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Becoming 'Utah's storyteller'

Verdoia suddenly in the spotlight

"What was I thinking?" That's what Ken Verdoia wonders aloud as he sits in his office, just days after he served as The Face of the PBS documentary about the LDS Church and then as moderator of the Sean Hannity-Rocky Anderson circus/debate at the University of Utah.

In the space of five days, the documentary filmmaker waded deep into the middle of touchy subjects in televised, high-profile media events.

"There are two things you don't do in this business; you don't talk about religion or politics," he says. "I received that admonition for 30 years. Then in one week I do both. What was I thinking?"

Being called upon to help carry a four-hour film and represent a major university in an overhyped debate is heady stuff for anyone but especially for a man who stuttered so badly as a child that he required years of therapy and was terrified of public speaking. The irony was not lost on Verdoia, but the visibility of it all and the sensitivity of the subjects brought the inevitable fallout. Verdoia received a deluge of phone calls and e-mail from angry viewers who accused him of both of being a puppet and apologist for the LDS Church and anti-Mormon.

"What that tells me is that people see things through their own values," says Verdoia. "If you catch heat from both sides of an issue, that means you've gone right down the middle. But there are times when that battering does weigh on you."

On the Wednesday night after the two-part PBS series "The Mormons," he was so disillusioned by the reaction to his part in the documentary that his wife and two daughters found themselves trying to cheer him up over dinner.

"I was as low as I've ever felt," he says. "I just wanted to grab someone and say, 'Can't you see what I'm trying to do? I'm just trying to show both sides, to illuminate, not incinerate.'"

He had little time to digest the reaction. Two nights later, Verdoia, director of production services for University of Utah-owned TV station KUED, was asked by the U.'s administration to referee the Hannity-Anderson debate at Kingsbury Hall.

Verdoia decided the best way to prepare for the event was by not preparing for it all; he mowed his lawn instead.

"I wanted to be flexible and fair," he said. But he never had a chance. "The crowd heckled the warm-up act, (radio host) Doug Wright, who has never said anything controversial in his life," says Verdoia. In the end, with the heckling and booing and the personal attacks, the debate was more WWF Smackdown than Lincoln-Douglas. The debaters ignored the ground rules, with Anderson exceeding his time limit and Hannity starting the personal attacks.

The day after the debate, Verdoia was down again.

"I felt horrible," he says. "I thought I would be able to control the crowd better, and I felt that both men should have done better in their presentations. The only person who had a remote opportunity to bring that out was me. Beforehand, I said if they come out and preach only to those who already agree with them, this will fail. That's what they did. I thought it was a lost opportunity."

Thus ended a big week in the life of Verdoia, who, through a strange, coincidental confluence of events, became a recurring figure on local TV three of five nights. The documentary was 3 1/2 years in the making, but just happened to air the very week that the debate occurred.

Almost overnight, Verdoia went from respected, award-winning documentary filmmaker known by most TV viewers as the guy who pitched for pledge drives on the local PBS affiliate to star of two made-for-TV events.

Helen Whitney, the producer and writer of "The Mormons," never planned to make Verdoia The Face of her film. She initially called him to mine his vast knowledge of Mormon history and culture.

As a radio and TV reporter in Utah for some 30 years, Verdoia produced films on many LDS subjects — notably a biography of Brigham Young — and a book on Utah's struggle for statehood, and he had covered breaking church news stories, such as blacks being granted the priesthood, the ERA, the emergence of several church prophets, the firings of outspoken BYU professors, feminism in the church and so forth.

The first time Whitney called Verdoia they wound up talking for two hours. They continued to exchange hundreds of e-mails and phone calls in the coming years, sometimes in the middle of the night, as Whitney sought his help in telling the story.

Eventually, she flew to Salt Lake City and met with Verdoia over lunch, and this time he held court for three hours. Afterward, Whitney, who talked to more than 1,000 people about her project and interviewed 90 of them on camera, decided she needed to use Verdoia as one of her three consultants. During subsequent discussions she was so impressed by Verdoia's passion and knowledge of his subject that she decided to put him in front of the camera.

Verdoia was interviewed for 10 hours. He answered most of Whitney's questions, sometimes asking her to start again so he could get the wording right, and sometimes flat refusing to answer questions. "We covered aspects of the subject, such as the ERA debate and blacks getting the priesthood and so forth," he says. "I felt comfortable with that. But when she attempted to ask spiritual questions, I would stop and say I didn't want to answer it. That's not my expertise. I am not a theologian."

Verdoia, who is not identified as a Mormon or non-Mormon in the film (he is the latter), proved to be so compelling and articulate that Whitney made him the lead voice of the film, taking it from one point to the next.

Says Whitney, "I thought Ken was a stunning storyteller, enormously knowledgeable about Mormon history, with a unique perspective as an insider living in Utah and making numerous documentaries about Mormon history and at the same time as an outsider to the faith. I knew all of this about Ken before I chose him as my chief storyteller/historian. My instincts about who will work in front of the camera are honed by 30-odd years of experience and by my own strong instincts. But quite honestly I did not anticipate how powerful a presence he would be on camera. I knew he would be very, very good, but superb? No, I was wonderfully surprised.... He was a gift to me."

If there's one thing we learned as a result of "The Mormons," it's that this man has a gift for gab. Ask Verdoia about the subject of the documentary, and he's off and running.

