As part of a new series called “My Big Break,” All Things Considered is collecting stories of triumph, big and small. These are the moments when everything seems to click and people leap forward into their careers.
Before she became an Emmy Award-winning journalist, Deborah Norville was a senior at the University of Georgia with a low-paying job as a weekend reporter at WAGA-TV in Atlanta. She was barely scraping by on her weekly pay of $75.
“I would park underneath a street light at an apartment complex near the television station and curl up in the back seat with my little portable alarm,” says Norville.
She’d wake up early enough to drive to the television station where she’d wash up in the restroom and prepare for a full day of reporting.
“I was sleeping in the car and watching my pennies and being the eager beaver who was in the newsroom before anyone else and the last one to leave,” she says.
In January 1979, President Jimmy Carter traveled to his home state, Georgia, to receive the Martin Luther King Jr. Nonviolent Peace Prize. One of the president’s stops was his favorite restaurant in Atlanta.
Norville was sent out to cover his appearance, waiting hours in the cold before Carter’s motorcade finally arrived.
“I’m standing there with my yellow and blue microphone knowing full well that I’m not going to get to ask the president anything,” says Norville. “But just in case, you have that one question prepared.”
The president made his way through the crowd of reporters and suddenly approached Norville.
“I got to ask him my question,” she says. “And he answered it. And protocol would dictate that the president then goes to someone else. Jimmy Carter didn’t move. And I only had one question.”
Desperately trying to think of something else to ask while she was on live television, Norville looked at him and said, “Mr. President, how is it being home?”
“And Jimmy Carter went on and on and on,” says Norville. “He talked for so long that it started to get weird. And I finally cut the president off and I said, ‘Sir, I believe your dinner is getting cold. You might want to get inside. Congratulations on your award.’ “
She then turned to the camera and said, “That’s the scene from here, back to you.”
“Truly Jimmy Carter had spoken to no one but me,” she says. “And that’s what got me my big break.”