By Catherine Pritchard
When you invite people into your home regularly, it’s usually because you trust them and like them.
That’s so even or maybe especially if they’re entering by way of your TV screen.
So you tend to miss them if they go away.
What you may not know then is they may miss you, too.
After 34 years with WRAL-TV, news anchor Bill Leslie sure wasn’t going to retire without saying goodbye to his faithful viewers.
But he went a step beyond most departing TV journalists. In June, he visited five cities in the station’s viewing area as part of what was billed as a Farewell Tour. In Cary, Durham, Raleigh, Smithfield and, yes, Fayetteville, people lined up to say hello to Leslie – and goodbye.
During an extra-long lunch break at The Arts Council, people packed inside to meet the 67-year-old Leslie, whose award-winning work at WRAL over the years included reporting, anchoring and hosting the popular “Tar Heel Traveler” series. In recent years, he co-anchored the morning and noon news.
At the stop in Fayetteville, the crowd included plenty of locals, but also a few who’d driven more than a few miles. One woman drove from Goldsboro to shake Leslie’s hand.
Some gave him a hug. Many came with presents – everything from a framed drawing of downtown Fayetteville from City Center Gallery & Books to a gift basket from the A Bit of Carolina shop to some “snake oil” from Dunrovin Country Store in Vass. David Salmon, who brought the latter gift, told Leslie it would help relieve his aches and pains in retirement.
“Thank you for being part of our family,” one man told Leslie.
Jay Gothard shook Leslie’s hand and said, “Thank you for your passion for the truth.”
Leslie, a native of Morganton and a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, started his career in radio. He worked at stations in Raleigh and in Virginia and Texas before returning to North Carolina where he became news director of WRAL-FM and the North Carolina News Network. He joined WRAL-TV in 1984.
Rick Gall, the station’s news director, said Leslie has “a perfect blend of credibility and personality” and is “a true journalist who understands and cares about the stories he’s sharing.”
During his career, Leslie covered big stories and interviewed big names. His reporting on the dumping of garbage in the ocean off the North Carolina coast by the U.S. Navy helped prompt major regulatory changes. He has received more than 75 awards, including two Peabodys and five Emmys.
But he also delighted in the back-road, small-town and neighborly details about people and places in North Carolina. For extra credit in the 8th grade, he learned all of the state’s counties and their county seats. When in 2010 he found himself unable to identify the home counties of a couple of tiny towns, he half-joked that he needed to revisit that project.
Leslie is also a noted musician, performing and composing new age and Celtic fusion music on eight CDs. He brought his guitar to his Farewell Tour stop in Fayetteville and, to the delight of those gathered, he performed several songs.
No farewell party is complete without cake and Patsy and Adam Crawford at The Sweet Palette came up with a doozy of one – it included a figure of Leslie playing his guitar beside a TV on which Leslie was reporting the news. It also tasted great.
The outpouring of affection in Fayetteville touched Leslie. As he got into his SUV to return to Raleigh, he wiped away a tear. Fayetteville, he told Janet Gibson of The Arts Council, had outdone itself. And then he drove away.