the loyal viewers who watched them every night, the pair had earned the highest ratings of any CBS station in the nation. Clearly, Ken Booth knew exactly what he was doing when he hired the two of them.

A New Career Opportunity Presents Itself
In 2003, Judy was finally able to pursue her early dream of working in medicine in some capacity. She and a partner opened the first Medi Spa in Monroe. Even though Judy had very little business experience at the time, she was a quick learner. When her partner left the business in 2007, Judy was more than ready to run it herself even as she was continuing her broadcast career.

Judy left KNOE in December 2009 and moved to Chicago. Dr. Vic Zuckerman (aka Dr. Z) was a physician practicing in Chicago. He and Judy had been dating seriously for two years and realized that they needed to live in the same city for their relationship to progress to the next level. “I stayed in the Windy City for about four months before I decided it was the coldest place on earth and I need to return to Louisiana to warm up,” Judy says. Because Judy had left a 28-year career for him, Zuckerman decided that it would only be fair if he gave up his career and moved to Louisiana. He closed two medical offices in Chicago and moved to Monroe several months later.

Zuckerman worked as a hospitalist in Longview, Texas, and as Medical Director for Judy’s Medi Spa, Professional Laser Center, for eleven years. Although she is not a medical professional, because of her background in biology, Judy was able to understand the intricacies of Integrated Medicine. Dr. Z and Judy enjoyed a successful business and personal relationship for 14 years.

COVID Strikes . . . Twice
When things were going pretty well in her life, Judy’s life was changed irrevocably in four short months. The pandemic was a worldwide nightmare. Judy’s business closed for two months in March 2020. Although the shutdown was horrific, her business survived. Such was not the case for two people for whom she felt the most love. One year later, the two most important men in Judy’s life lost their lives to complications from COVID. Dr. Zuckerman died April 30, 2021, and her dad died exactly four months later on August 20, 2021. “The pandemic taught me to cherish every single moment with the ones you love, and never, ever, take life for granted,” she says. “It could be gone in a flash.”

With Age comes Wisdom
Today Judy is tackling life’s challenges again – but with a bit more wisdom than she had when she was younger. She is thankful for many things that she had learned throughout her life and is eager to learn even more. She recently asked her 90-year-old mother if she had learned anything new in the last decade. Her mother’s response, “Oh, yes. Certainly!” Judy loved that answer.

Judy says that young people have no idea what they will learn over the next several decades. “Like me, they probably think that they know it all at such a young age, but they really know nothing about life experiences. Those you can’t buy or earn at a university,” Judy says. “I can’t wait to see how much more I will learn in the next ten years.”

Retirement is in her future, but Judy is in no hurry. She is enjoying her life, although she experiences loneliness on occasion. “I would like to find someone to happily share my life with again,” Judy says. Most of all, she would like – for the first time in her life – to relax and enjoy a stress-free, final path in her life’s journey. Quality of life, not quantity of life, is her goal now.

Hodding Carter (1907 – 1972) once wrote, ‘Television news is like a lightning flash. It makes a loud noise, lights up everything around it, leaves everything else in darkness, and then is suddenly gone.” That is only partially true. Television is all of that, but it is something more. It is the memory of those talented individuals whom we trusted to deliver the news to us, in our homes, night after night. Those people mattered more than the news that they told us. Judy Wagoner and her cohorts mattered – and still do.