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Interview with Rudy Kalis

At five years old, Rudy Kalis cruised into New York harbor with his family. On the broadcast, Rudy, who spoke only German upon his arrival on U.S. soil, shares how his communication skills expanded along with his views in the years since.

About Rudy

During his long and exciting career as one of the nation’s premiere sports newscasters, Rudy has crossed paths with some of the greatest names in sports history such as Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Jack Nicklaus, Wayne Gretzky, Wilma Rudolph, and Darrell Waltrip.

A testament to his success can be seen in the fact that he has won four regional Emmys for outstanding broadcasting and commentary. He has also won a national Iris award for a locally produced documentary.


EASLEY: Rudy Kalis were you four years old when you came from Germany?

KALIS: Well five.

E: Five years old. Do you remember anything about Germany?

K: Yes, oh yeah. I remember a few things about Germany and I certainly remember the boat ride over. In Germany I just remember little things, kind of the countryside and things of that nature. But it really becomes pretty vivid when we got in Braverhoff in Germany in 1952 and we came to the United States and got aboard the USS Balao. My mom, my sister, and I can still remember the smell of the steel of the ship, and walking on the biggest thing that I thought I’d ever seen. To me it was like an adventure, but I can’t imagine how my parents locked the door where we lived and just moved. It’s like me saying to you, “Well you’re going to move to China next week. You cannot speak the language and you’ll never come back.”

E: You’ll never come back.

K: You cannot speak the language, but you make that decision and move. We went through a storm on board that ship. At one point they battened down the hatches and Dad and I went from deck to deck, as a little kid exploring. He kept me up near the conning tower, pulled a steel door opened, and when I looked out I saw the front of the ship disappear into a wave.

E: You’re five years old?

K: I’m five years old. This burned in my memory. I can remember cruising into New York harbor in 1952, June 10.

E: How long was the trip? Do you remember?

K: I think it might have been fourteen. It seemed that long. But I remember seeing the Statue of Liberty. It was a sunny day and Dad told me later that men were lined on the deck of the ship and many of them were crying. I didn’t know and years later he told me. I’m a little kid just staring, but in his mind he’s saying, “My goodness, I’ve never seen anything like this like the skyline of New York City,” and then he’s saying to himself, “What am I going to do in the country? How am I going to provide for my family?” So we had one wooden trunk, that I still have at home. That was the only thing we were allowed to bring for a family of four. I’ve kept that and the United States Government issued us each fourteen dollars and train tickets that eventually got us to Milwaukee. We were sponsored by a Lutheran Mission in Milwaukee, Wisconsin that allowed us to come over. That’s where we headed off to.

E: Do you remember going to school?

K: Kindergarten. Mom took me to Kindergarten and dragged me there everyday. I came home crying everyday because I thought the kids at school were laughing at this dumb little foreign kid who doesn’t know how to talk English.

E: You still have your German?

K: We still speak it. Well, we did but, mom and dad are both gone now. That’s all we did was talk German around the house. I knew some Russian even. Mom and Dad were born in the Ukraine. See, my dad was in the Russian Army, and was captured by the Germans and my mother became a refugee. She was a school teacher and became a refugee, out of a village in Beirut. They were both in the Ukraine, and they met each other in the southern part of Germany after World War II, and that’s where we were born, fortunately in the American sector as opposed to on the Soviet side. If I was in trouble which was pretty often, they’d kick it into Russian and I knew they were talking about me.

E: Fourteen dollars and a train ticket, and you end up in Milwaukee. You lived there twenty years?

K:Twenty years this summer.

E: In 1970 you go to the United States Air Force.

K: Michael, It wasn’t until I was about sixty that I realized that we’re a product of how we grew up. The way I grew up and the way I look at my life is that mom and dad came over here and they were very staunch. Education was the most important thing for us and saving money. There’s no such thing as spending; you save a portion of everything you’ve earned; every Saturday we clean the house i.e. the work ethic; Dad went to work every day at five thirty in the morning; he came home and he was faithful to his wife. I remember the first time I watched a football game with him on TV, Green Bay Packers, on a little black and white TV. He turned to me and said, “They’re killing themselves over one ball. Why don’t they give them each one and send them home?”

E: (Laughter).

K: To him soccer was futboll.

E: German constitution baby!

K: I grew up with that kind of environment. We’re all different. My sister and I were so different. She got straight A’s. My parents without even knowing it would invariably say, “What’s wrong with you? You’re not going to amount to anything. Are you dumb? What is wrong? Why can’t you..?”  Well I must be dumb. Well I got into those high school years and I have thought about this and this is what has gone through my mind as I try to figure out where my life came from. I had a basketball coach in high school where I either did exactly what he wanted me to do, or else he’d just wear me out. Never once do I recall him saying, “You did a good job.”

E: Yes, encouraging.

K: I talked to an eighty year old man once who told me what a coach had said to him when he was a kid. He said, “It never left me. I felt worthless.” So that’s a part of without even knowing it and I think that the more I think about it in life, that a lot of us who have had that experience where somebody planted a seed of that perspective like “Why can’t you get it?” They thought they were doing good and right. I’m part of that era and if you’re fortunate, which I wasn’t, you have a parent or someone that’s says to you, “You’re magnificent. You’ve got an ability.”

E: Right. You can do this!

K: You can do music. You can do this. You’re going to be great someday and then my conclusion now, at sixty years old when I finally thought of this is: there’s a lot of us walking around in this world who have spent our whole lives either trying to prove somebody right or prove somebody wrong.

E: I’ve got a thumbnail philosophy of ministry that everybody’s under encouraged and everybody needs a friend and we don’t understand the power of encouragement and some of us had that critical parent or critical nature. If it was unusual enough that you had someone that said, “Rudy, you’re really good at something.” You’d get up early and stay up late.

K: In a heartbeat. Yes! My father till the day he died would say to me, “Son, keep your broken English. Keep your mouth closed. Be grateful you have a job. This is a wonderful country.” You are immigrants and that’s the way it is. I think I always had a bit of an immigrant’s mentality. I grew up with no self confidence, partially because of what was said and Dad never played sports. His idea of being a man was the fact that he worked hard, was faithful to his family, provided the check, and did the work. No such thing as “Get out there kid. You play ball.”

E: Did he ever tell you he loved you? Did he ever tell you he was proud of you?

K: I don’t remember till later. Yes, there would be times. For things that were athletic, it would be subtle, because the game wasn’t that important, but that’s an interesting thought. He would tell me to some degree. He was a good dad. He wasn’t one of those brow beaters. Dad was a very quiet gentle soul in most ways.

E: Sure, Sure.

K: Because of that I came out of high school, didn’t do well, couldn’t get into a good college, and tried a technical school for a year, and played pool instead of going to classes. I finished my first year with a 0.94 grade point average, cut seventy four classes, and had a draft number of forty six in 1966 in Vietnam.

E: You had to go to the Air Force?

K: Well I made the decision. I didn’t know what I was going do, but I loved airplanes. So I thought I’d be an air traffic controller. Certainly, Mr. Kalis, sign here, and they made me an Air Policeman!

E: There you go: MP. Well just before we get too far off. Thank you for your service.

K: Well people do say that to me. It is a joy. I will say that the four years in the military started a change in me that I wouldn’t be sitting here today if it wasn’t because of that. I don’t think I did anything for them. I walked around airplanes and I guarded a few things.

E: But you served and I think our country needs to be reminded that men and women in uniform need to be respected and appreciated. I just didn’t want it to go by. Thanks for your service.

K: Well your kind. I speak at a lot of schools and you talk with young people. Often times I’ll say, “If you have no direction in your life, you need to think about the military because it’ll force you to (unfinished thought).” Now I know you might say, “I don’t want my child to get killed in Iraq.” Obviously, I don’t want to tell you what to do, but the discipline changed things.

E: After the four years, you went back to college?

K: Yes, it was hard to go back in because they looked at my old transcripts and I went to the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, UWM. “Mr. Kalis, I don’t know if we can take you.” So they took me on what was called final probation.

E: Slow pro.

K: Then people said, “How did you get into broadcasting?” Back in high school, I literally almost stuttered until I was about fifteen. I couldn’t stand in front of an English class and give a speech to anybody.

E: Rudy, you have flown an F-16?

K: Well, I didn’t fly it. No, no I flew in it. I got a ride in it. I can’t fly an F-16.

E: Well it says here in your bio you flew an F-16.

K: Well, you know put the word “in” in there.

E: That’s one of those evangelastic words.

K: Let me tell you the reason for that. That was a few years ago. The Thunderbirds came in. I’ve driven race cars. I’ve hit the wall at the Nashville Speedway.

E: Let’s talk about that. You had a pretty serious accident.

K: I had a hundred and fifty one stitches in my head.

E: How old were you?

K: Well, I’m sixty seven. It was 1999, so what’s that? Fifty two? Can I count?

E: Close enough.

