Portraits of Courage

Faith Fancher

Sunday, October 26, 2003

Fancher's openness and
kindness cast a wide net

by Annie Nakao
Chronicle Staff Writer

It may have been 5 a.m., but when honey-voiced KISS-FM disc jockey and San Francisco Giants announcer Renel Brooks-Moon hit the air, the calls started streaming in nonstop - all of them about the late former KTVU reporter Faith Fancher.

There was the Oakland police officer who remembered the professional way she carried herself on a ride-along in a tough part of town, and had quietly followed her career. The woman whose son was murdered in '92; Fancher covered the story with compassion and kept in touch with the family all these years. Women thankful that her breast cancer advocacy work may have saved their lives. Folks who just missed her million-dollar smile and unabashed Southern warmth.

"It's been an outpouring of love and warmth and respect for her," said Brooks-Moon. "Saying she's inspirational almost doesn't even convey it. There aren't enough words."

After a 6 1/2-year battle with breast cancer, Fancher died last Sunday in her Oakland hills home, in the bosom of her family and friends.

A funeral was conducted Wednesday at St. Leo's Church in Oakland. Just as Fancher led her struggle against the disease in public, the service was open to all who wished to attend.

In an era of sound bites and sweeps, some journalists do manage to leave a large and deeply personal imprint on their viewership and communities. Faith Fancher did so and then some.

"She was a force to be reckoned with," said Brooks-Moon, a close friend. "She had an amazinng zest for life. Everything she did, she did with such responsibility and pride and genuine love. She was always focused. Eyes on the prize."

As a pioneering journalist of color, she was hired at WBR in Knoxville, Tenn., in 1973, beating out Oprah Winfrey to become the first black TV journalist in Tennessee. The first African-American woman in CNN's Washington, D.C., bureau, she also reported for NPR.

It was at NPR that Fancher met her husband, William Drummond, a professor at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism.

"I was sitting at my desk, and this was back in 1979 at the old NPR headquarters, where everybody was dressed down - you know, it felt like a college radio station," he said. "I looked over my shoulder and saw this woman dressed to the nines, wearing a mink coat. She took the coat off - she had this really stunning outfit on - threw it on a couch and started editing quarter-inch type. That really attrached my attention."

When the couple moved to the Bay Area, Fancher was hired by KTVU(-TV), where her polish and experience landed her the most difficult assignments.

"Faith was a wonderful reporter, one of the best in the Bay Area," said KTVU co-anchor Dennis Richmond. "We always wanted Faith to get the tougher stories. She'd do them better than anyone else. She'd leave mad because we were pushing her. She'd say, 'I'm gonna show you.' And we said, 'Oh, we know we're getting a good story tonight.'"

One of Fancher's long-standing assignments was covering executions at San Quentin.

"She dreaded it," said Drummond. "But she was the best live reporter they had, and they knew it. She was there at Loma Prieta. At the Oakland fire. The way that people appreciate the media, they remember the way a person looks. So they remembered her, her smile."

For a lot of viewers it was personal.

"You couldn't walk down the street without having every person greet her like a long-lost friend." said KTVU producer Leslie Donaldson.

As a journalsit of color, she also knew how to help others.

"I was brand new and I went out to a fire scene," said KRON co-anchor Pam Moore. "Right away, she goes, 'Right over here, honey.' It was like, 'Hey, girl!' She was a Southern girl and she had that Southern warmth."

Fancher was fun-loving, too. Loved parties and dancing. She once sang a breathy happy birthday a la Marilyn Monroe to former Giant's manager Dusty Baker.

"She had the loudest laugh you'll ever hear in your life," said KTVU co-anchor Leslie Griffith.

It's no surprise, then, that when Fancher's cancer was diagnosed in 1997, she tackled it with the same head-on approach she took to life.

"I heard her say then, 'I'm telling my story,'" Griffith said. "Now, I come from the school of thought that the story should never be about yourself. I remember thinking, 'Oh man, that's a slippery slope.' But she told me, 'I always shoved my microphone in people's face and asked themn to tell me their pain and now it's my turn. I will make a difference.'"

Together with former KTVU anchor Elaine Corral Kendall, Fancher documented her cancer treatment on air - from the lumpectomy and subsequent mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, to later rounds of chemotherapy and radiation when the cancer recurred. She had seven operatios by June 2002, and through it all, she shared her story with Channel 2 viewers.

Bald head and all, Fancher also showed up between treatments for breast cancer fund-raisers. Picked up in a limousine, she'd put on her makeup on the way.

"She was willing to go public with not only her treatment but by demonstrating how easy a mammogram is, how you can still look sexy in an evening gown, how you can still have a husband who loves you," said publicist Pamela McDonald, longtime friend and co-chair of Friends of Faith Foundatin, which aids low-income women with breast cancer and works to create awareness of the disease. "She encouraged lots of people who were in denial about the significance of the disease, about seeking out early detection. She saved many lives."

It was in her role as breast cancer advocate that Fancher found, Richmond says, "a bigger story to tell."

Friends of Faith, founded by Fancher and a group of prominent Bay Area media professionals, including many pioneering black female journalists like herself, has raised close to $750,000 to help small, local organizations like the Charlotte Maxwell Complementary Clinic in Oakland provide direct services to low-income women with breast cancer. Let the larger agencies fund breast cancer research. Fancher wanted money to go to poor, uninsured women who had to choose between chemotherapy and losing their minimum-wage jobs.

Fancher made the decision after discovering that black women, while less likely than white women to get breast cancer, are much more likely to die from it.

The Women's Cancer Resource Center in Oakland knows all about Fancher. In February, Friends of Faith established the East Bay Breast Cancer Emergency Fund, which helps low-income women with breast cancer pay rent, medical premiums and dentist bills, buy food and find housing.

"I was homeless when I got diagnosed," said Alene Schale, 46, who lives in transitional housing in Alameda, thanks to the fund. "So when you meet someone like her, she just embraces you. She's made it possible for people to know they're not alone when it's really scary."

The Center also runs a free library of 3,000 books and articles on cancer subjects for women and their families and does online research at no cost.

"Even at the library, women who stopped to return books this week know the news, that Faith's passed," said Dolores Moorehead, an advocate at the center. "She's touched everyone's lives."

That was reflected in the blitz of e-mails at KTVU.

"Faith put a face on breast cancer. She showed me that it can happen to anyone," wrote Myriette.

"My mother-in-law won her battle against cancer and my sister is on her way to a full recovery," wrote Susan of Sunnyvale. "I would like to think that the knowledge that my mother-in-law and sister gained had a lot to do with Faith. Through her own suffering and hardship she educated a lot of women and gave them the strength never to give up hope, to never be embarrassed and to never feel sorry for yourself."

Self-pity, friends say, wouldn't have been Faith Fancher's style.

"I remember on one occasion, I called to check on her and I was misty-eyed about her courage in the face of this disease, and she says, 'Hey, girl, guess what? I got my new nipple today!'" said KRON's Moore. "I burst out laughing, crying and laughing at the same time. She loved life and loved people. She handled it and turned it into a crusade for women who don't have friends in high places. She had such a strong faith. Her name was so appropriate."