Pair of Hornet journalists receive lifetime achievement awards

Two Sacramento State alums have received lifetime achievement awards for their work in the journalism industry.

Cheryl Dell ’82 (Communications), who retired last year as publisher of the Sacramento Bee after 30 years in the industry, on Sept. 11 received the Ralph D. Casey/Minnesota Award, a top accolade for newspaper and news media publishers. The award is the highest honor bestowed by the nonprofit Inland Press Association, and given to publishers who bring about positive change “while exemplifying the finest in journalism and community service.”

A native of Modesto, Dell served as publisher of the Tri-City Herald and The News-Tribune in Washington State before returning home in 2008 to oversee the Bee. Sacramento State awarded Dell an honorary doctorate in 2017.

High honors also are being bestowed upon Sacramento State alum and NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt, who in December will be awarded the 2018 Poynter Medal for Lifetime Achievement in Journalism. The award recognizes the “outstanding career achievements of journalists whose work has made a lasting impact serving citizens in our democracy.”

Holt began working at NBC news in 2000 following nearly 20 years in local television, in 2015 becoming the first African-American solo anchor of a weekday network nightly newscast. The Rancho Cordova native studied government at Sacramento State, received an honorary degree in 2015, and returned to Sacramento in early 2017 as the first stop in his “Across America” series.

Lester Holt’s journey as a journalist started at Sac State

Lester Holt is one of the world’s most respected broadcast journalists – and it all began for him at Sacramento State. He became a better student, he says, and made the decision to become a journalist while at the University. “It set me off into the world.”

He still considers himself a student – “and my finals are every night at 6:30 Eastern time when I get in front of the camera.”

Holt, 58, anchors both NBC Nightly News and Dateline NBC. As a TV journalist, he has covered some of the world’s biggest stories, including the 2011 Egyptian revolution, the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil leak, the lead-up to the Iraq War, and two hurricanes.

In 2016, he was named as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people, and he became the first African American to moderate a general-election presidential debate in nearly a quarter-century. In 2015, he was inducted into the California Hall of Fame, in Sacramento.

A few months earlier, during Sacramento State’s Spring 2015 Commencement ceremonies at Sleep Train Arena, Holt’s alma mater and the California State University Board of Trustees recognized his many achievements by conferring on him an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree. His wife, Carol, and his parents, June and Lester Sr., who still live in the Sacramento area, were in the audience.

“I am honored, and I certainly accept this degree with deep gratitude,” said Holt, who noted that his father also attended – and graduated from – Sacramento State. “I am so proud to be and (to) have been associated with this university.”

Holt, a graduate of Cordova High School in Rancho Cordova, was a government major and left Sacramento State during his junior year to take a job at a San Francisco radio station. Within 18 months, he landed a position at the CBS-TV affiliate in New York City and was on his way to becoming one of the nation’s most highly regarded broadcast journalists.

“I began with dreams of being a big-time disc jockey, but it was at Sac State that I was exposed to journalism, and it was there that my interest and my focus really narrowed in on becoming a news person,” Holt said in accepting his honorary degree. “There have been many times … that I wished I had completed my formal studies, but I hold my head high, and I accept that things happen for a reason.”

President Robert S. Nelsen with NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt during Holt’s Jan. 17, 2017, visit to the Sacramento State campus. (Sacramento State/Rob Neep)

Holt came “home” to Sac State again in January 2017, stopping by the campus for a quick visit, arriving in a modest rental car he drove himself. A day earlier, in Old Sacramento, he interviewed graduate students Ahlam Abdul-Rahman and Norma Mendoza as a part of a national discussion on immigration in the days leading up to the presidential inauguration. Sacramento was the first stop on his “Across America” series for NBC Nightly News.

The big news in the Holt household these days is the impending arrival of Carol and Lester’s first grandchild. Their son Stefan and his wife, Morgan, are expecting their baby in September.

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‘Made’ anchor asks the tough questions in Democratic debate

With election season in full swing, “NBC Nightly News” anchor and former Sacramento State student Lester Holt took center stage during a critical Democratic primary debate this past January – a highlight from a year in which the anchor’s profile reached new heights

Holt, the host of NBC Nightly News since February 2015, co-moderated the fourth Democratic debate between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley in Charleston, S.C. Holt and co-host Andrea Mitchell drew widespread praise for their tough questioning and ability to tease out differences among the candidates.

Lester Holt
NBC Nightly News anchor and former Sacramento State student Lester Holt at the 2015 California Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Sacramento. (Sacramento State/Rob Neep)

In a campaign cycle that at times can feel like more spectacle than substance, Holt, 56, plays a critical role cutting through the rhetoric as one of the most visible and trusted personalities in broadcast media. Over his 30-year career as a reporter and anchor, Holt has become a stalwart ambassador of the fourth estate and one of its marquee faces.

Holt is a graduate of Cordova High School in Rancho Cordova. The Sacramento native started at Sacramento State as a government major before leaving his junior year for a job at a San Francisco radio station, a decision that eventually would lead to him regularly broadcasting to millions. In February 2015, he stepped in as NBC’s Nightly News anchor.

Holt returned to his hometown in October 2015 to be inducted into the California Hall of Fame with the likes of Robert Downey Jr., Kristi Yamaguchi and Charles Schulz. Earlier that year, he spoke at Sacramento State’s College of Arts and Letters commencement, where President-emeritus Alexander Gonzalez awarded him the honorary Doctor of Humane Letters.

Holt credited Sacramento State for exposing him to the power of journalism and the impact it has on society.

He told a packed Sleep Train Arena: “Graduates, you are sitting tonight where I never sat, and in a short few minutes, you’ll be walking in a place I never walked. I took a different path that has brought its own rewards, yet we do have something in common: Many of you will leave this institution much as I did, full of optimism with a very clear path and an idea of what you’re going to do and what you plan to make of yourself.

“And, like me, you’ll discover that life has a way of not exactly sticking to the script.”