Larger Than Life
Leroy Sievers of Potomac faced the news that he had cancer the same way he handled life: head on.
Over dinner in December of 2005, Laurie Singer glanced at her fiance, Leroy Sievers, and noticed that his face was drooping. Singer and Sievers were television news producers with demanding, globetrotting jobs, but she realized at once that he was not simply tired. They got up from their restaurant table and went to the emergency room at nearby Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, D.C., where a scan revealed that Sievers had a brain tumor. The colon cancer he thought he’d beaten four years earlier had metastasized. "It was the face of cancer looking back at me," Singer says.
Sievers’ colon cancer was discovered in the fall of 2001 during a routine colonoscopy, but surgery appeared to have eradicated the disease. "I was the poster child for early detection and treatment," Sievers said in a commentary that aired on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition on Feb. 16, 2006. His brain tumor was successfully removed, but tumors were found in his lungs and liver, and his doctors gave him between three and six months to live. "Funny, the things you think about," Sievers continued in the commentary. "I’d been meaning to get my eyes checked. Should I still bother?"
As executive producer of ABC’s Nightline, Sievers had traveled the world with the show’s host, Ted Koppel, reporting on conflicts in places such as Kosovo, Somalia and Iraq. During 25 years in the television news business, Sievers had witnessed the deaths of thousands of people. He had commented for NPR on the 10th anniversary of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda—an event he had witnessed and which continued to haunt him—and on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Now, contemplating his own death sentence on Morning Edition, he began, "Death and I are hardly strangers."
That piece and another in May touched Sievers’ listeners, and dozens wrote to share stories of their struggles with cancer. According to his NPR editor, Maeve McGoran, it was Sievers’ honesty that made the commentaries so effective: "Leroy reported exactly what he saw, without ever flinching." His voice, she says, was "deeper than baritone. Once you heard it, you could never mistake that voice for anyone else’s." In June, 2006-a month after doctors had predicted he would die, as Sievers noted wryly in a third commentary—NPR offered him a contract to produce a monthly radio piece, along with a weekly essay for podcast and a daily blog titled, simply, "My Cancer."
It wasn’t the first time that Sievers had put his life and his thoughts on public view. While at Nightline, he created a listserv in which he wrote about the evening’s show and reflected on his childhood or his travels. "The viewers loved it," Singer says, adding that he also wrote about his 2001 colon cancer diagnosis, which prompted readers to get tested.
A gregarious man with a booming, infectious laugh, Sievers was often at the center of things. The airy house in Potomac that he shared with Singer (the high ceilings and deep steps were built to accommodate Sievers’ 6-foot-5-inch frame and size 13 feet) was the site of frequent dinner parties, as well as the couple’s legendary Halloween bashes. One year, Sievers dressed as former Attorney General Janet Reno. Another year, when mad cow disease was news, Sievers attended as a mad cow.
In the trenches
At the beginning of the Iraq War in March of 2003, Sievers and Koppel were embedded with the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Division. They covered the first wave of the invasion known as the Tip of the Spear. The rumors of poison gas and weapons of mass destruction, Singer says, made it "the most worrisome of all of Leroy’s wars. Ted’s wife and I called each other every day." But, Singer says, "I knew a long time ago that this was our understanding: Leroy wanted to see the world and know what was going on in it. He’d say tome, ‘This is what I do.’ Sure, I worried. But would I ever say, ‘Do not go?’ Never."
Singer, who produces Bob Dotson‘s American Stories for NBC’s Today show, began her career as one of the country’s first female sportscasters. "I was an athletic kid, and my parents were big sports fans," says Singer, who grew up in San Diego. "Sports were my life." After graduating from San Diego State University, Singer heard that the sports director at KFMB-TV, the local CBS affiliate, was looking for an assistant. During her job interview, she was told that she was the only female applying. She was hired, and within three years was reporting on television. Women sports journalists were so unusual that there was no ladies room in the press box at New York’s Shea Stadium; in Montreal, she was only allowed into the press box at all after an argument. In 1975 she was the first woman to cover the World Series; in 1979 she was hired by CBS and moved to New York.
Sievers grew up in the conservative Los Angeles suburb of San Marino, where, as a teenager with waist-length hair and a rebellious streak, he was "a bit of a square peg in a round hole," Singer says. But he was also popular and a good student. He was president of his 1973 graduating class at San Marino High School, and then attended Princeton University in Princeton, N.J. "Not a good fit there, either," according to Singer, who says the school’s exclusive eating clubs didn’t jibe with Sievers’ egalitarian sensibilities. He transferred to the University of California, Berkeley, where he began his journalism career at college radio station KALX.