K: I was practicing for a race and I hit an oil slick and just T-boned the wall. I had glasses over my full face helmet, but hit it so hard that my face shot forward even with the harness, bent the steering wheel, and imbedded the glasses in my forehead. The first guy that got to the car said to me, “Rudy, this is the best wreck I’ve seen here in years.” If you didn’t have your seatbelt on, I think you would have cleared the grandstand.

E: That was encouragement, right?

K: Well, I don’t know. I said, “Can we fix the car?”

E: Do you remember it?

K: Yes, it was like slow motion. You know what I learned out of that from a spiritual standpoint? If I die in a car crash and something happens, you could easily go into shock, and you can easily float from this side over to the other side and be with the Lord. A shock set in, slow motion, hit the wall, I could not breath very well, did not lose consciousness thinking of things, went into a different state, and could have just been with our Lord. So I think of plane crashes and things, I don’t know. I won’t know until I’m up there with Him, but I think there’s a certain safeguard that God puts around that. So I’ve done that, and the reason I do that and I’ll let you go from that is because back to that little kid. I’m still trying to find out if I’m a coward. That’s why I’ve gone skydiving, the F-16 was another chance. They didn’t think I would. They had to give me a health exam because I was fifty-nine years old at the time. You know, will this guy last? They gave me a barf bag. I loved it. Because I’m still trying to find out if I’m a coward.

E: Rudy is the co-anchor of News 4 Today in the Nashville area. If you’re not from the Nashville area, you wouldn’t know, but Rudy is quite a legend in the Middle Tennessee parts. You were sports director for WSMV TV since 1974?

K: I came here in July 1974. I worked in Green Bay. We talk about this because we talk about faith; it’s part of what God did. We all grow; we come out of colleges; we’re looking for jobs; and I got that first opportunity in Green Bay. Eventually, I started to do some sports, lobbying a little bit. I was there about a year and a half, almost two years, and the sports director quits. He gets mad and quits. I’m going ohhhh. I was making eight thousand dollars a year. They got caught off guard and they let me do the sports. Meanwhile, they hired a consultant agency from a large company that was working with stations around the country. After a month, they called me into an office, to talk to the guys with suits who were sitting there and they said, “Rudy, you should think about getting out of broadcasting. You are a friendly enough guy, but you’re not aggressive enough. You need to be in your face.” They wanted that sort of stuff way back then and it’s interesting now because you and I are aware of our communication business that you watch television, you watch politicians, you watch broadcasting, and the more cynical, the more negative, the more critical, the louder I can shout, the more intelligent I am.

E: The ratings go up.

K: They think or they feel they go up, and yet I think it’s novel almost to go in another direction. So I was a part of that world, and from there I just was disgusted. For me it was the same kid going all the way back to mom and dad saying, “Rudy, you’re not good enough.” See that’s followed me all my life. “What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you make it?” Then you find out if you’re going to quit, or If you’re going to give it up and just run somewhere else and something dogmatically said, “I don’t want to.” I sent out resumes and one of them was to Nashville and they hired me and I came here in July of 1974. I thought people out here didn’t wear shoes. I never had been down south. (Laughter). I decided to stay a year and here I am forty years later.

E: And go on from there. Well from the Nashville Community, they think you walk on water;they love you. It’s a great relationship for Nashville and for you. You’ve interviewed Mohammed Ali, Michael Jordan, Jack Nicklaus, Wayne Gretzky, Darrell Waltrip, a local hero as well, on and on and on.

Terrible question, but tell me some of the ones you enjoyed the most?

K: Well, probably at the very most, Darrell and I are contemporary age wise. I think he’s four months older than me. I love racing and came here. I saw him when he was here and won his very first race at the National Speedway in 75; I was there when he won the Daytona five hundred; I was there when he raced this last race. I’ve always called him a dear friend. He’s very, very interesting. He’s very vocal and he’s one of those guys that is just a fascinating interview. Probably my all time favorite interview was Gary Player, the golfer, because he’s one of those people that speaks substance when he speaks to you. It’s not superficial and I can tell he’s interested in me because he stares into your eyes. He says meaningful things. I paid attention to him being around other people and I saw him in a tournament when I was close by and he goes up to a kid and says, “Young man, tell me about your education. You may not remember everything that you have learned, but you will always remember the effort it took to learn it.”

E: Wow!

K: So there’s a depth to what he says and I had a couple of lengthy opportunities so he sits very high on the list. I kind of enjoy them all, like you, because I like people. I like to look to see if they’re looking me in the eye; I like to see the tone; I want to hear if there’s an arrogance, if there’s not. It’s just that I’m fascinated with people.

