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Our Town with William Kelly: TV anchor Willie Geist: ‘There’s more light than darkness’

As anchor of NBC’s Sunday Today, Willie Geist interviews people from many walks of life, from major celebrities to unsung heroes.

On Monday, it was Geist’s turn to answer questions posed by his former boss, Bob Wright, on stage before 300 Palm Beach Civic Association members, directors and guests.

Geist was the featured speaker at the civic association’s annual award event at The Breakers. Wright is chairman and CEO of the civic association and former president, chairman and CEO of NBC/Universal, a post he held for 21 years until his retirement in 2007.

Geist was a television producer before becoming anchor of Sunday Today, where he has earned admiration for his long-form interview profiles. Geist also fills in as anchor for Today on Saturdays and weekdays.

Geist began his career as a producer and editor for CNN Sports Illustrated. He was offered the job of solo host for Sunday Today in 2016. He wanted the show to adopt the more relaxed and reflective approach of CBS Sunday Morning but update the format and embrace new faces. Network executives agreed to give it a try.

“All week, you’ve been bombarded by news,” Geist said. “It’s just incessant and it’s exhausting. Our Sunday show is a deep breath. You’re not rushing out the door. Yes, we’re going to tell you what’s happening in the world but after that we want to tell you about a life well lived.”

As Wright pointed out, Geist can deftly handle on-air coverage of grave topics such as the crisis in Ukraine for hours at a clip. But he’s equally at home profiling Gail Halvorsen, the United States Air Force pilot who dropped candy to German children during the Berlin airlift of 1948 and 1949.

“They called him the Berlin candy bomber,” Geist said. “There was hope falling from the sky.” Halvorsen wanted the youngsters to realize that “somewhere out there, people were watching us and cared about us.”

There’s plenty of famous faces to be seen on Sunday Today. But Geist said there’s also room for less celebrated people who have done, or are doing, amazing things.

“Don’t whitewash the world,” he said. “There’s a lot of heavy, serious stuff going on. [But] there is much more light than darkness. I don’t think we are as divided as the media has portrayed us to be. Here is this person who I think we can agree had a pretty great life. Here is someone doing great things for their country.”

Sunday Today reached a turning point about four years ago when comedian and actor Bill Murray asked to be interviewed on the “Willie Geist show.” Geist chatted with the eccentric Murray at a bar on the roof of the Peninsula New York hotel.

“We sat and talked about everything,” Geist recalled. “Caddyshack. Saturday Night Live. Partying with the Rolling Stones.”

Soon after, a representative for Jerry Seinfeld called to ask if Geist would “take” the legendary comedian for an interview. Inquiries from other celebrities weren’t far behind.

“It takes time,” Geist said. “It takes creating something people recognize and know that it’s a good place to go. People get interested and they start asking about it.”

Geist’s interviews have yielded some colorful moments. Construction dust swirled in the air during his on-camera chat with Danny DeVito at the actor’s favorite New York restaurant.

A trip around the track in a Calloway Corvette with champion Nascar driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. topped out at 188 mph. Geist recalled wondering if the ride would be his last.

“That’s probably the fastest I’ve ever gone in a streetcar,” Earnhardt told Geist.

Geist has written several books, including the best-selling “Good Talk Dad,” which he co-authored in 2015 with his father, Bill Geist, a former CBS correspondent and New York Times columnist.

In the book, father and son tackle mandatory subjects, like sex and drinking, that they didn’t get around to when Willie was growing up.

Bill Geist was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease 30 years ago but kept it quiet for as long as he could. Willie wrote in their book that he was told of his father’s diagnosis by his mother and, even then, only after the symptoms were apparent. A self-described private person, Bill Geist publicly confirmed his condition in 2012 and retired from CBS in 2018.

“He didn’t make a big show of living with Parkinson’s,” Geist said of his father. “He kept working. I really did draw inspiration from watching how he just didn’t stop.”

That inspiration led Willie to run in the New York City Marathon last November. For a guy who had never jogged more than a mile-and-a-half at one time, the training was rigorous. To stay focused, he took a Sharpie and wrote the word “dad” on his arm.

“I dug in and I committed to it,” Geist said. “We raised over a half-million dollars in small donations. That was all for my dad and because of my dad.”

Wright praised Geist for his coverage of the Russian attack on Ukraine. “He is, I think, the best person at NBC,” Wright said. “He’s authoritative. He’s not pushy. But he can handle all different kinds of people.”

The civic association awarded its 2022 William J. “Bill” Brooks Community Service Award to Gail Coniglio, who stepped down as mayor last year after 10 years at the post.

Coniglio, who now chairs the Planning and Zoning Commission, praised the late Town Council member for whom the community service award is named. Brooks “stood larger than life and planted deep roots in our community,” she said.

The breakfast was sponsored by Florida Crystals Corporation, represented at the event by Pepe Fanjul Jr., its executive vice president and a civic association director.