Story Teller – Jay Schadler
Exploring the world with emmy-award winning journalist, photographer and artist Jay Schadler at his Amesbury studio.
[Editor’s note: In 2011, we spoke with Jay Schadler at his now-closed Amesbury art studio. This interview originally appeared in the March/April 2011 issue of mvm. It has been lightly edited to comply with current AP style guidelines.]
There has been no shortage of exotic adventures in Jay Schadler’s decorated career as a television journalist. The longtime ABC News correspondent has come face-to-face with Bengal tigers while riding an elephant. He has tracked koalas in Australia, and witnessed the opening of a tomb at the Great Pyramids. There has been a mountain bike trip through the rain forests of Belize, and hitchhiking expeditions of more than 13,000 miles across the U.S.
So it’s easy to see why Schadler — who lives in Dover, N.H., but previously was a resident of Plum Island for 15 years — grins with genuine satisfaction when he reminisces about where he got his start as a broadcaster. “It was literally a double-wide trailer with a turntable and a microphone way up in Oswego, N.Y., one of the coldest and snowiest places in America,” Schadler says with great pride. “I was doing an internship on Saturday afternoons as a Top 40 DJ. And, to be honest, I loved every minute of it.”
The stage for Schadler’s talents has gotten much larger than a low-watt radio station in the middle of nowhere. For three decades, he has contributed to the success of such shows as “Primetime,” “20/20,” “Good Morning America” and “Nightline.” But it was the rush that Schadler got while in front of a microphone in that tiny trailer in Oswego that helped fuel what has blossomed into an Emmy Award-winning career and a lifetime of thrilling escapades.
“It’s been a great ride,” says Schadler. “I’ve been very blessed. That’s for sure.”
As exhilarating as his days on network TV have been, Schadler is most at peace when he’s home with his wife, Jorden Cook, his dog, Toasty, and the numerous cats his wife brings home from the animal shelter in nearby Stratham, N.H., where she works as a volunteer. When he’s not at home, Schadler finds comfort inside the walls of his art studio in downtown Amesbury along the banks of the Powwow River. He spends so much time at the studio that he added a full bathroom and a bedroom for those late nights he doesn’t feel up to the 30-minute drive home.
“I love being home as much as I love being on the road, and the studio has become the perfect place for me to do what I like to do,” he says of his Water Street retreat, which was a drab office space back in 2005. “I knew it from the very first time I saw it that it could be something very special.”
Take two steps into the 5,000-square-foot studio on the top floor of a 19th century mill building and it becomes quite apparent that Schadler’s talents go well beyond TV journalist. Amid the wooden columns and high ceilings are thousands of images, designs and multidimensional collages that Schadler has produced. He has created everything from picturesque landscapes that look like something out of a far-reaching sci-fi motion picture, to still photographs that are as simple as a row of rolled up beach towels. His eye for detail is evident, as is his abstract view of the outdoors.
“What’s amazing to me is that Jay sees things most other people fail to recognize,” says Jorden, who grew up in Andover.
For example, Schadler, Jorden and Toasty take a pair of one-hour walks every day, when he’s not travelling, through the 500 acres of conservation land across from their house. Schadler, who says he carries his camera with him “24 hours a day,” will usually come home with numerous pictures from those walks, and when Jorden sees the results, she often wonders if she was actually with her husband at the time he was snapping away.
“I’m just amazed that we were right next to each other the whole time, yet he sees and captures something totally different,” says Jorden, whose father, Christopher Cook, was the director of the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy in Andover for twenty years.
Schadler agrees that he definitely sees his surroundings much differently than most people.
“The thing is, I’m always looking for something,” he says with a rise in his voice. “Heck, there have been plenty of times when I’ve been on my way to Stop & Shop to pick up a few things and I end up on the side of the road for a half-hour taking pictures. You’ve got to grab things the instant you see them, because you may never the get the chance again.”
The results of those impromptu photo shoots are scattered all over Schadler’s studio. But he does more than simply print the photos and frame them. He spends countless hours adding — or removing colors — and transferring the photos to canvas.
“This is my passion; I don’t do this for the money,” he says as he points to a gorgeous canvas print of a sunset over Portsmouth harbor in New Hampshire. “I do this to pay the rent here. I do it because I love it. And I think the work I do here really, really benefits my work as a journalist.”
Schadler says his “real job” as a TV news reporter is, ironically, the “antithesis” of the work he produces at his studio.
“The great thing about TV is that it’s a collaborative piece of work, where the editors, writers and producers all come together to create something special,” explains Schadler, an energetic man with a lean build. “But the thing I like most about my art is it’s my own game. I get to tell a story using my own tools. I get out there with my own camera and then I shoot, compose, color and print the pieces all by myself. It’s a control freak’s wonderland.”
Schadler says his keen eye sometimes caused friction with his cameramen during his early days as a TV reporter.
“Here I was, this young reporter with no TV experience, telling a veteran cameraman of 20 years how to set up the shot and where he should stand,” Schadler says. “But I was confident in my ability to put it all together. I liked to use my sense of vision to get a news package exactly how it should be.”
Though Schadler is originally from the Midwest, he grew up on Lake Michigan and attended Michigan State University, he has been a Merrimack Valley local for nearly two decades. His comfortable camera presence and penchant for writing helped him work his way from Oswego to Dayton, Ohio, to Grand Rapids, Mich. to Minneapolis Minn.
