By Erik Burgess
The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead
FARGO, N.D. – It sounds like a tear-jerking story Kevin Wallevand might tell you.
In the mid-’90s, premature and ill infants lay bawling in a neonatal intensive care in Fargo, the families either unwilling or simply unable to be there.
Amid the chaos sat Wallevand, WDAY TV’s longtime features reporter.
But he wasn’t telling the story. He was making it happen, volunteering on Sunday nights to rock sick babies to sleep.
Eighteen-odd years later, he would be invited to high school graduations of some of those same babies.
Wallevand is marking 30 years as a reporter at WDAY this year, a career that has spanned half of the station’s 60 years on air and made him Fargo’s most recognizable reporter onscreen or off. Colleagues, interview subjects and even competitors sing his praises.
“All of his stories have heart and emotion,” said longtime coworker and friend Dana Mogck, who started at WDAY the same summer as Wallevand in 1983. “We have people calling the station saying we want Kevin to do this story. … They call and request him.”
In a recent interview with The Forum, Wallevand was humble about his work at WDAY and of his extensive community service, including those nights he spent 20-some years ago cradling babies to sleep.
“It’s just a Sunday night, couple hours. Not a big deal,” he said.
But to those he has touched over the years – in his work and his life – Wallevand is a very big deal.
“He’s just such a genuine individual,” said Sharon Spittler, vice president of Sanford Children’s Hospital in Fargo, who recalled the story of Wallevand comforting families at the neonatal intensive care.
Spittler said the nurses there still talk about it today.
“His heart was in it,” Spittler said. “It’s where he wanted to be.”
Even before the camera blinks on, Wallevand has what he needs to write his story.
Once the camera starts rolling, you’re just chatting. He smiles, mic in one hand and pen in the other, and prefaces with “Just to begin,” but the truth is, he’s been interviewing you since the moment he first locked eyes with you.
This is what it’s like to be interviewed by Wallevand.
“There are times he asks tough questions and you don’t even figure out they’ve been tough until you’re done,” said Moorhead Mayor Mark Voxland. “He’s good.”
Last Wednesday, The Forum followed Wallevand around on his 51st birthday. His story that day was somewhat dry, talking to AAA spokesman Gene LaDoucer about texting and driving. But even though the topic won’t coax any tears, Wallevand was 100 percent in the game.
“He really seems to focus on the story at hand and wants to understand it, to be able to portray it to the audience accurately and personally,” said LaDoucer, who has dealt with Wallevand for about nine years.
After 30 years in the business, it’s that focus that puts Wallevand above the rest, said longtime colleague and WDAY anchor Kerstin Kealy.
“He still comes in every day with like a freshness that a new reporter has,” Kealy said. “He’s still willing to learn. He still has that excitement about a good story, and he will still – as a producer, I know this – fight you tooth and nail for a good story, which says a lot.”
On Wednesday morning, a potential good story would come his way. Finishing up with LaDoucer, Wallevand got a tip that there was a young man at the McDonald’s on Main Avenue who was attempting to skateboard across the United States.
When Wallevand arrived a few minutes later, he approached a customer in the back to ask if it was him. It wasn’t.
“That’s the weirdest question I’ll ask someone today,” Wallevand said with a smile.
Though he often traffics in what some might consider fluffy features, Wallevand still loves the chase.
“To be honest, there’s nothing better than a really good spot news story,” he said. “Those are still really fascinating and interesting to cover. The features are great, (but) the features are harder.”
A long, bright career
Wallevand’s love for the chase dates all the way back to his childhood in the small town of Vining, Minn., home to around 50 people in the middle of lakes country.
As a boy, he would set up a cardboard box and imitate the reporters on TV. In high school in nearby Henning, Minn., he lived for current events day on Friday.
His interest translated into a gig writing for the newspaper at what’s now Minnesota State University Moorhead, but Wallevand said it was the art of making a great feature package for TV that drew him away from print journalism. He started as an intern at WDAY in 1983 and has been there ever since.
“For TV, you have to always remember that for whatever you write, you better have video to go with it,” Wallevand said. “So when I’m out on a story, I’m always kinda listening and looking at what the photographer is shooting, and I’m listening to what’s around us.”
It sounds pretty simple. But even some competitors acknowledge he’s the best in town at it.
“Kevin makes everybody better,” said former colleague Jim Shaw, who has been the news director at FOX since 1999. “It doesn’t matter to me that he’s a competitor. To me, in this market, when it comes to storytellers, there’s Kevin Wallevand and there’s everybody else.”
