The apology arrives as soon as Linda MacLennan takes a seat at Café Aroma in Winnetka. Her voice is hoarse this morning, Debra Winger raspy. The former WBBM TV/Channel 2 news anchor had attended, with several of her friends, the Toronto Maple Leafs-Chicago Blackhawks hockey game at United Center two days ago.
“I’m sorry,” MacLennan, smiling and tilting to her left to shed her winter coat, says. “I saw a great game, an exciting game, but it cost me my voice.”
The Blackhawks routed the Maple Leafs 7-2. MacLennan cheered loudly for seven of the nine goals. MacLennan — born and raised in Toronto and a graduate of Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada — is a … Chicago Blackhawks fan, a rabid one. Has been for decades. She still has a hint of a Canadian accent. She still doesn’t mind when she can’t get that “Chelsea Dagger” Blackhawks goal song out of her head.
It has been 13 years since MacLennan, 59, last delivered news in front of a camera in a CBS studio in Chicago. Two of her Channel 2 anchor mates, from 1987-2003, were Bill Kurtis and Lester Holt. Kurtis and Holt. Still household names. She now likes to spend a lot of time behind a considerably smaller camera, taking photographs for a variety of publications and to feed an insatiable passion she discovered, at the age of 10, at Expo 67 in Montreal.
“I used an instamatic camera back then, black and white film,” MacLennan, a Kenilworth resident since 2014 and a North Shore resident since 2005, recalls. “I went crazy. I took so many photos. I had to send the film to get it developed. That usually took 10 days. Waiting 10 days for my pictures felt like an eternity. I still have the photos I took at Expo 67.”
Two of her three children, Taylor and Charlotte, played sports. Taylor is a senior at Indiana University, Charlotte a junior at New Trier High School. Both played hockey. Taylor also battled in lacrosse and rugby games. Charlotte, now an artistic athlete, dances. Their mom would take up to 2,000 photographs at hockey games. Each hockey game. MacLennan’s smartphone currently contains 12,300 images — a number that is a little more than half of the seating capacity at United Center.
“Do you know what’s huge these days?” she says, her eyes expanding with each word. “Taking photos of food.” Seconds later, MacLennan aims her smartphone at the oatmeal and fruit plate in front of her at Café Aroma. Click.
MacLennan, the daughter of a Canadian father and an American mother, did not set out to pursue a career in broadcast journalism when she enrolled at Carleton University in Ottawa. She wanted to be a newspaper reporter. A one-week internship, at a television station in Canada, shifted her career path from inch counts to breaking news segments, from “You want that story written by when?” to “This just in.” She shadowed a television reporter during the internship. The reporter investigated a men-only tavern. The shadow had to stay outside of the tavern, in an area where men and women were allowed to roam together in the city.
“Can you believe that?” McLennan says. “A bar for men only, in the 1970s? I was intrigued. So, one night, I went to that bar with a guy I was dating at the time. I dressed like a man. I wore a baseball cap, pulled down, with a manly shirt … one of those lumberjack shirts. I had even practiced walking like a man. I entered the bar, and I was so, so nervous. I was an infiltrator. We were there for only 30 minutes.”
Her first broadcast segment aired on CJOH TV in Ottawa. She was a senior at Carleton University and back in her Linda MacLennan threads, working part-time on weekends and holidays. The story was about a canine intestinal parasite. MacLennan interviewed a veterinarian for the piece. The segment must have impressed her bosses; she worked full-time as a reporter, producer and anchor at the station from 1978-85. Her next stint: co-anchor of a national morning show for CTV in Toronto, from 1985-87. WBBM TV/Channel 2 went headhunting for talent in ’87 and ceased its search in The Great White North.
One of MacLennan’s stories on Channel 2 was the 1990 tornado in Plainfield. It killed 29 people. She was in Florida when she was ordered to return to Chicago to cover an unusual flood in April of ’92. More than 100 million gallons of Chicago River water had flowed into a grid of tunnels under the city’s business district.
“I miss the buzz of the newsroom, being in a workplace environment, being surrounded by constant energy,” admits MacLennan, whose three-year contract was bought out by CBS in ’03. “It was exciting, always, and it was stressful and enervating. Every day was also interesting. Every day was an opportunity to learn something. Twenty-five years in the business … reporting the news was how I breathed, how I thrived.
“After our 10 o’clock [p.m.] broadcasts, after our postmortems, I remember standing in our building’s underground parking lot, talking and laughing with Lester Holt and [weatherman] Steve Baskerville and having a great time. We liked to linger down there because we were all still wired from the broadcast and we weren’t ready to go home.”
McLennan, a six-time local Emmy Award winner, threw herself into raising her three children and delving even deeper into the world of photography after her final sign-off. Her middle son, Carson (now a student at a Musical Theatre Conservatory in New York City), took acting classes at The Wilmette Theatre. Those led directly to another reinvention of Linda MacLennan. She served on the ’Mette’s board in 2010 and “got drafted” to become the theatre’s manager in ’11, a position she held for two years. She dubbed the resilient North Shore treasure “The Little Theatre That Could” and oversaw the celebrations and fundraising for its 100th anniversary. Her weekly commitment to the job lasted 50 hours, sometimes 60. The commitment helped her to breathe again, to thrive again.
“Gratifying, stimulating, affirming,” MacLennan says. “It was a gift to me, getting the opportunity to work there.”
She does not watch much local TV news. She reads the Chicago Tribune every day and tries to read parts of the New York Times every day. Her favorite radio listen is WBBM-AM. Her least favorite thought is the thought of her daughter heading off to college in 2017. She feels blessed to have a large group of close friends.
Her close friends must feel blessed. They get to hang around and talk and laugh with MacLennan, a wide-eyed listener full of curiosity and exuberance. A breakfast companion mentions MacLennan’s zest. MacLennan mentions her late mother, Miriam, a teacher and a serial choir member.
“She embraced life,” MacLennan says. “She was always sunny, always positive. My mom was in two choirs two weeks before she died [in ’09, at 75]. Two choirs. She loved to sing. People were always so nice to my mother, wherever she happened to be. I figured out why. It was because she always walked around with a smile. So much in life is about attitude, and my mom had a great one.”