E: What’s your biggest surprise from an interview?

K: Biggest surprise? I got conned once. The big surprise was a guy called me up and said he was going to be a race car driver at Talladega. He said, “Meet me over at this Nashville Speedway. I’ve got a truck I’m going to show you.”  I’ve got a brand new team and we went over and did an interview. I was looking forward to it. It was fine and we put him on a great team from Nashville and we watched. He went down to Talladega and he qualified for the race. We make a big deal out of him and the green flag falls. He pulls off of the track and everyone leaves. He didn’t even race one lap. He was a flim flam man. He conned his way into the whole thing. He never raced. We went to his race shop and it wasn’t even there and I said to myself, “Here you are a magnificent broadcaster and a journalist and you flat out got conned by some guy.”

E:(Michael laughing).

K: So I suppose that was the surprise.

E: That was the surprise.

E: Without naming names, any big disappointments?

K: Ummm.

E: In principle, in responding?

K: There’s been a few. You’re right. People who are in the golfing world, is where I really was surprised. They are very flamboyant; they’re very outgoing; they’re very “Hey” people conscious, and yet when the camera turned off, they were very grumpy, and grouchy, and complaining about everything. When we turned the camera on, it’s like a light switch went off and I said, “Oh, okay, it’s showtime.” So those kinds of things happened. If you’re going to be a grouch, be a grouch all the time. I can take that, but don’t play con with me.

E: Be authentic as a grouch, don’t hide behind it. As you look back on a career like you’ve had, you probably don’t feel decorated, but there are people that would look at you and say, “Wow, that’s a decorated broadcasting career. It’s a great ride.” What do you tell them?

K: I heard a great line from Bruce Matthews. He retired from the Tennessee Titans. He was seventeen years in the NFL, fourteen years of Pro Bowl, and he gave me a line that I use all the time. He said, “Everyday I went to work afraid that they would find out that I’m a fraud,” and because of my work, and I think you probably feel this to some degree, it’s been like I’ve been there one day. I can not go on anything I did yesterday, because I may not get the information today. Every single day, I’m this little immigrant kid who’s trying to prove that he’s still worth being there. My Dad was Leo Kalis and I’m still Leo Kalis’s son with a little immigrant inside of me and I can’t believe all these things.

E: (whispers) Wow!

K: All I’ve done is basically outlive everybody else and that’s why I’m still here.

E: Just keep showing up and being faithful?

K: Yes.

E: You’ve got a lot of outside interest. You work with ALS. You work with the Jason Foundation?

K: Yes, to help prevent youth suicide. It’s a powerful story because Clark Flatt came to me and his son Jason was the one that committed suicide. He and I, met each other on the day his son was born. It was the same day my daughter was born and we were looking through the glass at our newborn children. Little did I know that sixteen years later, he would call me and he would tell me that his son had committed suicide and then he asked me if I would consider being with his organization. I don’t do much. I speak on their behalf. I champion with them anyway I can. I’m not on the board because they have serious work to do. It is a passion of mine and every year when I know it’s my daughter’s birthday, I also know it’s Jason’s birthday, and I have to call Clark and Connie. God does things. He lets you go through things so that you’re ready to do other things.

There’s a hospital here and I went to visit a guy named Rickie. Somebody said, “Rickie has MS. He’s never been out of bed. He’s in a wheelchair. He would love to meet you.” They finally talked me into going over there and I do my little complimentary, “Hey Rickie, good to see you, my friend. How are you doing?” And I spend about twenty minutes and then I said, “Well, Rickie, I have got to go.” I’m about to hit the door and Rickie says, “ Rudy, would you come back next week?” I’m thinking, “Ohh, I did what I’m supposed to do. I grinned and smiled and gave you a little time.” “ Sure Ricky.” I went back the next week for another half hour and I’m about to leave and he said, “Rudy, would you come back next week?” And it’s like God said, “You’ve got to go back, boy, until you like it!” For five years, I went back and visited every week and then one week they came to me and said, “I want you to meet somebody else.” I went down this other hallway and lying there is Krissy, who weighed fifty three pounds, had ALS since 1991, and could not communicate except blinking with her eyes and smiling. I visited her every week for eight years until she passed away. Then the ALS Association called me out of the blue and said, “We thought about asking, would you consider hosting a golf tournament for us?” I said, “Lord, I know why you had me do this and I understand.” I asked her one time and she could communicate. There’s a small little way of communicating where they use one letter at a time in some small way. I asked her, “Do you ever get discouraged?” She said, “I wake up every morning at four a.m. and I realize I’m trapped in my own body, but the weaker I get,(and this takes a long time to write this out), the stronger my faith is because it’s the only thing I have left.” So I had poison ivy once and I’m sitting there scratching from cutting the grass and I said, “Krissy, what do you do when you itch?” She said, “I pray. That’s all I can do.” That’s reality.

