Growing up in south suburban Dolton, Ray Cortopassi fondly remembers another Ray — the legendary children's show performer Ray Rayner — who was a fixture on WGN-Channel 9 for 20 years.
Tonight begins the era of a new Ray at "Chicago's Very Own" as Cortopassi debuts alongside Micah Materre as co-anchor of the station's 5, 6, 9 and 10 p.m. Monday-through-Friday newscasts.
Cortopassi, 53, joins the Nexstar Media Group flagship station after a 26-year professional trek from Chicago to Traverse City, Michigan, to Las Vegas to Indianapolis (where he spent two decades as an anchor and reporter for ABC, NBC and Fox affiliates).
Now the journey brings him back home where he graduated from Columbia College Chicago and launched his career as a freelance reporter for the Daily Southtown and a reporter and broadcast editor for City News Bureau of Chicago.
At WGN he replaces Joe Donlon, who held the job for two years before he was named co-anchor “News Nation,” Nexstar’s primetime newscast on WGN America.
“Ray has a passion for this city and knows the stories that shape it," said WGN news director Dominick Stasi. "He is an accomplished and talented journalist and will be a great addition to our team.”
On the eve of his debut, Cortopassi reflected on coming home and shared his thoughts on the pandemic, Tom Skilling and a certain media columnist:
Q. What are your earliest memories of watching WGN?
A. I remember with great fondness the weekday mornings waking up early with my little brother and sitting on the couch of our family room watching "Ray Rayner and Friends." I must have been only five years old. It was our daily routine watching the Bugs Bunny cartoons mixed with Rayner’s bits with Chelveston the Duck and Cuddly Dudley.
I vividly recall our older brother rushing off to start his day at Thornridge High School, while we happily ate our morning cereal watching the show. The memory evokes great affection for me, in part because it forms some of the few images that remain of my brother, Mike, who we lost in a pool accident shortly after graduation. We likely wouldn’t have been out of bed that early had it not been for Ray Rayner.
Q. Who were your TV news role models growing up?
A. I can still remember the days of Fahey Flynn and John Drury. But by the time I decided to pursue a career in journalism, I was a fan of Bill Kurtis. I had visited WBBM-TV while considering my major at Columbia College.
Years later, after graduation (before landing a job), I remember spotting Kurtis after a Cubs game. I’m now pretty embarrassed to say I yelled out the car window, “Hey, Bill! I hope you’re not retiring soon — I want to be able to work with you in a few years!” He graciously waved and asked about my plans. I told him how I hoped to land a TV career after first working at the City News Bureau. “That’s a wonderful place to start, you’re well on your way,” he said. “Good luck to you.” That exchange stayed with me ever since.
Q. What stands out about your time working for the Daily Southtown and City News Bureau?
A. The Daily Southtown gave me my first experience at how important it is to get it right. As a stringer, a reporter would be thrown into unfamiliar settings and try to make sense of the important issues and relate them to an audience of readers. (Think township and parks board meetings). It was a thrill to see my byline, but also daunting. Not having professional experience to that point, I remember laboring over every story, while ultimately developing a sense of rhythm for writing on a deadline.
City News was the legendary training ground for journalists in every facet of modern media. It was my first full-time journalism job, and, unlike my stringer experience, involved a team mentality. Young reporters trained one another at police stations, fire houses and City Hall. It almost seemed as no detail was too mundane; they all had to be recorded and translated to your “rewrite” author.
The experiences of covering a quadruple homicide, interviewing Governor Jim Edgar and writing about the scandal of former U.S. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski were among the hallmarks in my early career. Later, when given the chance to run the weekend broadcast editor desk I enjoyed writing for TV and radio stations, and relished the opportunity to hear my copy read word for word on WBBM NewsRadio.
Q. Did you always know you’d come back to Chicago or had you given up hope of working in your hometown again?
A. When my wife and I left Chicago to begin our careers in journalism, we estimated it would take us five years to get back to our family and friends. Over the course of the next two decades I made lots of informational visits and phone calls to news directors at Chicago TV stations, hoping to make inroads as my contracts would allow. It did not seem as I though I would be able to line that up as the years went by.
I’m glad we never stopped hoping. God has his own sense of timing, it seems — and I’m not one to question it; I just feel so privileged by the opportunity to join such an auspicious team behind the iconic letters WGN.
Q. How has the pandemic affected your transition?
A. Like everyone else, masks and distance have defined our times. While so many journalists are finding themselves broadcasting from home, it was a delight for me to see Micah Materre, Tom Skilling and Dan Roan reunite for our recent promo shoot. I was trying to understand the enthusiasm they expressed when seeing each other. I asked Micah, “Didn’t you just see Tom last night?” “No!” she replied. “We haven’t seen each other in person for weeks!”
Each of them has been so thoughtful in making me feel belonged and part of the team.
Q. Speaking of Tom Skilling, you do know he’s the most powerful man in Chicago television, right?
A. Upon learning of my hire at WGN, I can’t tell you how many people have offered, “Wow — you get to banter with Skilling!” Whether it’s my mother-in-law or my oldest son, he has no shortage of fans in my circles.
There is virtually no wonder to me about why he is so beloved. He’s been so gracious, so complimentary and warm to me. His knowledge is beyond scale, yet matches his kindness. Also, he’s quick-witted and funny. “I talked myself into a verbal cul-de-sac,” he quipped last night. I know I’m going to be laughing a lot around him and the rest of the crew.
Q. One more question: Are you the same Ray Cortopassi who interviewed me for a journalism class at Columbia College?
A. Yessir. Late '80s in a writing class I had with Mr. Jim Ylisela, one of my favorite teachers. I was writing a profile piece on a reporter at WFLD-TV, where I was an intern. I wanted to get your insight about reporter Lilia Chacon. I recall I received an A- on the paper. Seems I spelled your last name like it sounded: “Feeder.” Truly sorry about that, Rob. I hope I have come along way since then. (Feel free to butcher the spelling of my name to make up for it — though knowing the journalist you are, I doubt you’ll take me up on it.)
Friday's comment of the day: Patty Martin: Richard Milne has always been one of the most talented jocks in Chicago. His smart wit and ability to turn a phrase is a delight - I still remember lines he used when we worked together at WDEK more years ago than I'll mention (I may or may not have stolen a few). I'm so glad he plies his craft daily on XRT, and Rick Kaempfer's piece is some well deserved recognition!