Lisa Hutson is the new evening anchor on WHAS11. Her path has not been a traditional one, but it’s led her back to her roots and…onto the air.
If you Google “Who killed the beauty queen?” you’ll find several references to media coverage of a sensational 2010 homicide case.
It involved the grizzly murder, the year before, of Nona Dirksmeyer, a local beauty queen attending Arkansas Technical University in Russellville, Ark. All the national media big shots – CBS News, NBC News, Dateline, 48 Hours – had reporters converging on the little town of 28,000 in Northwestern Arkansas (between Oklahoma City and Memphis).
Working her way in among those tall trees, like Little Red Riding Hood entering the big and murky forest, was Lisa Hutson, a young newsy having just started her first real TV reporting job at a Little Rock TV station only a month earlier.
She was shy by nature – hardly a textbook requisite for an on-air investigative reporter – but she’d long been driven by a determination to overcome the challenges, do the hard things, prepare for the daily grinds.
An on-air job in a mid-major market seemed glamorous, the rewards for succeeding in her chosen profession. But all Hutson saw were demons from her past that she was determined to avoid.
“When I was in high school [in Searcy, Ark.], my dad injured his back and couldn’t drive his truck any longer,” she recalls. “We lost everything, lost our home, had our car repossessed. We had to live in a little metal shop my dad made with his own hands. I remember the desperation, the sadness, the fear of not knowing what’s coming next, the constant possibility of looming homelessness.
“When you experience that as a kid, when you realize that not everything is handed to you, that it can be taken away in a flash, you learn that you can’t just scrape by, do the bare minimum and go home. It sparked an intense work ethic in me that has never gone away.”
The Little Rock station had hired her as a new kind of hybrid functionary in TV news production – an “MMJ” or “Multi-media journalist,” Hutson explained. “We did our own research, writing and reporting, and shot our own video. It was daunting, but at least there was some job security in it.”
It also got her to a bigger market, where that job security seemed threatened to evaporate almost immediately.
An Apology in Time
“I had misspoken about something in one of my reports, and the family of the murder victim was complaining,” she recalls. “Instead of burying my head in the sand, I sought out the mother in the courtroom and apologized to her. I said I was kind of new, and not yet entirely sure of what I was doing, and I felt horrible.”
“One of the Dateline producers was standing nearby, and afterwards she took me aside and said, ‘You’re going to be just fine!’ I stood a little straighter after that. I knew I could do this!”
Eight years later, this bundle of determination and perseverance has become the evening anchor on Louisville’s WHAS11. It’s the culmination of her hard work, but she hasn’t yet relaxed into her success.
“Even as I put in my application for the job, I was not sure I was ready for it,” she recalls. “I had been doing morning news in Waco, Texas, which was a little more goofy and light-hearted. Waco had been my comfort zone. Could I rise to the level of an evening newscast in a major market?”
Hutson wasn’t exactly brimming with confidence. “I saw how experienced and professional the anchors are here, how committed they are to the community. Was I ready?”
Feeling at Home, at Home
She was amazed the first time Doug Proffitt walked into the room. “He’s so intelligent, his presence just fills the room.” And she was impressed with the way the entire team – Proffitt, Rachel Platt, Renee Murphy and the others – welcomed her and put her at ease.
They did their best to make her feel at home, perhaps not realizing that this was more of a homecoming for Hutson. This Arkansas traveler who had stickers from Texas, Arkansas and Ohio on her luggage was Kentucky country born and bred.
She was born in a hospital in Murray, Kentucky, easily found on a map in the southwest corner of the commonwealth, near the Tennessee border. While her family moved to Searcy, Ark., when she was a little girl, she often spent summers at the family farm back in Calloway County.
The farm was in Hico, to be exact. Don’t even bother to look for it on that map. Hutson says there was never any official designation of Hico, save one green and white sign on the community’s lone main commercial street. She’s not entirely sure why the sign was there, or where the name Hico came from, or what it actually refers to.
Mail from the outside world went to the Dexter, KY, post office. The area’s claim to fame, other than the outstanding state university in Murray, is its proximity to Land Between the Lakes. And though Hutson and her family moved to Arkansas when she was young, Hico was where they returned every summer, where her grandfather had a farm and much of the family lived nearby.
