Away from the studio, local TV personalities explore their personal passions, from pursuing spiritual enlightenment to rocking out. We peel back the curtain on John McCaa, Rebecca Miller, Doug Dunbar, Clarice Tinsley, Tracy Kornet, Grant Johnston and Fiona Gorostiza.
CBS-11's Doug Dunbar is talking about one of his favorite hobbies, something about how, in this wired and connected world, he can travel to a place where nobody can get to him, where he's immune to the call of a cellphone.
Except it's a little hard to get the quote exact, because we're in Dunbar's two-seater Super Decathlon airplane, flying a couple thousand feet over northern Tarrant and southern Denton counties. The ride is too noisy to record an interview, too bumpy to take notes. The journalist he's flying with, truth be told, is a little nervous about being in this small plane.
But it's easy to understand why Dunbar tries to do this at least once a week. There's a serenity up here, looking down at Lake Grapevine and Lake Lewisville to the east, seeing more treetops than you realized exist in North Texas. It's a respite from Dunbar's day job, co-anchoring evening newscasts on KTVT/Channel 11.
"I'm not a hyper guy," Dunbar says after we've landed. "I can sit and be quiet for a long time. But, to me, and this is getting real philosophical on you, life is defined by the beginning and the end, and what you make of that time is what's going to define your life.... I joke with my family and my friends, 'When I get to the end, when they close the lid, I just want to be able to say I tried one of everything.'"
Anyone who watches local news broadcasts over many years is bound to start wondering: What are these people like when they're not suited up, talking in that broadcast voice and nodding seriously at what their co-anchors say? As it turns out, Dunbar isn't the only newsperson whose off-air interests go far beyond the typical "travel-movies-eating out" stuff you'll read on official station bios. Whether playing the drums, decorating cakes or studying for a higher calling, a number of North Texas newspeople have their own special ways of achieving serenity away from the harsh glare of the studio lights.
One of Dunbar's competitors, WFAA/Channel 8 anchor John McCaa, summed it up best: "People always ask us, 'We need you to come to such-and-such [event].' But you've gotta be dressed, you've got to put on that public persona, and I don't want to do that. On the weekends, we just like to be us. I suspect you're going to hear that from everybody.... You've really just gotta chill."
John McCaa, drummer
For a guy who says he doesn't get to play the drums as often as he'd like, John McCaa sounds pretty good beating out the boom-boom-boom, boom-boom-da-boom solo that Gene Krupa famously used to kick off Benny Goodman's Sing Sing Sing. Which, McCaa says, is a good thing to do when he's a little frustrated about work.
McCaa has been playing drums since his parents gave him his first snare in sixth grade. He grew up in an Air Force family that moved around a lot, living in such places as Idaho and Spain. Military housing didn't make his hobby easy: The family was usually in a duplex; the drums were often too loud for the neighbors.
Things got a little better for him when his family moved into a house with a basement -- especially when his parents went out for the evening.
"I had two hours to jack the stereo up and play," McCaa says. "And I had to hope that the neighbors couldn't hear me because we moved the drums to the other side of the basement."
McCaa started playing with bands when he was in ninth grade. Eventually, he got to play in clubs in Madrid. But when he returned to the States to go to college, he had to leave his original $119.95 Sears drum kit behind. He poured his energies into broadcast journalism, pursuing a degree in journalism and mass communication at Creighton University in Omaha. He did television for seven years in Omaha before coming to WFAA in 1984.
These days, McCaa, who is married with an adult son, plays on an electronic drum kit in an upstairs room in his home (often wearing headphones so his wife won't have to endure the din). Usually he plays along with songs on his iPod or to pre-recorded music tracks, but it has been a couple years since he played with a band. He has also been carrying on another secret life entirely, studying for a Ph.D. in humanities, with a major in the history of ideas, at the the University of Texas at Dallas. The intense reading required -- he usually reads a book each weekend day -- has left him little time to drum with a group.
"I'm hoping to play with somebody pretty soon," he says, noting that the last time he did so was while sitting in with local group the Pit Pops, which features DFW radio personality Stubie Doak. "They send me stuff every weekend. I've thought about it. But I've been ignoring my wife, too."
Doug Dunbar, pilot and barefoot water skier
Doug Dunbar says he has loved airplanes since he was a child.
"I was always fascinated with how this big lunking piece of metal could fly through the sky," says Dunbar, who has been flying since 1992. "Even today, I know how to fly an airplane, I know what makes it fly, and I know the dynamics. But part of my brain still says, 'How does that stuff fly through the air?'"
Fortunately, Dunbar says this after we've landed, because this is the very question that makes some people afraid of flying. But Dunbar says he has only had one unexpected incident in nearly 20 years of flying -- and that was a burned-out light bulb on the control panel.
In the rear seat of Dunbar's plane is a control stick, and operating it is pretty simple -- pull back to go higher, push forward to go lower, push right to go right, etc. He likes to give nervous passengers a chance to fly the plane as soon as he can.
"If you have the power of knowledge, it makes things a lot less scary," Dunbar says. "I've taken up friends who have a deathly fear of flying. They won't get on a commercial jetliner without a death grip on a seat, that whole deal. But if you're sitting on the ground and thinking, 'I don't want to do it,' then as quick as I can, I give you some control. Because then it changes the dynamic, because then you understand that even you can't mess this up."
Of course, flying isn't the only thing Dunbar does to get away from things -- just like John McCaa, he's a man of many secret lives. Before our flight, Dunbar had already taken a 20-mile bike ride. And the whole airplane ride happened because weather conditions pre-empted plans to go barefoot-water-skiing. Dunbar, who's a former national champion in the sport, discovered barefoot-water-skiing in 1986, when he lived on a lake in Florida and the then-world champion lived nearby.
"For whatever reason, I fell in love with it," says Dunbar, who still skis, but not competitively. "The speed, 45 miles an hour across the water on your feet, the danger of it, I guess."
Oh, and Dunbar is also training for a triathlon. And he has jumped out of airplanes a few times. Dunbar says he's not an adrenalin junkie -- it's just that he thinks that there are a lot of great things in life, and he wants to touch all of them.
"I do a lot of things where people say: 'What the hell are you doing? You're crazy!'" he says. "But I don't do anything that I don't educate myself on and don't feel comfortable with."
Fiona Gorostiza, ballroom dancer
Fiona Gorostiza has also jumped out of an airplane -- for an assignment, no less, in her job as a features reporter for KDFW/Channel 4's Good Day, where she also does weathercasts. She has auditioned in front of So You Think You Can Dance judges. She is, in fact, game for just about anything but feeding sharks or eating weird Fear Factor-style food.
She also holds a third-degree black belt in taekwondo, in which she has three world-championship titles. But she hasn't practiced the martial art in years. Not that it doesn't still come up. When she recently participated in Top Hat & Tails, a Dancing With the Stars-style benefit for animal-rights charity Paws in the City, her partner saw her taekwondo background as an advantage.
"His first question to me was 'So, how flexible are you?'" Gorostiza says. "I was like, 'Well, I'm still pretty flexible.' 'Excellent! We're going to do a drop-split in the routine.'"
Gorostiza and her partner won the competition, beating out several other local personalities, including KXAS/Channel 5 traffic reporter Tammy Dombeck, KDAF/Channel 33 meteorologist Rebecca Miller and KLUV/98.7 FM morning man Jody Dean. But Gorostiza didn't need a win to fall for it quickly.
"I'd never ballroom danced in the past, but I watched some movies," she says with a laugh. "I just loved it after my first couple of lessons and decided to stick with it. It's a great way to exercise without knowing that you're exercising. And that's what I love, because I don't run unless I'm being chased, and I hate the gym."
Things went much better for her in Top Hats & Tails than it did when she "auditioned" for So You Think You Can Dance last year when the show's judges were in town for an open call at SMU's McFarlin Auditorium. Her bosses thought it would make for a fun news segment.
"I didn't know that the So You Think You Can Dance audition would be in front of actual dancers," she says. "I thought it would be a little room where you walk in, and it may just be the judges, and it may be some other people, and you just do your thing. I didn't realize it would be at SMU and they'd use the entire theater. I was so embarrassed. But luckily, they clapped and they laughed along."
Gorostiza plans to dance in another charity event in Rockwall in September, but this time the theme is jazz, so she'll be learning jazz dancing, which she has never done before. But, as she has shown on the air, she'll pretty much try anything once.
"Once they push you out of a plane at 21/2 miles up, I don't really sweat the small stuff after that," she says.
Clarice Tinsley, painter
Like her Fox-4 colleague Fiona Gorostiza, longtime station anchor Clarice Tinsley found her passion at a charity event.
In 2003, Tinsley was one of 95 local celebrities invited to create a work of art in the window of the downtown Dallas Neiman Marcus, which was celebrating its 95th anniversary with an art auction to benefit Children's Medical Center of Dallas. Denver-based artist Lonnie Hanzon acted as a mentor to the locals.
"So I was in a window with Lonnie, and I'd never met him before, but we just had this instant rapport," Tinsley says. "And I started doing something, and I said, 'Oh, I made a mistake.' And he said, 'Clarice, in art there's no such thing as a mistake. There's only your intention.' That liberated me. After he said that, I just went crazy."
Since then, Tinsley, whose father was a painter and a sculptor, has found solace in painting. "I've always appreciated [art]," she says, "and I think I have a little bit of an eye for color, but I just didn't think I had the confidence that I could do it. Unfortunately, I think I was comparing myself to my father, which I've learned you don't do. My voice, my eye, my vision is mine."
Many of her paintings adorn the walls of her north Dallas home. She leans toward the abstract, because she doesn't believe she has the proficiency for line or detail. She likes words -- one painting in her laundry room has the words "Act, Celebrate, Remember," inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. Another painting, a series of colorful diagonal stripes interspersed with white stripes, is her interpretation of what she saw when she flew with the Blue Angels and looked down at the Earth from about 13,000 feet up.
"The jet was shaking, but it wasn't like the turbulence that you have in a commercial airliner," she says. "When I looked at the Earth, it was misty, it was indistinct. There was no shape to it. So this painting, for me, is my interpretation of that ride."
Tinsley says she does the paintings for herself, and that most people never see them. But she has paid for her own art at least once -- during the Neiman's auction.
"They put it up for bid, and a woman bid $1,300 for it; I bid $1,400," she says with a laugh. "And my husband said, 'Y'know, you could've just done another one for free.'"
Tracy Kornet, singer
Tracy Kornet's "secret life" isn't that secret. After all, when she was performing with the band Eleven21, made up of people from KTVT/Channel 11 and KTXA/Channel 21, the stations promoted the band's appearances pretty regularly. But she can still make people do a double take.
"C'mon, how many people watch every single newscast?" says Kornet, who co-anchors the 4 p.m. newscast on KTVT and the 7-9 p.m. newscast on KTXA. "So it still surprises many folks, especially when I'm out at Sambuca [Restaurant in Dallas] or something, and there's a viewer out there saying: 'That looks like Tracy Kornet. What the heck?'"
Kornet says she has been singing nearly her whole life. She won a school talent show when she was 10 years old. The performing continued into adulthood -- she performed with Original Cast, a Broadway revue group, when she was at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. She did a stint in Japan backing up Anri, a Japanese pop star. And she even flirted with a professional singing career in Los Angeles, recording demos and coming close to signing with Epic Records.
But she struggled with the music-industry lifestyle, which often didn't jibe with her values.
"I grew up with The PTL Club," Kornet says. "My mother would drive us up to Heritage USA, with Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, every summer. I thought I'd be a PTL Club singer. Having an Evangelical Protestant upbringing and living that lifestyle in Los Angeles were two opposite ends of the spectrum. And I really wrestled. I wrestled valuewise with what was required to be a full-time entertainer."
These days, Kornet's busy work schedule -- she's at the station at least 10 hours most days -- keeps her from performing as much as she'd like. Eleven21 has evolved into the Stoneleighs, a Rolling Stones tribute band. Recently, she got to perform with them at the Barley House, a club near SMU, singing the Merry Clayton part on Gimme Shelter, among other numbers.
But her bigger gig comes Sunday, when she'll sing at the weekly Gospel Brunch at 12:30 p.m. at House of Blues in Dallas. The songs, by such artists as gospel superstar Andraé Crouch, are close to her heart.
"I was rehearsing this morning," Kornet says. "I was belting, and I've been in the best mood all day, because I'd forgotten how much I love the music."
Grant Johnston, seminary student
Grant Johnston, who has been a meteorologist at KXAS/Channel 5 since April 2010, didn't actually move to DFW to be a weather forecaster -- even though he had a lot of TV weathercasting in his background, having worked in Oklahoma City and Springfield, Mo.
"I came down here in pursuit of learning the Bible and going to seminary, and lo and behold, the job at Channel 5 opens up," says Johnston, who began studying at Dallas Theological Seminary, a nondenominational school, in 2009. "I told them right off the bat [about my studies], and they said: 'That's great. We respect that, and we'd also like to have you as part of the team here.'"
Johnston, who grew up in Kansas City, Mo., had been working in Springfield for a couple of years when he unexpectedly got a call from KFOR in Oklahoma City. It was his dream job -- a guy with a longtime fascination with weather working in the heart of Tornado Alley. It wasn't till his Oklahoma City gig, though, that he began thinking more seriously about a religious calling.
"I was going through a tough time, went through a breakup with my girlfriend at the time," Johnston says. "It was kind of a lonely season in my life, and I was fortunate to have a friend and co-worker who invited me to church. That really changed my life, woke me up and gave me a sense of purpose."
Science and religion are often portrayed as being at odds with each other, but Johnston says he sees a connection, and his love for both is rooted in his curiosity about the universe.
"I'm drawn to science, because I like to learn how things work," he says. "But eventually, you get to a point in science where there are questions that are unanswered. When you couple theology and science together, then I think that's where the answers lie."
Johnston, who has also composed music, mostly instrumentals for TV promos, says his seminary studies keep him from getting too tied up in the glamour of being on TV. He's not sure where his seminary studies will take him; he has studied preaching, and he might do that or write. But he also enjoys his NBC-5 gig.
"I kinda realized that there is something more out there, and that's where studying the Bible, for me, just really completes the picture," he says. "And it is a respite, and at the end of the day, I come home. Maybe it's a long, stressful day, tracking tornadoes or whatever -- it's important, but I also see the eternal perspective to what we do. We're only here for such a short period, a blink of an eye compared to eternity."
Rebecca Miller, baker, cake decorator
Rebecca Miller, who has been a meteorologist for KDAF/Channel 33 since 2009 and spent 17 years at KXAS/Channel 5 before that, says she has been decorating cakes for years. But she really started getting elaborate with it when she began watching cake shows on Food Network. One woman she often saw on those shows, Bronwen Weber, was from Austin -- so Miller thought the network had made a mistake when a show identified her as being from Dallas.
"And then I thought, wait, what if she is in Dallas?" Miller says. "And then I Googled her name, and sure enough, she has a bakery here in the Metroplex. It's called Frosted Art."
Turns out, Weber also teaches cake decorating. Miller took her first class in 2007, when she was still at Channel 5. After she was let go from the station in 2008, she began pursuing her longtime baking hobby more seriously. She even briefly considered going into business.
"I thought, well, I would love to have a bakery, and I still kind of think I would love to have a bakery," she says.
Miller mostly makes cakes for friends and their children. An animal-lover, she has also made special cakes that are dog-friendly. (She has three rescues of her own.) She has made cakes as small as the chocolate cake pictured with her -- which has Italian meringue butter-cream frosting with vanilla and orange flavoring, and is covered in marshmallow fondant that tastes like a Tootsie Roll -- as well as cakes big enough to serve hundreds.
"The most elaborate one that I've made was probably a Raggedy Ann Doll cake," she says. "It was a standing Raggedy Ann Doll, and underneath it was full of PVC structure, and you just stack layers of cake on the PVC, and you frost that and sculpt it. The great thing that Bronwen does is she teaches you how to sculpt it, and she teaches you not to be afraid."
At Channel 5, Miller got up at 2 a.m. to get ready for a 5 a.m. TV gig. Now she goes to work in the afternoons, doing the weather during the 5 and 9 p.m. newscasts. She says the night shift has made it harder for her to pursue her baking hobby. But she doesn't think she'll ever stop baking or getting fancy with her cakes.
"It is therapeutic," she says. "There's a lot of rewards in it when something turns out well. And even when something doesn't turn out well, it's easy to cover mistakes, so other people are impressed."