It’s been a big year for WATE-TV’s Lori Tucker.
On June 14, her media colleagues will honor her for her professional accomplishments at the Front Page Follies, a 40-year-old annual gala where local journalists roast local public figures and pay tribute one of their own.
“I’m so blown away and so honored by this,” she said. “I could hardly believe it.”
In March, Project GRAD gave Tucker its annual “Caught Doing Right for Kids” award for coming up with – and executing – the idea of giving every Project Grad graduating senior a new laptop (previously, only four students, a boy and a girl from Austin-East and a boy and a girl from Fulton, were selected by lottery to get laptops). Tucker, who has hosted the event for 15 of the past 16 years, credits many others for helping make the laptop project a reality.
“Every year there was such anticipation on those kids’ faces, and only four of them could be the lucky ones. I thought, ‘I want to give everybody a laptop.’
“So last year, about a month before the dinner, I went to our new general manager. Coby Cooper, who’d been here for all of two weeks. But we couldn’t get enough money together to get quality laptops. I vowed to get it done this year.”
She got total buy-in on her dream from her WATE colleagues and many others. Sales reps hit up their clients and the station held an all-day telethon. Even the salon that does Tucker’s hair pitched in, and together they raised enough money to buy 90 new laptops.
“I was so overwhelmed,” she said. “We raised enough money to get laptops worth the equivalent of $500 each. These will last them through college, and they’ll be armed with something that will allow them to know that their community is proud of them and supports them.”
She’s hoping to make the laptop project an annual affair, and says she just got a call from someone who told her that his club wants to help raise money for next year’s graduates.
“It came together so beautifully this year. Anything we ask, this community always gives,” she said. “And I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Still, the night of the ceremony was a bittersweet affair for Tucker. Her friend Zenobia Dobson was the macebearer, and everybody felt the absence of Dobson’s son Zaevion, who died trying to shield his friends from a gang of gunmen in 2015.
Tucker has won too many professional and community honors and awards to list here, and after 25 years on the job, it’s hard to imagine her anywhere but Knoxville, but she almost didn’t get here.
Tucker’s husband, Steve Wiggins, is a photographer whom she’d met when they worked at the same station in San Antonio.
(“I’d vowed I’d never date anybody I worked with, but he was just too cute and funny to pass up,” she said.)
They were living in Houston when WATE made its first offer. She wanted to take the job, but couldn’t sell the move to Wiggins, despite the fact that he was a University for Tennessee graduate (he’d interned at Channel 26 when he was in college).
“He had a great gig at KPRC, a powerhouse station in Houston, covering the Rockets and the Oilers (who later moved to Nashville and became the Titans),” she said. “We had many a conversation about what we were going to do next. I had to turn them down and it killed me,” Tucker said. “As time passed, I said, ‘Man, I wish we’d taken that job.’”
She couldn’t quit thinking about her first glimpse of Greystone, the Victorian mansion that houses the TV station:
“I said, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s a castle. Are you kidding me?”
It turned out the folks at WATE were thinking about her, too, and they devised a ploy to change her husband’s mind:
“They called in April and said, ‘We really want you to reconsider,’ and they ended up sending Steve a football signed by Phillip Fulmer and the team. He loves that football, and we still have it.”
Tucker and Wiggins have two daughters, Kelsey and Sarah, both of whom are UT graduates, and a granddaughter, Riley, who is 15 months old. After many years of anchoring both the evening and the 11 p.m. news, Tucker has rearranged her schedule to do the 4 and 6 p.m. newscasts so she can spend more time with Wiggins, who does a lot of traveling during the busy sports season, but schedules large blocks of time to spend with his family – particularly with Riley, who calls him Poppy.
So, her family is thriving, her work is fulfilling and she has become an integral part of the community. She says she cannot imagine being anywhere else.
“I’ve always felt this was meant we were to be.”