Elizabeth Brackett, the fearless, intrepid, persistent reporter, who worked on and off as a midwest correspondent for the PBS NewsHour starting in 1984, died Sunday after a bicycle accident left her critically injured. She was 76.
Whenever a story broke anywhere in the world, one of the first calls I’d get would be from Elizabeth, asking what she could do to help cover it. It wasn’t just being competitive – she cared. She cared about the news. She cared about people. She cared about being on the scene, hearing what had happened. We sent her to the site of the Challenger disaster in 1986, a lone reporter facing a bevy of network reporters, but she got us the story. We sent her to Rome for the funeral of Pope John Paul II. Working for WTTW/Chicago and also reporting for the NewsHour until 2011, she brought us “Chicagoland” stories – including on public housing, education, gun violence and Asian carp that were invading her beloved Lake Michigan.
But most memorable to me are visions of Elizabeth during the 1993 Mississippi floods with hip waders on, tromping into the swollen flood waters to hear from those whose homes and lives had been destroyed. Linda Winslow, the NewsHour’s former executive producer, recalled that she stayed with that story for weeks, profiling victims, tracking their stories and the stories of what had gone so wrong. She did the same during Hurricane Katrina. In 2008, she was back on flood duty in Iowa, and brought viewers the unforgettable rescue of a trailer load of hogs.
Elizabeth also had a longtime interest in politics. I swear she could name every alderman, ever. She was a McGovern delegate in 1972, but then came to journalism and turned her attention to reporting politics instead. She was an invaluable presence on the NewsHour during the scandals surrounding Rod Blagojevich. And turned her insights into a book: “Pay to Play, How Rod Blagojevich Turned Political Corruption Into a National Sideshow.”
Elizabeth brought the same passion to sports that she did to news. An Olympic caliber diver when she was younger, she took up triathlons at age 50. Since then, she won numerous national titles and five international titles in her age group. And Elizabeth being Elizabeth, she documented each win, shooting and narrating videos, including this one from Rotterdam last year.
A veteran of WTTW/Chicago, Elizabeth first started reporting for the NewsHour in 1984. She worked her way up to correspondent from being a researcher on the assignment desk at WBBM and then a reporter at WGN and WLS. She allegedly retired in 2014, but for her, retirement was “only” doing 10 stories a year. And my phone kept ringing, asking if we needed help and just saying hello from Steamboat Springs, Colorado, where she hiked, relaxed and prepared for her next triathlon. She received many honors, including national and regional Emmy Awards, two Peter Lisagor Awards for Business Journalism and a National Peabody Award.
But more than for her awards, she will be remembered for the woman she was. After her accident, comments on her Facebook page were full of words like “always sharing and always supportive of everyone’s achievements”, “a kind and indomitable woman,” “a tough woman with an enormous heart.” As Linda said, “To walk around Chicago with her, as I did, was to see how many people knew her and admired her. She is a Chicagoan to the core: she and Peter bought their house on the South Side near Lake Michigan so she could swim in it year-round — and also bike the nearby bike path.” And it was on a bike path near her home where she had her accident.
She was always talking about her family. She is survived by her husband Peter Martinez, her daughter Ilsa Wallich, her son Jon Brackett, her stepchildren Lisa Nuzzo, Stephanie Martinez, Jonathan Martinez and Matthew Martinez, her sisters Ellen Rieger and Jill Swisher and her 10 grandchildren.