Mary Baer looks back on ‘ride of a lifetime’: 30 years at Channel 4

‘I will miss bringing you the news,’ longtime anchor says as she reflects ahead of retirement

Mary Baer is pictured riding her horse. (Mary Baer)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla.Note: Mary Baer is retiring in May after 30 years at WJXT, in this article, she reflects on her time at The Local Station.

Half my life. I’ve spent half my life on the set in the Channel 4 studios, bringing you the news!

It feels like I’ve grown up here. I raised my beautiful daughter here who took her first steps on Jacksonville Beach.

I found the love of my life in this city, and I became a grandmother. 30 years of being challenged, inspired, and so grateful to be part of the Channel 4 family.

30 years of laughing along with you at home at the silly stories, crying over the heart-breakers, and breathless over the astonishing moments in history we’ve witnessed together, taking place right before our eyes.

I’m so grateful to have had this experience and can honestly say, I don’t regret a moment. It’s been a whirlwind of emotions, reflecting on the countless stories I’ve had the honor to bring to our viewers.

From reporting to anchoring to sitting on the news set for hours during breaking news, history-making elections, life-altering hurricanes or searches for missing children. Sitting down with parents who struggled through tears to understand why their child was gone.

Striking stories

Telling the story of a young local girl, Ava-Kate, earned me my first Emmy.

Ava Kate had to undergo approximately 40 operations at 10 months old after swallowing a lithium button battery. (WJXT)

I’m so proud of that award because this story is sure to reach many lives, and I pray will save many.

This little girl is alive, thanks to her family’s quick actions after she swallowed a button battery.

It took dozens of operations and years of treatments for her to fully recover.

The x-rays of Ava Kate's throat show where the button battery got stuck after she accidentally swallowed it as a 10-month-old. (WJXT)

And her grandmother continued pressing on to help pass a law in Congress that would ensure all items using the tiny batteries are made childproof.

What a victory!

Jonathan Kassebaum in hospital (Special to WJXT)

Another eye-opening report was that of the Miracle Pastor.

In 2019, he lost his life for several minutes when he was electrocuted and drowned in his own backyard, while trying to rescue the family dog.

Jonathan Kassebaum is a pastor at The Crossings Church in Fruit Cove and a Florida Air National Guard commander, who’s now a living, breathing miracle: In a startling turn of events, Kassebaum survived the bizarre accident, thanks to the quick actions of his daughters, along with some yard workers nearby.

Jonathan Kassebaum during interview with Mary Baer (WJXT)

Unforgettable colleagues

All through these years, I’ve had the opportunity to sit alongside award-winning on-air teammates who help keep the balance and the energy.

I’ll never forget coming to Jacksonville in 1992 from Columbus, Ohio, and meeting the newsman who would become my “big brother” and my co-anchor for decades!

The news director asked me what I thought of Tom Wills as soon as we completed my audition on set. I was blown away by his booming voice: “He’s LOUD,” I blurted out. But what I meant was, “He’s a FORCE!”

Tom and Mary have been co-anchors for decades.

Anchoring the news with Tom for three decades has taught me about persistence in getting the story right and always thinking of the viewer when writing.

“Good reporters get good luck,” he tells me, whenever I tell him about the latest interview I landed for a story.

Stories with heart

Some of the interviews I was most excited to share were the life-changing stories of those waiting for an organ transplant. Having the opportunity to tell the stories of those who were on the brink of death when someone made the selfless decision to donate their organs, saving multiple lives!

A co-worker, newsroom photojournalist Javier Cruz, was diagnosed with leukemia in 90s, and I was assigned to share the “story” of Javier’s diagnosis, treatment and bone marrow transplant -- all intimate details of a young man’s life that he was brave enough to share on camera with me and our community.

Hope for Javier

I was so proud of him, and so proud to be able to share his courage and his infectious optimism. I was so grateful that I was able to follow his story.

Javier left me with a message before he passed away, “Tu siempre mi amigo”... Friends, always.

Hope for Javier

I pledged to continue to share the word about the need for bone marrow donors and organ donors in general.

I’ll never forget suiting up in scrubs at UF Health to witness a kidney transplant. The surgeon said, “Hey, Mary! Come on over!”

Oh wow, he wanted me to step up to the table where a Mandarin woman lay, completely under sedation. Her abdomen was open, inches away, and I was peering down into the cavity where he was pulling out her kidney!

Then a small cooler showed up -- like something you’d take to a tailgate -- and her kidney was placed into it and whisked away down the hall.

We were able to follow it and watch another surgeon welcome us in as he placed it into the husband’s abdomen -- a miracle right in front of me.

Andrew and Savannah

“The Gift of Life: Andrew and Savannah” was a touching inside look at organ donation involving small children.

We created a reunion between a young Jacksonville Beach boy and the family of a little Arkansas girl killed in a car crash, who ultimately saved his life after losing her own.

An absolutely inspiring lesson on generosity.

Memorable moments

Over these 30 years, I’ve watched Jacksonville transform. I began reporting in 1992, and was at the Landing, standing above Hooters, the day the city got the Jaguars. A sea of revelers below me kept running around, screaming and cheering. I rushed back to the newsroom and told Deborah Gianoulis and Tom Wills, “This city is on its ear!”

November 30, 1993. That was when the NFL awarded Jacksonville, Florida the expansion franchise that became the Jacksonville Jaguars. NFL commissioner at the time Paul Tagliabue and brand new owner Wayne Weaver hold up the Jaguars' first jersey.

I knew right then and there, Jacksonville would never be the same.

Among the “interesting” moments in my career at 4:

  • I’ve put a microphone in the faces of George and Barbara Bush in the backyard of a local home during a fundraiser.
  • I shivered in the cold while waiting for President George W. Bush to make his way through D.C. in his inaugural parade.
  • Watching a former U.S. President teach Sunday school was a once-in-a-lifetime honor. Jimmy Carter was genuine and engaging while preaching at his hometown congregation, Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia.
  • Sitting at midnight in the kitchen of the Governor’s Mansion in Tallahassee watching Gov. Lawton Chiles make sandwiches for me and a photojournalist while Chiles cracked jokes was hilarious!
  • Chatting with Tim McGraw on camera was a “tough” assignment before he took the stage at Mayport for a patriotic performance
Tim McGraw and Mary Baer (Copyright 2023 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.)
  • Cruising the Atlantic aboard the USS JFK watching jets take off and land on the deck after dark during training off Puerto Rico was enthralling! But it was our actual landing onto the deck of the carrier that shook me to my core!
Mary Baer on the JFK (Mary Baer)

While that white-knuckle landing on the JFK was a thrill I’ll never forget, this career has been the ride of a lifetime -- reporting and anchoring, helping lead Channel 4 through three decades as Jacksonville’s No. 1 station for news.

I will always treasure the time spent with friends at 4, and sharing this time with you, our loyal viewers. And to those of you I’ve had the privilege to interview through the years, thank you for sharing your joy, your pain and your insight.

It’s truly been an honor. You’ve taught me so much.

Mary Baer is looking forward to spending more time with her horses and working with the therapeutic riding program she started on her farm. Mary is riding off into the sunset May 31, 2023.

Mary, Marty and Tom (Mary Baer)
Mary Baer with her grandson, Sebastian.