“I was thrilled to be able to go out with a cameraman and then be able to put my words to the video,” says Schadler, who earned a master’s degree at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University and a law degree at Syracuse University College of Law. “I was in heaven, and in many respects I still feel the same way today, 30 years later.”
In 1980, Schadler went to New York to interview with CBS News, which was tops in the nation for network news at the time. He was offered a job, but before accepting it, his boss at KSTP-TV in Minneapolis, MN suggested he give their network, ABC, a crack at hiring him.
“When I interviewed with CBS, I met with guys in pinstripe suits and suspenders, and it felt like they were doing me this huge favor by offering me a job,” Schadler remembers. “At ABC, I interviewed with a man wearing one of those big wide plaid ties. He was an ordinary guy who I really, really liked. Even though ABC was the third out of three networks for news at the time, the people seemed hungrier. I sensed that they were coming on and going in a direction that I wanted to be a part of.”
Schadler’s hunch was dead on. ABC already had Barbara Walters in the fold, but it would go on to hire beckoning stars such as Diane Sawyer, Peter Jennings, Sam Donaldson and Ted Koppel.
“We redefined the way broadcast news was done for the next 15 years,” Schadler says proudly.
Schadler played a key role in the rise of ABC news. In 1982, he was based in Atlanta and covered everything from the Mason-Dixon Line all the way to the tip of Chile. If an airplane went down in the Andes Mountains or a hurricane ripped into the Gulf Coast, Schadler and his camera crew were on the scene.
“I was using the same skills that I was using at the small affiliate stations, except now the resources given to me by the network allowed me to do more with it,” Schadler says.
In 1985, Schadler was in Boston putting together a five-part story called “Teenagers in America” for “World News Tonight” when he fell in love with New England. He and his first wife adopted a South Korean child, Kylee, who at 14 months was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, a neuromuscular disorder characterized by weakness of voluntary muscles. Instead of chasing stories away from home, Schadler decided he needed to be near his family more, and he wanted to settle in the Boston area.
So they bought a house in Grafton that was built on a farm in the 1800s. Schadler was hired at WCVB-TV, the local ABC affiliate in Boston, as a weekday reporter and weekend anchor, and he and his wife adopted a second child, Nate. But in 1989, the couple separated and divorced, and he suddenly felt a strong desire to live near the water again, just as he had growing up on Lake Michigan. He found the perfect spot on Plum Island.
“When you grow up on a big body of water, it’s like a magnet that keeps you coming back,” says Schadler, whose two children still live in the area. “Plum Island had everything I wanted. Whenever you go to an island — no matter how big or small — you always feel like you’re somehow leaving the craziness of the world behind. For an artist like myself, there really isn’t a better place.”
Around the same time that Schadler began living the island life, he also returned to network TV. Rick Kaplan, who was the executive producer of “Nightline” when Schadler was previously with ABC News, was creating a show called “Primetime Live,” and he wanted Schadler to be a part of it. Sawyer and Donaldson were the anchors, with Schadler, Judd Rose, Chris Wallace and Sylvia Chase the main reporters.
“It was very gratifying to go out and tell a story and then the very next day have everyone in the country talking about it,” Schadler says. “And, in essence, that’s what “Primetime” was all about.”
While with “Primetime,” Schadler came up with the idea for his ABC News Special called “Looking for America.” With a hand-held camera, Schadler hitchhiked more than 13,000 miles in three years, interviewing each gracious driver that volunteered to pick him up. In a special, one-hour edition of “Primetime” in 1997, Schadler chronicled his 10-day, 3,500-mile trip from Plum Island to Santa Monica.
“It changed my life as a journalist,” says Schadler, who had his stories from the road picked up in 2000 by the Bravo channel and aired as a weekly series called “TaleLights.” “I always thought that everybody had a story to tell, and this confirmed it for me.
“Because of what I saw during my time as a hitchhiker, I now have a very powerful faith in basic human goodness. I’m continually amazed at just how much good there is out there in the world.”
Though his tales from the road may have had the most impact on him as a journalist — and perhaps as a person — two other stories Schadler worked on landed him the ultimate hardware for his industry. Schadler’s first Emmy Award came in 2000 for “Outstanding Investigative Journalism,” for a “Primetime” story about fraudulent claims by veterans receiving medical benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder. The second, in 2009 was for “Outstanding Feature for a News Magazine,” for a piece about children with Tourette’s syndrome.
The two handsome Emmy trophies sit on a bookshelf in Schadler’s studio but, amazingly, are almost lost among the other striking works of art in the room.
“I’m proud of them,” Schadler says casually. “But what I’m most proud of is that they were for two stories that couldn’t be more different from each other. I’ve been able to survive so long in this business because I like to do things outside the box. I made sure I didn’t pigeonhole myself as someone who could only handle one kind of story. I always wanted to be adaptable.”
Indeed, versatility is one of Jay Schadler’s strengths as a journalist, an artist and, as his wife explains, a person.
“He’s an amazing man,” says Jorden, who has been married to Schadler since 2000. “When you watch him work — no matter what he may be doing — he’s pretty intense. There’s just so much focus.”
“I miss him when he’s away, but I love when he returns,” she says. “The best part is to have him come home and just start telling stories. It’s a fascinating life. I’m glad to be a part of it.”
Jay Schadler is currently available for engagements as a keynote speaker through his website: www.jayschadler.com