E: That’s perspective, isn’t it?

K: Yes, one of my favorite verses in the Bible is Proverbs 16:9: The mind of man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps. My parents raised me and I don’t know how they afforded it. They sent my sister and I to a Christian grade school and a Christian high school. My story of faith is that I walked out when I was eighteen years old because I went in the military when I was nineteen and I ran off. When I was thirty one years old here in Nashville again, having been rejected at that time to become the sports director at the station, I’d been here four years, and the sports director had left. I certainly thought in this case I was qualified and should have gotten the job. The hardest thing in my life was pride. It just eats me up. It’s the ego of our business and they didn’t hire me. Everywhere I went people said, “Rudy, why didn’t you get that job?” “Well, I didn’t want it.” I don’t have the big drug habit. I don’t have the powerful story of loved ones, having been killed. For me, it’s a daily battle with my ego and my pride. I was driving down the road one day and I hit the steering wheel of the car and I’m saying, “God help me! I’m sick and tired of being phony, with this stuff beating on me.” I went to play basketball at the YMCA, the Green Hills Y, three days later. I went across the street to go eat a hamburger afterwards, sitting there were a room full of people and this man walks around and this was a black man. I say this because the room was full of folks that look just like me. He didn’t know me from Adam. He sat down in front of me and said, “Are you alright? You look like you’ve got something on your mind.” I’m alone. I don’t know if I’m showing any of those signs. I don’t know what’s going on. He sat there for two hours and talked to me about faith and about a God that loves me, and he called me the next day to have lunch. He wasn’t even from Nashville. On October 10th, 1978, at Wendell Smith, what used to be called Bishop’s Corner Restaurant on West End Avenue. He said, “Would you like to pray and have Jesus Christ be Lord of your life?” I said, “I certainly would.” He said, “Let’s hold my hand and we’ll pray.” I said, “Wait a minute, now brother, we’re sitting here at a window seat. Two men holding hands isn’t going to work real well.” He said, “Hold my hand!”

E: (Laughing).

K: I walked out of there, no big halo around my head. Two things happened to me: One, God changed my mouth. Secondly, He put a burning desire in me to want to know something about Him. So what God has done in my life has been a gradual change over a long period of time. Of course, God has a sense of humor. I used to think I was pretty nice looking. I had a lot of pretty thick black hair and God said, “That boys a little cocky. I believe I’ll snatch the hair off his head.” I am no longer just another pretty face. (Laughter).

E: But you’ve got a head that can pull it off. Some people can’t.

K: Is that right? I’m not sure what that means.

E: I can’t. No you look good. I like my hair that way and my wife says, “No! No sir. You will have hair.”

K: You’ve got a gorgeous (unfinished thought).

E: Yeah, well. We never like what we have. Right? How do you carry your faith? Obviously, you’re outspoken with ALS, and the Jason Foundation, and I Am Second and all that, but there’s  still a tension. You’re in a world. You are in entertainment, a media world, a sports world.  How do you carry your faith in all of that, Rudy?

K: I’ve realized this:the longer I walk in faith, the more my life is diametrically opposed to what’s considered successful in my business. I can’t shout at you, but I can be enthusiastic. I average about sixty, seventy, speaking engagements a year and I can openly talk about my faith, but I try to do it in a way whereby I’m not beating anybody over the head with it. I just let it flow from where I am.

E: At the same time, I mean God uses a bunch of imperfect vessels, right?

K: Oh yeah! But there’s a beauty to apologizing.

E: Absolutely!

K: We have post newscast meetings. We used to have more than now and I went in there one time and I had done something wrong with the labeling because they were yelling, “What in the world? The wrong video showed up and who’s fault is it?” I said, “Whoa, wait a minute. I’m the one. I blew it. I put the wrong label on it. I put it in the wrong place. The blame is all mine.”

E: Stop.

K: Yes, silence. Ten seconds. What else do we need to talk about?

E: I want to thank you for being with us. If you’re listening to the broadcast, you can find more information at Michaelincontext.com. Thanks for joining us. This is Michael Easley inContext.

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