Stay humble” is the advice Bill Hemmer carries with him in his duties as coanchor of CNN Morning News. That wise advice, given to him from his mom, Georganne, has helped the single 35-year-old keep a level-headed understanding of the world as he experiences it each day at the network. The news anchor has been at CNN since 1995, and CNN itself celebrated its 20th anniversary in June.
Originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, where Hemmer attended Our Lady of Victory grade school and Elder High School, he remains focused on lessons learned from his family. That includes being strong in his Catholic faith, remaining confident and making his own decisions. “I don’t think there was one aspect of me that wasn’t shaped by my family, whether it was my parents or my brother and sisters. We were all close in age. We were close at home.”
The closeness remains, even with Bill in Atlanta, two sisters in Cleveland, and one brother, sister and his parents in Cincinnati. When his brother was married on New Year’s Eve, everyone came. It’s no different, Hemmer says, for the family’s annual week at a North Carolina beach.
Everyone is informed of the date a year in advance, Hemmer says with pride of the event known as the “Hemmer Hajj” planned by his parents. “No one has missed in 25 years.” Some, he admits, have had to cut their time short for one reason or another, but everyone has always been part of the event.
An Education Through Travel
Hemmer’s true passion, outside of family, is travel. “There’s no better education on the planet,” he said in an interview in Cincinnati last spring.
During his college years at Miami University (of Ohio), where he majored in journalism, he had the opportunity to take his first foreign trip. Hemmer spent his junior year in Luxembourg, studying European history and politics. Since then, he has visited numerous countries throughout the world.
During his trip, he and some friends decided to go on a ski weekend to Austria. To arrive back for their morning classes, they took a late-night train. Little did they know that, on the trip back, they would be taught one of life’s most important lessons by a German peasant woman.
“We were fast asleep in our train car trying to make it back for early class the next morning,” Hemmer recalls, when, “around 4 a.m. the door to our car flew open. The lights went on, and standing there in the doorway screaming, in a harsh German dialect, were two woman dressed exactly alike.
“They were obviously poor, dirty, looking for a place to stay. Reluctantly, we pulled up our seats and allowed these two peasant women to come inside.” One woman, he says, was larger and older than the other. Together, “they carried six huge heavy sacks of something that smelled horrible. The next two hours, we sat there with the lights on and complained out loud.”
Hemmer says he and his friends continued their critical remarks until “the older of the two peasants looked me square in the eye and said, ‘Be careful what you say, young man. You never know who speaks English.’”
In the car, there was stunned silence, Hemmer says, with only the sound of the “track of the train below us.”
Later, he and his friends learned that the woman was traveling with her daughter, who had a mental disability. “The mother was quite worried about her daughter. We were, too, when her daughter had a seizure on the train in front of us.” It was a “rough ride” and a “rough night.”
In the morning, he and his friends, who never learned what was in the heavy sacks, helped the women off the train. Before the train left, the older woman returned to say good-bye and recommend The Razor’s Edge, a novel about a young World War I aviator, Larry, whose best friend loses his life while saving Larry’s. The aviator, who returns to his hometown of Chicago where he works as a businessman, spends years searching for understanding and education about life.
Hemmer, who recently finished the novel by W. Somerset Maugham, said that, although he did not acquire any significant knowledge from the book, he found that he could relate to the main character, Larry Darrell, who had a unique curiosity and propensity to learn.
Reflecting on his train experience with the two peasant women, Hemmer realizes that “sometimes the greatest wisdom comes from the most unlikely of people….There is,” he acknowledges, “an enchanting world out there when one takes the time to explore it. And there’s a wealth of respect and appreciation that comes with it: respect for the differences we find in other people, an appreciation for the important things we find in other places.”
That is why, growing older, he “really had a desire to see the world,” explains Hemmer in his interview with St. Anthony Messenger. So in 1992, at the age of 27, he quit his sportscasting job at Cincinnati’s WCPO Channel 9. The station’s response revealed its respect for Hemmer and his talents: “Why don’t you sign a contract, and we’ll give you a job when you come back?”
Hemmer did just that before heading out on a solo trip to four continents and 15 countries including India, Nepal, Russia and Vietnam. “These places are fascinating,” the journalist says. “I really had an awesome time. It was an advent. It was an epiphany.” The trip, he says, opened his eyes to the different cultures, different faces, different places.
An Inspirational Visit
In video features for WCPO and in print stories for The Cincinnati Post, he featured various sites, such as Calcutta, India. There he was able to meet Mother Teresa and visit her various outposts of missionary work. Hemmer says Mother Teresa’s work “was quite impressive.” In the Post, he wrote, “I think I’ll remember her hands the most. She had these giant hands that could reach out and cover a child’s face like a giant shroud.” They are the same hands that gave Hemmer three prayer cards, which he gave to his parents and grandfather.
She is a woman, Hemmer wrote, who, “with the plain brown sandals and the worn face of wrinkles, had established an international reputation of love through her work in the slums of Calcutta.” In the “city where the pollution could melt your eyes and the poverty could melt your heart,” Mother Teresa “never posed, never even looked into a camera lens.”
Her disposition led Hemmer to wonder, in his reflection for the Post, if the woman religious had an ego. She receives “so much attention” and “so many kind words” are spoken of her, he wrote. Yet, in her service, “not once did she go looking for the attention.”
Mother Teresa was just one of the inspirational people profiled in Hemmer’s half-hour video scrapbook that he has shared with students in Cincinnati and Atlanta. He also included the Great Wall of China and his bungee-jumping in New Zealand. For the video that aired on WCPO, Hemmer garnered three local Emmys for best entertainment programming, best investigative story and best host. The video’s message to students is that “there’s a great big world out there waiting for them to discover,” says Hemmer.
A Historical Perspective
Going overseas taught Hemmer that travel is the school of life. “It is also a very personal thing” that has provided him with exposure to real-life experiences that aid in his understanding of stories he covers each day for CNN. Whether it’s the Middle East or India/Pakistan or relations between China and Taiwan, the trip has been invaluable in Hemmer’s anchor work for the cable network.
As an anchor, he is “responsible for knowledge about every story we cover in our two-hour period. That includes interviews and live events—whether it’s a live event from the White House or an interview…on the development of the Human Genome Project—that’s picking up huge steam—or interviewing presidential candidates.”
Hemmer, who received an Emmy for his work on CNN’s coverage of the Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta, has spent time covering the crisis in Kosovo, the aerial bombing missions from Aviano Air Base in Italy, the refugee crisis from Skopje, Macedonia, and NATO developments from Brussels, Belgium.
In covering such a multitude of stories, Hemmer says being prepared is most important for success. “If you’re prepared, and you’ve studied the material, and you have the background, it’s only going to enable you to do a better job with that interview. You frame questions better, and you’re not going to be thrown for a loop, depending on the answer.”
Being a quick thinker and having experience has helped Hemmer in his work. As a Catholic and a journalist, ethics are a part of his day-to-day work. “In all fairness, as journalists, we’re supposed to be absolutely unbiased,” he admits.
“I will say, though, that we’re still human beings. As objective as we try to be, it’s never 100 percent.” He attributes that to everyone growing up in different worlds. “Our families influence us, our regions, our cities, our states, our schools, the people we grew up with, the history that we experience, the politics that are given to us, the religion that is given to us.” All of this “factors into completing the person as a whole,” he affirms.
“Having stated that, personally I try as best I can to be fair and balanced and to stay neutral.” The challenge for journalists, Hemmer emphasizes, is to ensure that all sides of the issue are understood, whether that be religious, political or social.
Hemmer, who travels in his current position covering such stories as news from the presidential “camps,” remains committed to wanting “to get back on the road” to overseas locations. Although he is unsure when or how that will happen, Hemmer says his parents instilled the sense of freedom within him and his brother and sisters to make their own decisions. They have allowed us “to fall down on our own” and learn from the experience. “They were always very glad to let us do what we wanted to do.”
A Faithful Upbringing
Hemmer’s parents remain in the forefront of his thoughts as conversation shifts to family, job responsibilities and future goals. He speaks endearingly of his father, Bill, a vice president of a mattress firm, describing him as “a very humble man. That’s not to be overlooked,” the son stresses. “He has my full respect, and he’s a great man: his humility, his honesty. He has a general goodness to him.”
Growing up as the middle child of five, Hemmer remembers the outstanding example set by his parents. First of all, he says, “my dad would never, ever, ever cuss.” That trait is one that “says a lot about who he is and who he wants his children to be.”
Hemmer, who sees his parents as special influences in his life, says his mom has always counted on the Church as her source of support. “She’s very strong in her faith. That’s to be commended.” A member of St. Francis Xavier Parish in Cincinnati, she has instilled in her children the importance of having a strong faith.
Hemmer says, “Mom always wanted me to be a priest.” Although that is not the path he has chosen, he has always counted on God to be there for him. As a young child, he would ask God to “help me do this or help me do that.” Looking back, Hemmer admits that a style of prayer that only asks for things is maybe not “a very good way to have a relationship with God.”
In the last 15 years, Hemmer’s outlook on prayer has changed. “It has given me the strength to accept whatever comes my way.” That means a new attitude and approach for situations that may be difficult or present a challenge. He says he uses that strength each day at CNN.
“I love my job, and I love what I do. If I lose it, I’d be really ticked off, but I’d be O.K., too. I’d be confident that God would take care of me.”
A speaker at various events throughout the country, typically at gatherings with international journalists and American and international college students, Hemmer enjoys the opportunity to spend time with family and meet other people. That way, he says, he can stay in touch with people and “get a decent gauge” of where the world stands.
Although he is in touch with stories and people across the globe, Hemmer is intrigued by the sense of duty people in the United States have for their country. Yet, with his generation being the first one to skip a major war, he is curious how the sense of duty will develop in future generations. “Historically, our country has always responded to the call,” he adds.
For Hemmer, whose innate sense of adventure has allowed him to bungee-jump, skydive and scuba dive, the future is unknown. He is not without his desires.
A parishioner at the Cathedral of Christ the King in the Buckhead section of Atlanta, Hemmer says, “I’d like to get married. I’d love to have children.” His humble upbringing chimes in, “If it happens, great. If it doesn’t, I’m not going to force it.”
As he looks out at the vast world, though, he has made one conclusion. “In my humble opinion, the six billion of us on this planet have one main concern: trying to make our lives and the lives of the people around us better.” Inconsequential are the color of our skin and our religious denomination, he adds. What matters is that “our human hearts beat at the same place, one beat at a time.”