G&G Interview

Craig Melvin’s Carolina Roots

How the Today show news anchor wears his Southern pride on his sleeve

photo: Nigel Parry

Craig Melvin, photographed along New York City’s Central Park Lake. Helios fly rod and Mirage LT II reel by Orvis.

NBC News correspondent and Today show news anchor Craig Melvin was raised “in a house where there was always talking, lots of talking.” So it’s no surprise to him that he finds himself in conversation for a living, bringing to his coverage a warmth and sincerity he attributes to his upbringing in South Carolina, where storytelling was a way of life and his mother rarely ended a chat with a stranger in under fifteen minutes. Melvin, who also cohosts the third hour of Today, shares his mother’s welcoming loquaciousness and his father’s wry curiosity, and notes that even though he now lives with his wife and two young children in Connecticut, he brings his family to Columbia every chance he gets. There, he happily slips back into his full Southern accent and the languor and familiarity of the town his kin have called home for some two hundred years.

 

What was growing up in Columbia like?

My mom was a schoolteacher. Actually, she started in banking and switched over to teaching when I was a little boy, in part because I was a bit chatty in class and teachers would call a lot about her son, who couldn’t sit still and didn’t raise his hand before speaking. So she became interested in, shall we say, “education.” My father was a mail clerk at the U.S. Postal Service for forty-one years. So I grew up blue-collar. And I spent a fair amount of time in church.

 

What’s a fair amount of time?

On Sunday we would be there from nine, nine thirty till sometime in the afternoon, three or four. I sang in the choir because my maternal grandmother was in the choir and I wanted to hang out with her. And then after church we would always have dinner at my other grandma’s house, which was like ten minutes away from the church.

 

Sounds like a family affair.

Well, my father did not go with us on Sundays. I asked him why once, and my dad, I kid you not, without missing a beat, said, “Boy, if I’m in church for five hours on Sunday, I expect to see Jesus.”

 

You first covered news in the South and D.C. before making the leap to New York. Now you’re a year into your position at Today. Were you happy to leave Columbia for a bigger playing field?

Oh gosh no, I love my hometown. All of my family is still in Columbia. Literally all of my family, save a second cousin in Chicago. My aunts, uncles, cousins, they’re all within twenty miles. I did a story years ago where they help celebrities track their roots, and apparently in seven generations my family hasn’t left a 150-mile radius.

photo: Nigel Parry

Melvin between takes in front of the park’s Bow Bridge.

Wow.

Yeah, you could see all of your aunts, uncles, cousins, both sets of grandparents, all in a weekend. I took that for granted. When I moved away, I didn’t fully appreciate how much I would miss family gatherings. I also miss the food. I was twenty pounds heavier when I lived in Columbia.

 

Whom do you most take after?

My mother and father. My father prides himself on being funny. He’s one of these people that probably thinks he’s funnier than he really is, much like his son. And my mother has never met a stranger. I get that quality from her.

 

What does being Southern mean to you?

For me it’s a sensibility. I hate generalizing and stereotyping, but I do think when you’re from our neck of the woods, you value relationships a little more. There’s this pride that people have in their backstory and their family. And you spend more time doing just about everything. It’s funny—one of the executive producers at the Today show will sometimes say to me, “I need your New York read, not your South Carolina read.” [Laughs.] I have to make a concerted effort to speed up. Here on Fifth Avenue, you’re walking like you’re in some sort of secret walking competition. Down South, it’s a stroll.

 

What attracted you to journalism?

A local TV station was running this audition for a high school reporter. So I hopped in my father’s green ’73 Pontiac LeMans, drove to Richland Fashion Mall, and auditioned. I got selected and started working at the local TV station at fifteen. I was a news junkie even in my teenage years, as geeky as that sounds.

 

What kinds of stories did you do then?

Teens and smoking, teens and sex, seat-belt safety, SAT preparation. I did this story on my favorite teacher at the time, Mike Fanning, which won the Associated Press competition. I went to the awards banquet in Cashiers, North Carolina, with my mom and my little brother. I looked around, realizing, all these people are journalists. They’re all telling stories. That’s when it struck me you could make a living doing this.

 

Your Southern background probably helped with that.

Maybe you’re right. I’ve always enjoyed telling and hearing a good story. And I can see two, three, four sides to something. That makes me sound like I’m indifferent, which I’m not. But I can hear different opinions and see multiple sides.

 

Well, the word on you is that you’re super open, friendly, upbeat…

Who’s spreading those lies? You’d be hard-pressed to find a bigger jackass at 30 Rock than Craig Melvin. [Laughs.] I am pretty optimistic. I think there is a tendency to say, “Oh, these are the worst of days. It’s never been this bad.” And that’s rarely true.

 

What is your favorite place?

My basement. I go down there wearing sweatpants and an old T-shirt, and watch my big TV, enjoy a nice bourbon—I keep a number of bourbons. I can’t call it a “man cave.” I’ve been forbidden to use that term.

 

What do you most want your children to learn from you?

I want them both to have the same appreciation for family that my wife and I do. Our five-year-old son is thoughtful, kind, a people pleaser. I don’t worry about a teacher calling to tell me Delano Melvin has been causing trouble. My two-year-old daughter, Sibby, on the other hand, was on Today [in May] to celebrate my fortieth birthday, and she showed up wearing sunglasses. That’s the kind of fierce little girl she is.

 

Do you believe there’s such a thing as Southern parenting?

Oh God, yes! I find myself saying things my parents did. “Because I said so.” I’ve also developed an ability to shoot a look at my children that will snap them back into line. I didn’t possess that skill before.

 

Are you the dad that cries at the recital?

I’m the dad that cries on a random Tuesday afternoon. My younger brother and I had this conversation last weekend about how we’ve become a lot softer than we used to be. If I’ve got some time to kill in an airport, I’ll look at old pictures from when the kids were younger and get emotional.

 

How are you handling the emotion around the big birthday you mentioned?

Savannah Guthrie informed me I’m officially middle-aged. I’ve made peace with it. The older I get, the more of an effort I make to enjoy life. When I was thirty, I would go to work, go to the gym—that was pretty much my life. I hadn’t done the best job cultivating friendships. I remember thinking, this is kind of sad.

 

And now you have your dream job, a wife and two kids, a house…

I’m thrilled and delighted. We go to the same place every Friday night and order the same things. And I really enjoy that. Roots are important to me. 


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