NEW ORLEANS - After more than 30 years as one of New Orleans’ most respected news anchors, with a gift for both hard-edged reporting and compassionate storytelling displayed in a wide range of stories, Dennis Woltering will step down from the Channel 4 anchor desk at the end of May, station management announced Wednesday.
While he said he has no firm plans after retiring from Channel 4, Dennis said he would like to explore new opportunities in media, including long-form reporting and documentary work. He also plans to spend time traveling with his wife and family in search of the next great story.
Dennis has anchored the station’s evening newscasts since 1994, but first came to WWL-TV in 1977. Hired by news director Phil Johnson, he worked as a reporter and weekend anchor at Channel 4 from 1977 until 1984, when he landed an opportunity to work at the CBS-owned station in Philadelphia. Ten years later, a call from Channel 4 led him back to a job on the anchor desk in New Orleans, the city he and his wife fell in love with and where their two daughters were born.
“Dennis not only represents the best of what WWL-TV stands for, he represents the best of what it means to be a journalist,” said Tod Smith, WWL-TV president and general manager. “For years, he has told the stories of New Orleans, the good and the bad, the happy and the sad. But through it all, he has been a true professional committed to making New Orleans a better place to live.”
As much as he has earned respect as an anchor, Dennis is also known as a top-notch reporter and talented writer. He has had a hand in covering dozens of major news events during the past four decades at Channel 4, from the 1979 New Orleans Police strike which canceled Mardi Gras parades to the catastrophic crash of Pan Am Flight 759 in 1982 (where he reported live on scene from the south Kenner neighborhood leveled by the disaster), and the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures in 2005.
For Katrina, Dennis was an integral part of the anchor team that broadcast continuously during the storm’s landfall, from the Hyatt Regency Hotel, WWL’s studios and even the station’s transmitter site in Gretna during the darkest days immediately following landfall. He was a part of the team that earned WWL the prestigious George Foster Peabody, duPont-Columbia and Edward R. Murrow awards for coverage of Hurricane Katrina.
Before and since the storm, he has also shown in his reporting a particular interest for coastal restoration issues, as well as for holding the Corps of Engineers and other local officials accountable for the problems of Katrina and the reforms made since. For example, he traveled to the Netherlands in 2006 with a local delegation to report on a fact-finding visit to study that country’s flood control systems. His investigative reports also focused extensively on contractor fraud cases since the storm.
Dennis’ strength in political reporting served him well as moderator of WWL political debates (aired statewide for gubernatorial and congressional races, and locally for mayor and other city offices) and co-anchor of election night coverage for more than 20 years. He also anchored breaking news coverage of countless political scandals and trials, including those of former Gov. Edwin Edwards and disgraced former Rep. William Jefferson.
Dennis welcomed political and business leaders, as well as authors, musicians, non-profit groups and people from all walks of life to the Channel 4 studios each week for interviews on his Sunday morning talk show – called “Sunday Morning” and later “Sunday Edition with Dennis Woltering.” He hosted the show and served as executive producer for more than a decade.
Most recently paired at 5 p.m. with Karen Swensen and at 10 p.m. with Natalie Shepherd, Dennis’ years on the anchor desk also included stints co-anchoring with former Channel 4 anchor Hoda Kotb, now an NBC Today co-host, and New Orleans broadcasting icon Angela Hill.
“There has never been a story Dennis Woltering couldn’t cover,” Angela said. “He is also the quintessential anchorman: in charge, completely focused on the accuracy of the news and yet so very human.”
Many of his colleagues can relate to Angela’s description of Dennis as not just a tough newsman, but also as someone with a great sense of humor who loves life and is a caring and compassionate storyteller.
“I have seen him laugh at what makes us all laugh and I have seen him so moved by the sadness of a situation he could barely get out the next sentence. Dennis is real and rare,” Angela said.
Other colleagues describe Dennis as a newsroom leader, who has been called upon to both celebrate the happy occasions of the Channel 4 family and the more difficult or trying ones. And all the while, they say his professionalism and news sense shines through, on camera and off.
“Dennis is simply the best - the consummate journalist. Every story of his has a pulse, a soul and a sense of urgency,” said anchor Karen Swensen. “As a co-anchor, he has an understated confidence that sets the tone for every show under any circumstances and he is unfailingly generous. I will miss him as a co-worker, but far more as a dear, dear friend.”
Dennis’ co-workers have also shared the joy of watching him become a grandfather. Beginning with his two daughters, now in their 30s, and extending to his two grandchildren, Dennis has put to good use one of his longtime hobbies: documenting family moments with a true photographer’s eye and capturing those special moments on film.
A native of St. Louis who was raised in Venezuela and California, Dennis studied journalism, political science and constitutional law at Oregon State University. He went on to earn his master's degree in journalism and communications at the American University in Washington, D.C. He took his first job in television at a small station in Fargo, North Dakota, as a weekend anchor and reporter. From there it was on to New Orleans and WWL.
It was during his first stint at Channel 4 in the late 1970s that Dennis was known on-air as Dennis Wolter. He said station management, for some reason, thought the name would be shorter, snappier and easier to remember. When he returned 10 years later, The Times-Picayune headline said, “The name’s longer, but the face of Dennis Wolter(ing) is familiar.”
While covering the important stories of south Louisiana over the past 27 years, Dennis has also traveled the world reporting for Channel 4. He traveled with local Catholics to Cuba for the visit of Pope John Paul II. A decade earlier, he traveled to Honduras and Nicaragua to do a series of reports on the communist government that was running Nicaragua at the time. He also did an extensive series of stories on cocaine and the devastating impact it was already having in the early 1980s. Dennis' reports traced the path of the coca plant from crop in Colombia, South America to street drug in the U.S.
As a reporter in Philadelphia, Dennis was also sent across the country and around the world to get a story, from the Los Angeles riots that followed the Rodney King verdict, to San Francisco after the earthquake, to Washington, D.C. for reports on the Israeli-PLO peace accords. He also traveled to Africa to file a story on the refugees who were fleeing massacres in Rwanda.
Though he has reported on serious and often heartbreaking stories around the world, he has also covered New Orleans’ happy moments, including the Saints Super Bowl victory in 2010, after which he co-anchored continuous coverage of the victory celebrations.
It was in part New Orleans’ vibrant artistic and cultural scene that drew him back to the city in 1994. As an example, Dennis has masked and paraded as a member of several Carnival krewes, second lined with brass bands at parties and famously donned often-outrageous costumes for Channel 4’s daylong coverage of Mardi Gras.
“I always thought Dennis was one of the best dressed men in broadcasting, but somehow I will always see him in his Saints cheerleading outfit and his Cinderella gown,” Angela joked, recalling his 2014 Carnival costume as one of the best in recent memory.
Dennis explained his love for the city in a 2009 interview with The Times-Picayune, to promote a theatrical appearance.
“One time, when I was working in Philadelphia, they opened a new convention center,” he told Chris Rose in 2009. “And the way they celebrated it was by bringing a band up from New Orleans to play the music and have a parade. And I love all that stuff. And I really felt like I missed New Orleans at that point and that it was my home. The spirit of life that is lived here is something that I love.”