SALT LAKE CITY — Not everyone has the good fortune of stumbling into their dream career, but for veteran TV reporter Lucky Severson, well, let’s just say he got lucky.
Born and raised in the small southern Utah town of Virgin, Washington County, near Zion National Park, Severson said he never felt like he belonged. He grew up wanting to go beyond his small hometown and the stigmas attached to it, but despite dreaming big, he never would have predicted how far he would go.
As Severson details in his new book, “Lucky From Virgin: An Unlikely Story,” (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 390 pages) a memoir of his life and career, his first few attempts to grow beyond his hometown were rocky at best.
After flunking out of his first college effort and losing three jobs in the course of three years, Severson decided he wanted two things.
“I wanted to have a job where I could tell my boss to go to hell, if I had to, and then, I knew I wanted to have fun,” Severson said in a recent interview with the Deseret News. “So, I said, ‘OK, I’ll go and be a journalist.’”
After a few failed attempts to find employment as a broadcast journalist, Severson was given, if not a chance, at least the hope of a chance at KCPX in Salt Lake City. Roy Gibson, a producer at KCPX at the time, took pity on Severson and let him hang around the studio and follow some reporters.
“He thought I’d leave in a week,” Severson said. But a little more than a month later, Severson was still there and when a reporter unexpectedly left his job due to a family emergency, Gibson offered him the position. And it turned out, Severson was good at it — really good.
“People like Lucky, almost immediately. He’s a real charmer,” said Trent Harris, a fellow journalist and former co-worker of Severson's. “He can walk in to most any situation and before you know it, people are at ease and then they’re ready to talk. I think that’s really his secret.”
As Severson explained it, making people feel comfortable, especially among cameras and lights, is one of the more difficult jobs of being a broadcast journalist. But for Severson, that was the part he was best at.
Paul Thiriot, a photographer and one of Severson’s former co-workers from his time at NBC, explained that Severson’s ability to talk and get people to open up has become something of a family joke for those who spend time with him regularly.
“Lucky always starts with, ‘Let me just ask you this …,’” Thiriot said. “That’s always his line. And we’ll joke and say, 'You know you’re in for a conversation for the rest of the day. You’re done, you’re toast.'”
As Harris and Thiriot described it, Severson simply asks the right questions that help people feel comfortable about opening up. Over the years, Severson said some people have shared with him their “deepest darkest secrets,” and that, according to Severson, is what made him a great journalist over the years.
After four or five years with KCPX, Severson landed a job with KUTV, one of the leading stations in Utah. It was during his time there that he decided to give college another try. He received his bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Utah and later attended Yale University, where he received a master’s in law. At KUTV, Severson covered many major stories and his reputation eventually helped him land a job with NBC during the mid-'80s.
Getting the story
During his years with NBC, Severson interviewed some of the most famous and infamous people of the time. He interviewed serial killer Ted Bundy at the jail in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Severson also spent time with the Dalai Lama and politicians such as George H.W. Bush and Jesse Jackson on their campaign trails. But while Severson recognizes the unique opportunities he had with these notable people, he said they have never been his favorite stories to cover.
Interested in what he jokingly refers to as "monomaniacs," Severson said he prefers good stories with a beginning, middle and end. From his experience, these stories usually come from regular people who, often through tragic personal experiences, become hyperfocused on one thing. That focus leads them to do "a great service to people who have been dealt with unjustly,” he said.
One such example that Severson has never been able to get out of his mind was a story he did on a street preacher in Oakland, California.
“When I first pitched (his) story to my executive producer, anchorman and my senior editor, all of them thought this guy had to be nuts,” Severson said. “And I did too, quite frankly.”
This "nuts" man, Vincent Pannizzo, would take the homeless people in his area to his home to care for them, but in time, Pannizzo decided this wasn’t enough. He decided that the best way he could dedicate himself to their plight was to live as a homeless man himself.
“He would go do odd jobs, carpentry and things like that,” Severson explained, “but every single penny he made, he gave away.”
Despite his initial impressions that Pannizzo was crazy, Severson said that after getting to know him, he realized the selfless focus of the man’s decision.
“He did what Christ said you’re supposed to do,” Severson said. “And we all thought he was nuts.”
Describing what draws him to those who simply live their lives rather than those who make a grab for the spotlight, Severson said, “I like people who are like me, I guess, with warts and problems and being anything but perfect.”
For the better part of the last 20 years, Severson worked as a correspondent for the PBS program “Religion and Ethics Newsweekly.” But when that program ended in February 2017, Severson found himself with time on his hands — which is not something he is comfortable with.
“I’ve traveled over 5 million miles over the years and I’ve always needed something to do,” Severson said. “So, I wrote a book, and it was fun. But then part of it is that I love stories. I love good storytelling and I think the root of good storytelling is good journalism.”
And according to Harris, Severson writing a book is fitting of who his longtime friend has always been.
“That guy is like the ever-ready bunny. He is always doing something; he’s always busy. He can’t retire; he never will retire,” Harris said.
While Severson enjoyed writing his memoir, he said that promoting and trying to sell it gives him a stomachache. Despite his unique history and a lifetime of traveling and interacting with some of the world’s most interesting people, Severson is still someone who prefers to tell other people’s stories instead of his own.
“Everyone has a story,” Thiriot said, repeating a phrase he has often heard from Severson. And in his new book, Severson has finally shared his.