He met Singer at CBS in the early fall of 1980. He was the night news manager, and she produced sports highlight pieces that went out to news stations across the country. "Leroy came down the hall because he’d heard there was this girl doing the night sports news," Singer says. "He always tells the story that I was so nasty to him, because he came in to chat and I was there to work, so it was like, ‘See ya later, buddy.’" Sievers got a second chance with Singer not long after at a Halloween party he attended as a trash can. "He came over to say hello, and I thought, this guy is really interesting," Singer says. "To have the courage to come dressed as a trash can. It was a good costume."
Sievers met up with Singer again in Los Angeles, where he had become the CBS bureau chief, when she covered the 1984 Summer Olympics there. When she was offered a job producing news pieces for the L.A. bureau, she accepted at once. "It was one of those times when everyone in an office is magic-we all worked so well together," she says. Her first "date" with Sievers was at Disneyland in 1985, although neither of them recognized it as such. They’d agreed to meet there after discovering that they’d both loved Disneyland as kids, and they arrived in separate cars. "That evening, when he got into his car and I got into mine to drive back to L.A., we both felt at the same time that something had clicked," Singer says. "But we didn’t say anything about it to each other." They finally did begin dating soon afterward, Singer says, and learned that their co-workers had long assumed they were a couple. When CBS moved Sievers to Miami in 1986, the company agreed to move Singer there as well.
In the summer of 1988, after Singer left for Seoul, South Korea, to cover the Olympics, Sievers decided to surprise her with a diamond ring and a proposal. He arrived home with a bandaged head after being clubbed by riot police in Santiago, Chile, just as she returned from Seoul with a stomach bug. "Here’s the ring," she recalls him saying. "Now I gotta go to sleep." But their constant travels continually sidetracked efforts to make concrete wedding plans, and it would be 20 years until they married.
In 1991, Sievers was offered a post as a producer for Nightline—a plum job, though he and Singer loved the balmy Miami climate and their house with a swimming pool in Coconut Grove. They were hesitant about moving to the more staid Washington, D.C. Sievers was traveling in Somalia when Singer called him to say she’d found a house in Potomac. It had good bones, she told him, and the windows could be enlarged to let in views of the surrounding woods. His response: "Might as well go for it."
Sievers retreated to that bright house, filled with colorful mementos of their trips, when he became too ill to travel any more for work. Koppel, who had left Nightline to work at the Silver Spring-based Discovery Channel, proposed to Sievers early in 2006 that they make a documentary together about the process of living with cancer. "Leroy liked the idea immediately," says Koppel, who lives in Potomac. In reporting on such a personal story, Koppel says, "Leroy and I dealt with his cancer the way we dealt with these disastrous stories wherever we covered them, with a sort of gallows humor. I knew he wouldn’t be offended by it, and in fact, I think it cheered him up a little bit."
In the documentary, as well as in his NPR blog and radio commentaries, Sievers often injected humor into a subject not noted for its comic elements-musing, for example, on the temptation to "play the cancer card" in order to get a table at a popular restaurant. But he also addressed the fear and grief caused by a bolt-from-the-blue diagnosis, the dull misery of chemotherapy, and the pain of delivering bad news to loved ones.
Over the 2 1/2 years that Sievers wrote the blog, more than 36,000 people responded. Many cancer patients and their caregivers wrote daily, saying the site was the first thing they turned to every morning. "There was one young man whose father had cancer," Singer recalls. "One day he asked his father how he was feeling, and the father said, ‘I don’t know. Go read Leroy and he’ll tell you how I’m feeling.’"
"Leroy was all over the world, covering every important story of his time," Koppel says. "And yet the impact he had while he was dying of cancer on thousands, tens of thousands of people, was undoubtedly greater than we had collectively in the pieces that we did."
"As a journalist, Leroy could guide you into uncharted territory, because he’d been there," says producer Rebecca Lipkin, who was based in London for Nightline. Lipkin recalls the encouragement she got from Sievers before she set out for Iraq on assignment: "He was a giant of a man, and I was more of a chicken," she says. "But he’d say it was all right to be scared-that only a silly person wouldn’t be." In June of 2007, Lipkin was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer, a rare and particularly virulent form of the disease. Having left Nightline in 2005, she found herself stranded in England, her "pre-existing condition" making it impossible for her to obtain health insurance in the U.S. Undergoing surgery, chemotherapy and radiation in London, she was bolstered by Leroy’s blog: "The raw honesty of that American voice…hearing the heart that came through," she says.
The blog did more than just provide comfort to others with cancer. It also encouraged them to be advocates for themselves. "Every time we met with another doctor, Leroy would always end the conversation with, ‘What else have you got?’" Singer says. "Even the doctors at Hopkins [the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center in Baltimore], who are about as aggressive as they come, realized this would be something a little different. Leroy interviewed them," she says. "Normally, doctors tell their patients, ‘this is what we do,’ and the patients would nod their heads. That’s not anything Leroy would ever do."