Reporter at heart
But even after 30 years, Wallevand’s passion has never pushed him out of the reporter’s role. Other than a few short-lived interim stints, he’s never been an anchor or editor.
Not that there weren’t opportunities. When the late Marv Bossart retired in 2000, three people were up for the job: Mogck, current FOX anchor Austin Schauer, who was at WDAY at the time, and Wallevand. But when auditions rolled around, it was clear to Mogck that Wallevand wasn’t fascinated by a desk job.
“One day he showed up wearing like a used car salesman sport coat, loud plaid. He had no interest in the job,” Mogck said.
He’d rather be out there every day engaging with people and writing stories, Mogck and Kealy agreed.
“You know how some people get energized by other people? That’s him,” Kealy said. “Sitting on the desk I don’t think has ever really appealed to him.”
Wallevand has also never moved on to bigger cities or bigger markets, which he said can lead to some in the business to question him.
“They’ll look at you like, ‘Thirty years in Fargo? You must be horrible,’ ” he said.
But here he’s close to home, where his roots are still firmly planted, and he has the freedom to do the stories he loves.
Like the time he traveled to a Hankinson, N.D., high school to capture the look on the face of a student with Down syndrome when she was named homecoming queen.
“Everything was great about that story, and we led with it, and we do that periodically, where you lead with a good feature story,” Wallevand said. “So, you show me on the map what TV markets do that. I just don’t think there’s many.”
‘He has this gift’
There are other stories Wallevand has done that have affected him just as much as the viewers, like in the 90s when WDAY sent Wallevand around the globe to do a series of documentaries in Peru, Mongolia, Haiti and Africa.
“I just found those stories to be just life changing for me,” he said.
In “The Quilt,” which won an Emmy for writing, Wallevand followed a quilt from Fargo all the way to the African country of Angola, which was in the throes of a civil war. In another story, which won an Emmy for directing, he joined local Vietnam veterans on their first trip back to the country since the war, which he called “one of the most emotional things” he’s done in his life.
“He has this gift that makes you care about the people in his stories,” Kealy said. “I have been crying on set more for that man than anybody else.”
While there have been fewer of those documentaries in recent years, Wallevand still makes trips. Every year he joins a small, local medical team that travels to Haiti to deliver supplies and help those with cleft palates or severe burns. He’s gone for the past 16 years.
“You get satisfaction, I think, out of doing something like that,” Wallevand said. “I just grew up in a great family, and I grew up in a great town … and my mom was just a really caring person.”
Put in their shoes
Wallevand’s own story almost always comes back to his hometown, where his father is mayor, and to his late mother, Ginny, who died from pancreatic cancer 10 years ago.
It took three weeks from diagnosis to death, a quick and devastating process for the man so used to profiling the tragedies of others.
“He was at Mayo (Clinic) when (the diagnosis) happened and basically walked into a bathroom and threw up because he knew what it meant,” Mogck said. “When he came back to Fargo, his first stop was in the newsroom, and he walked in and just looked like hell. I don’t think he had eaten for days.”
Wallevand is now a part of a local pancreatic cancer awareness group in honor of his mother, raising money for local families stricken by the deadly disease. It’s on the long list of his community service, which includes time with the March of Dimes and serving on the church council at Trinity Lutheran in Moorhead.
He’s not married, but he said much of his time outside of work is also consumed by spending time with his niece and his godchildren – the three children of Mogck.
Mogck, whose own mother is a two-time cancer survivor, said he thinks Wallevand’s experience with his mother’s quick death a decade ago informs the way he connects so well with people of all stripes and makes him “a rock to lean on” in the newsroom.
For many years, Shaw reported alongside Wallevand at WDAY – which, like The Forum, is owned by Forum Communications Co. Shaw said his colleague-turned-competitor cuts against the grain of reporter stereotypes.
“People a lot of times think of reporters as cold-hearted and nasty and looking to stir up the pot, and Kevin is not,” Shaw said. “Kevin is the compassionate guy looking to try to show the human condition … to capture what people are doing for each other.”
That’s what Wallevand said he strives for every day, whether in his shoes or someone else’s.
“Anytime you sit down with a family that’s going through something, you just have to pause and (think), ‘OK, do your job, but put yourself in their shoes. And what they’re going through,’ ” Wallevand said. “I think that if you can write your story like that, it’s going to resonate with the viewer.”
Erik Burgess is a reporter at The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. Both The Forum and WDAY TV are owned by Forum Communications Co. Forum Communications is a multimedia information company based in Fargo, and owns dozens of newspapers, websites and television and radio stations, and commercial printing plants in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin.