By Bill Estep
It was one of those defining moments in a person's life. The year was 1992, and Matt Lauer was at his country home north of New York City waiting for the phone to ring, his television career at the crossroads.
It had been a year and three months since Lauer had held a full-time job, a year and three months since he was fired as host of an interview program on New York's WWOR-TV. Working one to two days a week for HBO, Lauer's bank account was running low and his patience was wearing thin. Then he saw the "help w anted" sign on the back of a tree trimmer's truck.
"I called the number when I got home and left a message on a machine with my name and number," Lauer remembers. "About three hours later, while I was sitting there waiting for the tree trimmers to call back, the phone rang and it was WNBC.
"I came about an hour and a half from not being in the business. After that, it was really a wonderful run of timing, a lot of hard work and good fortune."
Lauer's run of good luck included stops at WNBC-TV as co-anchor of the 5 p.m. newscast and at NBC's "Today" show as substitute news anchor, then permanent news anchor and frequent fill-in host for Bryant Gumbel, and culminated with his appointment in December as Gumbel's successor. Lauer became "Today's" eighth male co-host in the 45 years of the show on Jan. 6.
Lauer's journey to the bright lights of the Big Apple and the NBC hot seat took several other twists and turns that included stops at Ohio University and at TV stations in Huntington, W.Va., Richmond, Va., and several other Eastern cities.
In what has become local lore on the Athens campus s ince January, when he was named speaker for the university's June 14 undergraduate commencement, Lauer left OU four hours short of graduating with a degree in telecommunications when the required class he needed wasn't offered in the spring of 1979. Awaiting Lauer was a job producing the noon news at WOWK-TV in Huntington, where he had completed a successful internship that winter.
Lauer, 39, is working with the School of Telecommunications to complete his degree, which he may receive when he returns to campus to speak at commencement. He says earning his degree 18 years later would carry special meaning, as will returning to campus. Lauer will speak at one, and perhaps both, of the university's undergraduate commencements in June, depending on whether first lady Hillary Clinton accepts an invitation to speak.
"It's tough for me to sit here today with what's happened and say I regret it (not staying to finish his degree)," says Lauer, who went to high school in Gre enwich, Conn. "In terms of whether it's hurt me, no it hasn't. I hate to brag about that, because I don't want people to think it's just fine.
"But I think there should be some closure. I think there should be a push to finish something you started. It does seem like an open chapter for me and a piece of unfinished business.
"It just seemed that once I left OU, it was almost like a steamroller started and then it was difficult to stop that steamroller to complete th e course I needed."
After struggling for a four-year period in the late 1980s when show after show was canceled, Lauer's steamroller began to pick up speed again when he arrived at Studio IA at Rockefeller Center, working in the shadow of Gumbel and co-host Katie Couric. With Gumbel frequently off the air and on vacation - he took 11 weeks worth in 1996 - Lauer estimates that he co-hosted TV's No. 1-rated morning show 150 times before getting the call as Gumbel's successor.
L auer and Gumbel developed a close friendship, which Lauer says made for a smooth transition. Gumbel's wife told Lauer that his appointment as co-host gave her the feeling that "the position was still in the family."
"I think it was the smoothest work transition I've ever witnessed," says Lauer, now working nearly 11 1/2 hours a day and many Saturdays. "I think the audience got the true feeling that this was a warm passing of the baton."
It's the way La uer comes across with the viewing audience - as unassuming and friendly - that makes him so effective on the air, says Arthur Savage, Ohio University associate professor emeritus of telecommunications and Lauer's adviser while he was in school. A former TV consultant, Savage corresponds with Lauer on a regular basis.
"Matthew has no pretenses, no false fronts. What you see is what you get with Matt," Savage says. "He's got an ego; everyone on the air has an ego. But he doesn' t let it drive him as much as some other people. He's not in awe of himself.
"He is motivated to achieve, to be 'someone.' Matt wanted that job and, when he got the job, I know it was a very happy day for him. He's been on a clearly defined professional track. He's got a good head on his shoulders."
"I really am a firm believer that what makes people successful or not successful in this business is their ability or lack of ability to be themselves on camera," s ays Lauer. "I think that's the most important asset I have going for me right now: I am very comfortable just being myself on the air."
And that is probably a lot more comfortable than he will be speaking to Ohio University's Class of 1997. "I am not much of a speech-giver per se, and I think there's a bit more of a spotlight when you're going back to where you went to college," Lauer says. "I guess they're expecting me to talk a little bit about the ways OU and At hens influenced my life, and certainly there are stories about that.
"For me, college was not about learning subjects. It was really about learning to live with people."
If nothing else, Lauer can tell graduates they should never give up on their dreams, even if it means calling the tree trimmers for a job.
"It wasn't like it was a near-death experience," Lauer says, "but I look back at it and realize that those times make me appreciate this time a whole lot more."