When asked, she says, “I usually say I’m a Calloway County girl. That’s how I’ve always defined myself.”
Introduction to TV
But it was in high school, in Searcy, where a new definition emerged. The school had its own TV station and an introductory course in TV production. “I loved having a camera in my hand,” she says. “Something about going out and interviewing people, then coming back and putting it all together to tell my story.”
The stories were often “hard news.” “I didn’t want to do only pieces about the cafeteria food or the spirit squad,” she says. “I did a piece about a girl suffering from bulimia; and a high school girl who became pregnant and had to put her child up for adoption. When I told those stores, I felt I was doing something for the general good.”
But was it a career? “Well, after high school, I tried waitressing and didn’t last a week. I broke all the saltshakers.” She then tried radio sales back in Searcy. “They said I’d be great at it,” she recalls. “I was terrible!” She also worked in an attorney’s office, and in a tanning salon, but nothing was scratching the itch.
“Then I saw some reporters’ reels on Youtube, and said, ‘I can do that! I’ve already done it.’ ”
She borrowed a camera from her high school Journalism teacher and put her own reel together. The station in Little Rock was hiring multi-media journalists, so she sent in her tape and they offered her the job.
“I had to borrow money to put gas in my car so I could get there.”
After the beauty queen incident, Hutson followed the traditional peripatetic route, Little Rock, then a couple of years in Cincinnati, then Waco. In 2016, her mother died and she wished to be closer to her father. WHAS had an opening, Hutson was hired, came here in January 2018 – and came down with the flu!
“I was stuck in my hotel room, in the snow, for a week,” she recalls. “But Rachel, Doug, everyone was so considerate and generous. Rachel gave me her doctor’s name, Doug told me not to worry about my delayed news debut. I felt accepted and valued, and everything has worked out so far.”
Along the way in her travels, Hutson met news photographer Wayne Cross in Little Rock. When she came to WHAS 11, he secured a job at WDRB. In fact, she says, Proffitt put in a good word for Cross at WDRB. “That’s how this station works,” she says. “It’s how this community works!”
The couple lives in Jeffersontown with their two “kids” – a four-year-old Huskie named Abita and a three-year-old Lab mix named Shiner. If you notice a pattern of names familiar to liquor stores’ beer coolers, Lisa says to “blame my husband. He named them.”
Though Kentucky is in her blood, blue by birth, Louisville might as well be on a different planet than Hico. But Hutson has adjusted in a hurry. “It’s the most fascinating place I’ve lived,” she says. “Driving in on I-64, or over the I-65 bridge, it has all the aspects of a huge city. But the fact is, it has a very small-town feel. It’s easy to connect to people, talk to them.”
She says when they were moving into their home, the plumber offered to help them unload the truck.
“And no, he didn’t charge us, either.”
Lisa's TOP FIVE
Her five favorite things to get done in Louisville – whenever the weather gets nice. Lisa and Wayne feel like tourists, wanting to involve themselves in everything Louisville has to offer. Here’s the top of her list.
“We haven’t had a chance to let our dogs out for a real run. It’s been so rainy and cold. Everyone says the best place for that is the Parklands at Floyds Fork.”
Passing that big bat outside every time I drive by the museum, I feel like I have to see what’s going on inside. My dad played baseball, my nieces and nephews play. How cool would it be to get our families here to Louisville and see it, check it out and to get those bats with their names engraved on them.
Wayne and I used to have so much fun going to the Arkansas Travelers minor league games in Little Rock. Minor league baseball is just so fun and relaxing, a great opportunity to sit outside and enjoy the sunshine while you watch the game.
It’s so cool, such great old architecture, so amazingly preserved. Not only have we not made it there, I’ve never even had bourbon. But I’m in Louisville now, I need to try it and have the whole experience.
The Belle of Louisville
Louisville is a river city, and it has that great old steamboat culture. Dinner cruises or just riding down the river. It’s been lovingly restored, but you can still imagine there are some card sharks playing a high-stakes poker game going on in one of the cabins below deck.