To wit: "(Mormonism) is one of the great American stories of all time. That's why I'm drawn to it as a journalist. This is a religious movement that has its genesis right here on the North American continent. As it grows, it's part of a nation defining itself. How does the nation react to the rights of individuals as related to religion? The law at first turned away and offered no protection to the church, but then it confronts the church and designs laws to break the church in this century, with decisions from the Supreme Court, Congress and presidents. They challenge the right to practice religion. They decide it's not unlimited. You can believe anything you want; you just can't act upon it if society says it's uncomfortable."

Verdoia, who is 54, talks like this naturally. Without trying, he sounds as if he's reading from a script. The words just flow.

Which wasn't always the case, and that's the irony, of course. In a twist of his own history, much about Verdoia — his penchant for doing films about underdogs, his fascination with history, his career choice, his intense need to succeed, even his habit of overkill, marathon-length interviews for his films — can be tied to a childhood malady.

Verdoia had a paralytic stutter during his grade-school years. It was so severe that there were times when he actually couldn't communicate, which made him a target for abuse from peers. He was the "dummy" who sat in the back of the room hoping the teacher wouldn't call on him.

He took years of speech therapy. His therapy sessions were held in the library, where the therapist required him to read books aloud. Since they usually held their sessions in the history section of the library, Verdoia often read books about history, which led to a lifelong passion for the subject.

"I worked and I worked and I worked, hours a day, just to get to normal," he recalls. "By sixth grade I began to make progress. If I tried to say too much, the freight train of my conversation would crash and would come to a complete halt.

"People would snicker. But I worked at it, and it taught me that if I worked harder than others I could be as good as others. I didn't work for excellence; I worked so I could compete and contribute. I worked two hours a day just so I could talk to friends and not be laughed at. Somewhere along the line it dawned on me that if I worked harder, talked to more people, read more than other reporters, maybe I would be better."

Verdoia pauses abruptly and turns his back on the room. After several moments, he takes a quick swipe at his eyes and says to the wall, "So the state's premier university asks me to represent it on center stage, and a well-respected filmmaker comes to me and says we want you to talk to us about LDS history. That is a moment of fullness that makes the past 54 years so beautiful and worthwhile. It takes me back to standing in the library with the speech therapist reading out loud from a history book.

"This is the only time I ever told this to anyone other than my wife and a couple of close friends. I wouldn't have told that story two weeks ago. There is vindication from last week. Maybe the chip on my shoulder is finally gone. I realize maybe I'm not the kid in the back of the class anymore. Maybe someone who stutters or has some other disability will look at me and realize there is an opportunity out there if they work at it."

Verdoia grew up grew up in San Francisco and attended San Jose State on a baseball scholarship. He became the first member of his family to graduate from college, taking a degree in journalism. Over the years he has studied political science and business at the University of Utah, international studies at Cambridge and business management at the University of North Carolina.

While attending San Jose State, he held part-time jobs with newspapers, radio and TV. Upon graduation in 1974, he became assistant news director at KALL Radio in Salt Lake City and, after brief stays in Denver and Washington, D.C., he has made his career in Utah.

He was an anchor and reporter for KTVX for three years before he became creative director and senior producer for KUED, which allowed him to tell his stories in the long, detailed forum of documentaries. (In 2005 he was given the added title of director of production services, and his focus now is on mentoring the station's next generation of documentary producers.)

There is an adage that journalists write the first draft of history. Verdoia views his career as the opportunity to write the next draft, and he relishes that, because his job is his hobby. He loves history the way most men love football.

"I just want to watch something on TV for entertainment," says his lawyer-wife Carol. "He wants to watch documentaries, and he reads all the time." At the moment Verdoia is reading four history books, and he's reached the halfway point in all of them — books about Ulysses S. Grant, Andrew Jackson, the Battle of Stalingrad, and a biography of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Verdoia's own work has earned him 17 Emmy awards. His documentaries have been added to the curriculum of some 200 colleges and universities in disciplines ranging from constitutional law to environmental studies, civil liberties and history.

"I'm contributing pages to the American story," he says.

His documentary "Skull Valley" explored the controversial plans to store nuclear waste on Utah's Goshute Indian reservation by telling the story from every point of view — Native Americans, the government, the nuclear power industry.

He spent three months sleeping in shelters and working in soup kitchens to make a documentary about America's homeless families. He spent nine months working closely with polygamist communities around the West to tell their story, becoming one of the first to be allowed to take a camera into their sacrament meetings, conferences and classrooms.

To make "Shadow of Hope," his treatment of undocumented immigration, he alternately crossed the border several times with illegal aliens in the company of coyotes (smugglers) to test the integrity of the border (he crossed successfully) and then joined the border patrol to chase illegals as they crossed the border. He also profiled a family from Wendover and visited their hometown of Juchapila, Mexico.

"It's like peeling an onion," says Verdoia of his work. "You peel each layer back and something reveals itself, but you don't know what's at the center until you get there."

When Verdoia arrived in Utah 30 years ago he never expected to make the state his home, but that's what it has become. He quickly fell in love with the accessibility and variety of the state's terrain — "If I still lived in California, the first four hours of driving wouldn't get me past the concrete," he says — as well as the rich history it offered a storyteller.

"Then the people here have always been accommodating, willing to share their stories," he says. "Utah has tolerated my knocking on the door and asking questions."