CLEVELAND — In 1971, Leon Bibb began his television news job at WTOL in Toledo. And thus began a legendary career that took him from Toledo to Columbus and then to Cleveland, his hometown.
Along the way he has collected many memorable stories. During an afternoon chat, we asked him to share a few:
A prison interview with James Earl Ray and the moment that caught Leon off guard.
"I went down to Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in Tennessee to interview him: James Earl Ray, who killed Martin Luther King, the Martin Luther King that I love. Were it not for Dr. King, I probably would not be sitting here talking about my life as it is today. But when James Earl Ray walked into the room, something happened that I had not planned on. And I'm ready for the interview. I know I'm going to ask these questions. I'm a young reporter out of Columbus in my thirties then. And when he walked in and he says, "are you the man who's going to interview me?" I says, "yes, I am." He says, "how you doing? I'm James Earl, Ray." What do you do when he puts his hand out?
He does not have to do this interview. So I shook his hand. And now what do I say? I don't say "good to meet you. How are things going?" I just say, "I'm Leon Bibb from the Columbus NBC television station. And, uh, why don't you have a seat right here? We'll put a microphone on you."
I hadn't planned on the introduction. So that one has always stuck with me. It doesn't bother me. It just stuck with me. And there've been times I've covered Ku Klux Klan rallies, I guess you could call them where we were here in Northeast Ohio. And, you know, they're, they're pretty pointed in what they think of me. So that, that sticks with me. I know who I am. That doesn't bother me. I, I know who I am and I don't need them to identify me. I know who I am, but it's still at the time it happens. Uh, it, it sticks. It sticks with you.
An Invitation to The White House
I got a call from the white house in 2011, saying, "would you like to interview President Obama? We can make this exclusive to the state of Ohio. We're calling you," they said, "because of your reputation." And so I went to the White House and interviewed, President Obama. And that was a kick to spend the day in the White House and interview him.
So when we went into to do the interview, and I went in he says "So you're from Cleveland? I says, "I'm from Cleveland." And he says, "Are you guys over LeBron James going to Miami?" LeBron was in Miami at that time. I said, "Mr. President we are struggling about that." He says, "Well, I think he may come back one day, but I think he's going to take the Miami Heat to a championship."
And I said, "yeah, I hope so, Mr. President," and we just kind of looked at each other for a while and smiled. And then he says, "well, maybe we ought to do this interview." And we did, we did an interview about the economy and what was going on in 2011.
The Money House on Ellen Avenue
I got a phone call from a woman at a convenience store in the early 80's. And she said children were coming in buying candy at the convenience store. And they were using $50 bills. And they had found a lot of money. So I'd went to the convenience store and there was a little boy there, about eight or nine years old. And he had a wad of money and he says, "they're tearing down a house over there and when they hit it with a bulldozer, the money came flying out and everybody was going for the money."
And when we got there on Ellen Avenue, on the near west side of Cleveland, they indeed had been tearing down a house. And the people in the community notice that the workers were loading up their buckets with something and dumping it into the trunks of their cars, and then going back for more. And they looked over their shoulders and saw it was money, buckets of money. And when the people said "there's money in the house," everybody ran, the workers ran, but the people went into the house and started digging for it.
One woman had $1,500 and she showed it to me. She, she unrolled her clothing, her pants, and reached down into her underwear and pulled out a wad of $1,500, which she had found. Well, once we went on the air with it, of course the other TV stations showed up and of course the Treasury Department showed up. Secret Service, showed up, FBI showed up and they saw the money. And they said the money was legitimate. It was not stolen. The serial numbers were all right. It was not counterfeit. And there was nothing they could do. Well, we went with the story the next day, the Today Show called me and says, "we got to have your story on the Today Show."
Well, we did some follow-up the next day as to who owned this house. And there had been a man who lived in there and he was a miser. He was a blue collar worker saved every penny he'd ever made for decades. Didn't trust banks, and apparently stuffed the money in the walls. Well, then he died. Well, then the house train changes hands. It goes from a middle-class neighborhood to a relatively poor neighborhood. It becomes a rental property. And for decades, poor people are living in this house with money in the walls, but they don't know it until they tear the house down. And that's the Ellen Avenue money house story.
Fifty years in television
It's my profession. It's what I've always wanted to do since I was 10, 11, 12 years old, listening to the radio and watching television and trying to imitate announcers. I wanted to be that baritone voiced guy who would come on the network and say, this is NBC, the national broadcasting company. This show now is in living color. I wanted to be that guy when I was a kid, I wanted to be that announcer. And everything, all my focus was into that.
I will tell you that I love storytelling. I think I've honed my skills where I'm fairly good at it. I love reporting on the Cuyahoga River and Cleveland and Lake Erie and all the things that were about in this town. And I love the idea of news. And when I, when I started college saying, this is what I wanted to be, there was no opportunity, none. And people said, well, why are you going to major in that? I said, well, I want to be prepared for if those doors do open for people like me, that I'll be standing there. And in the 1960s, the doors began to open. And when I came out, I was able to get a job in journalism, really at the, at the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
And I was able to get a job over there and then got drafted, go to Vietnam. While I'm in Vietnam, I'm watching television news over there. And I'm saying I could do that. So I applied for Bowling Green State University, where I did my undergrad work. I applied for graduate school. The graduate school application came to Vietnam. I filled it out in pen, sent it back in. The acceptance to graduate school, to major in radio, television and film came to Vietnam. And I said, all I got to do is survive the war. And when I get out, I'm going back to college and I'm going to get work toward a second degree this time in communications. And when I walked on the campus, somebody said, would you like to work at the TV station on college? I says, yeah. And then two years later, WTOL the Toledo station, came down and saw me and says, "would you like to work for us?" And that began my career. And that was in 1971. And I've been doing television straight through ever since, because it's, it's in my heart. And I think the day that I die, I'll probably report on that too. I hope that's a long way away.
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