News4’s Pat Collins does whatever it takes a tell a story, whether it’s measuring snowfall with a yardstick or putting on a grape costume to report on a school suspension.
His new memoir “Newsman” tells some defining stories of his 50-year career in journalism. Collins sat down with News4’s Doreen Gentzler, his colleague of 37 years, to talk about some favorite stories, the day he tracked down Mayor Marion Barry by helicopter and how he came to wear that famous grape suit.
Collins has covered thousands of stories as a newspaper reporter and then a TV reporter. People often ask which story is the most important he’s ever covered.
“Well the answer to that question is, the one I'm working on now,” he said.
Covering the 1990 drug arrest of Marion Barry stands out. A member of the newsroom got a tip that Barry would be arrested at the Vista International Hotel.
“It was one of those nights that the world stood still. It was an incredible story,” Collins said. “It was a story that had this town on edge.”
Collins used a helicopter to track down Barry in Dewey Beach, Delaware, where he fled after the sting arrest. The helicopter’s landing near a beach volleyball court was memorable.
“Here was this storm of sand that engulfed the whole parking lot. And I tried to yell to this woman, ‘Get inside! Get inside!’ Well, by the time we landed, there's this poor woman. And she looked like a human toasted almond bar.
I went up to apologize. I said, ‘I’m so sorry, but I've got to go interview the mayor,’” he recalled.
“She looked at me like I’d just come from Mars,” Collins said.
He jumped into a cab, interviewed the mayor and flew back to D.C. with the story.
A Rocky Start on Local TV
Collins got his start in journalism thanks to a chance encounter in high school. He was writing a book report on his family’s front porch when a guy came over to take his sister on a date. His sister was running late and the guy looked over Collins’ shoulder at his work and said he wrote pretty well.
“How would you like to cover sports for the Washington Daily News?” Collins recalled him asking.
You can find more of Pat Collins’ “greatest hits” on Roku and Apple TV. On Instagram, you can chime in about your favorite Pat Collins memory.
Collins didn’t take the offer seriously but it turned out his sister’s date was a sports columnist for the paper. A young Pat Collins began to cover high school sports and learned from “grizzled, old newspaper men,” who made him rewrite his stories again and again.
“They’d say, ‘When you finish the story, read it out loud, because a good story sings. It’s almost like poetry,’” he recalled. “That's stuck in my mind over and over through the years.”
Collins became a broadcast journalist, covering crime, after being recommended by reporter Mike Buchanan. His start at Channel 9 was rocky; he went live on the 5 o’clock news without a script.
“I’m looking down the barrel of the lens of the biggest TV camera in the whole world,” he recalled. “I was stuttering. I was mumbling.”
Every day for about six months, his boss, Jim Snyder, critiqued his work.
“Why did you say it that way? Why did you walk over here when you should have been over there? Why did you use those words?” Collins recalled hearing.
He called the end of his worst workdays “three Scotch nights." Little by little, with the help of his crews, he improved.
Pat Collins’ Signature Style
One day, Collins is breaking a story on a murder case; the next, he’s dressed up as Elvis. Gentzler asked him, how does that work?
“I think over the years I developed a relationship with people in the city,” Collins replied. “They know me. I think they trust me. And it's just like a relationship with a friend. If you have a friend, you're going to go through some happy times. You're going to go through some sad times, some serious times. That relationship is sort of a metamorphosis.”
Collins’ style is, of course, distinctive. Comedian John Oliver has even turned Collins’ words into “local news beat poetry” on his show “Last Week Tonight.”
That signature staccato style goes back to Collins’ days at the Washington Daily News, he says.
“We had very short spaces to tell a long story. And it is almost like poetry. It is almost like that rhythm, that story that sings. It sinks into people's minds and their hearts and their soul and gives them something to talk about the next day. That's me,” he said.
The Grape Suit
A Virginia high school student was punished in 2011 for running around the sidelines of a school football game wearing a banana suit. Collins showed up to interview him dressed as a bunch of grapes.
Collins usually tells people he got the grape suit from his closet, “right between the orange and the strawberry.”
But the truth is he gave Charlie Bragale, the head of News4’s assignment desk, a call and asked how they should tell the story.
“I said, ‘Charlie, I need a great outfit.’ So he's frantically calling around, and he finds a costume shop,” he said.
The shop had the grape suit that made Collins’ story one of his most popular ever.
Sometimes being over-the-top is perfect, Collins said.
“I think that in television, which is a very visual and visceral medium, that sometimes if you go over the top, if you really want to drive something home, you take it out of the box, take it off the charts — you drive it home that way,” he said.
“I tell people it's not all sunglasses and limousines, but sometimes it's OK to have a good time on television,” he said.
Collins said he hopes people will enjoy his memoir.
“If somebody wants to make a movie, well, let’s talk,” he said.
“Robert Redford could play you,” Gentzler said with a laugh.
Pat Collins' memoir is available for purchase online at Politics and Prose.