Over Cobb salad and virgin margarita, a free-ranging conversation with Wilmington’s home-grown news anchor

By Dana Sachs

People in Wilmington may not be surprised to learn that, as a child, longtime WECT anchor Frances Weller read the news aloud to her family. “I was born to report,” she says, describing her ritual of orating the day’s events at the dinner table. “I felt it was my duty to inform them.”

Frances actually grew up here in Wilmington, and her love of the news came from a curiosity about, well, everything. When she and I meet for lunch one day at Tower Seven Baja Mexican Grill, she tells me that her twin sister, Margaret, used to call her “the nosiest person I know.” Frances tends to agree. It seemed natural, then, that she would go into journalism after she graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill. Less natural was the fact that she found a job in Wilmington, her hometown, and that she’s stayed for 34 years (and counting). According to Frances, television journalists transfer frequently, moving to increasingly bigger media markets. In contrast, Frances has thrived by staying in Wilmington as it’s grown. “I didn’t have to move to a bigger market,” she says. “The bigger market moved to me.”

Not that everything came easily. During Frances’ senior year in college, she applied for an internship at WRAL in Raleigh. In the interview, a station executive focused on technical questions, like, “What is a chyron?” Frances couldn’t answer (it’s the text running at the bottom of the screen, in case you’re wondering). The interviewer seemed to believe that Frances didn’t care about journalism but rather only wanted to appear on TV. “They basically said, ‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you,’” she tells me.

Even some family members doubted her choice. A cousin who worked as a journalist in Cairo, Egypt, told her, “You’re not callous enough for this profession.”

Frances persisted.

Then, one morning after graduation, WECT called, inviting her for an interview at three o’clock that afternoon. She was still living in the Triangle at the time, so she phoned a friend in Wilmington and said, “Have your best suit ready. Have the lady across the street be ready to do my hair.” She drove down to Wilmington, put on the suit, got her hair done, and walked into the station right on time. She’s been there ever since, and her broadcast style — warm, wry, and very steady — has become almost a personal trademark.

In her early years, though, Frances worried that her cousin was right, that she was too soft for the news business. In 1986, four years into her job, for example, the space shuttle Challenger exploded, killing all seven people on board. “I remember looking at that video and wanting to burst into tears,” she says.

I wonder how she may have changed. “Do news stories these days ever affect you like they did back then?”

Our server has placed a virgin margarita in front of Frances and she sips it, thinking. “Remember that little boy killed in a car accident on Oleander recently?”

I nod. A pickup truck rear-ended a car.

Across the table, Frances’ eyes have filled with tears. “Those stories are so sad.”

“So, is it challenging? Reporting a story like that on the air?”

She shakes her head emphatically. “Not at all.” As quickly as the emotion appeared on her face, it disappears, replaced by the cool neutrality of a news anchor. “I learned to turn Frances the person off and turn Frances the journalist on.”

If Frances always maintains that professionalism on air, in person she’s relaxed and chatty. Her work day doesn’t begin until 3 p.m, which means that lunch can be a laid-back affair. If you envy her routine, though, remember this: While you’re sipping your cocktail after work, Frances is sitting at her desk in the WECT newsroom, writing teasers and stories for News at 11.

Though Tower Seven specializes in Mexican food, the menu has a much broader range than tacos, burritos and enchiladas. On the Baja Chicken Wrap, a zesty green chile ranch dressing pulls together the tastes of grilled chicken, bacon and avocado. “Sometimes grilled chicken is tough to chew,” Frances remarks, “but this is very tender.” Because she’s not a fan of very spicy food, the batter-fried Angry Shrimp presents a bit of a challenge. The restaurant offers two options for the dish, “Heck Sauce” and “Hell Sauce.” It turns out that even “Heck” is slightly devilish. Frances says, “I would definitely stay away from ‘Hell,’” and invents a third option for eating the shrimp, which is to devour it without any sauce. On our classic Cobb salad, she loves the mix of crunchy vegetables, crispy bacon, blue cheese, grilled chicken and hard-cooked eggs. “I’m definitely coming back,” she tells me. Here’s a little secret about Frances Weller: She stashes a bottle of her favorite Sweet Honey Catalina salad dressing in her pocketbook, just in case.

And here’s another secret: She’s no political junkie. “It’s so nasty,” she tells me. Rather than politics, she prefers subjects that “make a difference in people’s lives.” As a local personality, she promotes area charities as well as her own social service projects. Weller’s Wheels, for example, provides bicycles for poor children. Fran’s Fans distributes paper fans to the elderly in the summer. And Plaid Pack educates the public about cancer.

Eventually, I do bring up a controversial subject. “What do you think of the debate over fake news?” I ask. For a moment, Frances winces, holds up her virgin margarita, and makes as if to call our server. “I’m going to need alcohol for this one.”

Joking aside, she answers firmly. “People want to blame somebody for what’s going on with the world and the media is an easy target. Is there fake news out there? Absolutely. But it is a farce to say that journalists are all about fake news.”

This month, when the weeklong Wells Fargo Championship opens at Eagle Point Golf Club, 30 members of WECT’s staff will cover it. The team will include digital experts, technicians flying drones over the course, and golf commentators discussing every hole. Each day during competition, Frances and her co-anchor, Jon Evans, will broadcast the evening news directly from the press tent. “As a news event, it’s the biggest of my lifetime,” Frances tells me. “We’ve had presidents of the United States here, but as far as a week long event, this is it.”

Frances is a journalist, of course, but her excitement reminds me that she’s speaking as a Wilmington native, too. This reporter has covered her hometown for three decades. Now the world is turning its attention toward her beloved city.

Tower Seven is located at 4 North Lumina Ave. in Wrightsville Beach. For more information, call (910) 256-8585. Frances Weller appears on WECT weeknights at 5, 6 and 11, except for the late broadcast on Friday nights, which she now takes off.

Dana Sachs’ latest novel, The Secret of the Nightingale Palace, is available at bookstores, online and throughout Wilmington.

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