As Channel 2 weather anchor Kevin O’Connell cooked hot dogs in North Tonawanda last weekend at one of the more than 100 annual community events he attends, his cellphone repeatedly went off.
The callers interrupting the Meals on Wheels event in North Tonawanda had read the newspaper and wanted to congratulate him on his “retirement.”
“I went, ‘I’m not retiring yet,’ ” O’Connell explained in an interview at his suburban home. “I said ‘I may be scaling things down, but I’m not leaving the room.’ ”
O’Connell, 66, prefers “scaling back” or “winding down.”
“I am only saying this because retirement sounds like something final,” he said.
The plans of the popular weather anchor to scale back in the final 18 months of his Channel 2 contract came to light when Channel 2 announced it had hired his heir apparent, Patrick Hammer.
In a wide-ranging interview, O’Connell addressed his reasons for scaling back and his experiences in a multifaceted, 40-year broadcasting career in which he has been a disc jockey, a news anchor, a weather anchor and a game show host in Los Angeles.
Born and raised in Buffalo, O’Connell started in radio in the 1960s and got into TV after a Channel 4 executive saw promise in him when he was one of the celebrities involved in a Channel 17 TV auction.
“I’ve been the luckiest guy in the world,” said O’Connell. “Our family has met world leaders, the pope, presidents; we have been in the company of the elite of Hollywood when we were out there working with the likes of Bob Hope, Johnny Carson, Sammy Davis Jr.”
In February, he told Channel 2 General Manager Jim Toellner over lunch at Oliver’s about his desire to work less.
“I am very happy to say I am calling the shots on this one,” said O’Connell. “The conversation was initiated by me and very nicely followed up by the station. … They made it very clear when I signed my last contract I could stay there as long as I want.”
The obvious question is why scale back now?
“I have seen an awful lot of people who have worked very hard all their life,” said O’Connell as his wife of 43 years, Carolyn, sat beside him in the family kitchen. “All of a sudden they get to the ‘Golden Years,’ and they don’t have anything to do and sometimes health will totally take away all the hard-earned fun money that they were supposed to have earned. I didn’t want that to happen to us.
“We like to travel and we thought reducing the schedule a little and realizing when the actual contract is over would give us the opportunity to enjoy more things together ... more family kind of things.”
O’Connell said his health is fine but he is aware of a family history of heart issues. His father, former Buffalo City Comptroller George O’Connell, died at 61, and two siblings also died relatively young with heart issues.
It’s been almost 20 years since O’Connell was part of a Channel 2 series in which he lost 50 to 60 pounds before running a mile of the 1996 Olympic torch run; the weight is back on.
“I suffer from what a lot of people probably suffer from – not enough exercise,” said O’Connell.
The need to drop some pounds on the scale is not the primary reason O’Connell is scaling back, though.
“I don’t want to be a statistic,” said O’Connell. “In order to alleviate that, yes, do we have to lose a bunch of weight? Yes. Am I going to be able to do it with the same routine that I am doing now? Probably not. So let’s change some things up. Modifying my work schedule will allow me to. But it is not the reason. It will be a byproduct of it.”
Money isn’t an issue, either. Many television personalities do not get pensions. Channel 2’s owner, Gannett, provides them, but it doesn’t appear to be that important to the family’s financial health.
“We have been very frugal with our earnings,” said O’Connell. “We have saved well, we have invested well.”
“We live modestly,” his wife chimed in.
“We really do,” added O’Connell.
He smiled as a reporter looked outside to see the family’s in-ground pool and a man-made lake surrounding the neighborhood of his beautiful home. The O’Connells have lived in the same home since returning to Buffalo from Los Angeles 25 years ago because of his mother’s health.
His wife has encouraged O’Connell to retire for years.
“I think it’s time and he’s such a workaholic,” she explained. “He needs to have some time to himself and be able to do what he wants to do when he wants to do it.”
When reminded of former Buffalo Bills coach Marv Levy’s famous saying, “Once you’re thinking of retiring, you are already retired,” O’Connell said he prefers another Levy-ism.
“I like, ‘Where else would you rather be than right here, right now?’ ” said O’Connell. “When I’m on the set, I like Marv’s quote on that. I enjoy working.”
Channel 2 is a lot more enjoyable of a place to work now that it is No. 1 as compared to its days as No. 3 when O’Connell joined the station in 1993.
“The station is doing very well right now; our weather portion has received some great success over the past couple of years,” said O’Connell. “I am very happy about that because I was a major part of that.”
His community involvement speaks to his popularity. O’Connell figures he has helped raise $25 million for local charities over 25 years. He may start making fewer public appearances, but he’ll still cook his share of hot dogs and emcee events.
“Actually, it is more fun because I am a believer the audience has to know me on both sides of the lens,” said O’Connell. “If you are worth people knowing and liking, you have to come out on their turf.”
Likability is one of O’Connell’s strongest assets in an incredible career that isn’t finished.
“Doing a highlight reel would be the hardest thing to do,” said O’Connell.
Channel 2 has plenty of time to prepare one, because O’Connell isn’t going anywhere before January 2017.