Gwinnett’s Travis runs the good race for life
By John L. Byrwa
Some people run for the exercise. Some run for the rush. Some run for the sheer fun of it, and still others run because they have to.
For Randy Travis, the award-winning investigative reporter for WAGA-TV, the Fox affiliate in Atlanta, and one of Gwinnett’s favorite sons, his unbridled love of running can be attributed to all of the above.
“In 1991, I found out I was a Type 1 diabetic,” explains Travis, now 53 and in his 25th year with WAGA. “I was covering the soldiers coming back from the first Gulf War, and I was always so thirsty and I couldn’t understand why. I’d take one of those ice buckets you find in hotels and fill it with ice and Coke – three at one time -- and just down it. Looking back, that was not the best thing to be doing.
“Well, after I went home to Snellville, I got checked. The doctor said, ‘You have diabetes.’ I tried to control it through diet, and went off Cokes cold turkey. I lost a bunch of weight but it didn’t help. So I went on insulin and I started running again.”
To say Travis just runs is to say Bob Villa just putters around his old house on weekends. Travis typically runs three to four times a week, and the basement walls of his home are a testament to his dedication.
“I ran the Peachtree Road Race for the first time in 1982, but I didn’t really train for it,” Travis said. “Then in early 90’s when I started running again to control my disease, it worked out great. In ’93, I started running (the Peachtree) again and I haven’t missed one since. Our basement is filled with framed Peachtree Road Race t-shirts all around.”
Over time, Travis said that his wife, Joan, started to get a tad jealous of her husband’s new and colorful decorations, and that led to a decision by her that brought the couple closer together.
“My wife said, ‘I want a t-shirt, too,’” he said. “But I told her the only way you can get one is you have to run and finish the race. So she started running, too.”
Over time, the Travis’ started to become bored with the shorter races so they decided to take on bigger challenges such as half- and full-marathons. In fact, they celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary last summer by traveling to France and completing the Paris Marathon.
“Really, it was just turning lemons into lemonade,” Travis said. “I think I’m healthy today because of the disease.”
Which brings us back to the beginning of this story. Specifically, those people who run because they have to. Travis, who, through his dogged reporting and keen eye for news has exposed some of the biggest scandals and injustices in Atlanta TV history, knows all about people who run because they have to.
He’s chased a bunch of them.
Take, for instance, the former Gwinnett County Superior Court judge who had a penchant for slipping away from the bench in the afternoon, heading to Atlanta and planting himself on a bar stool.
“I live in Gwinnett County and we investigate politicians, judges, businesses in Gwinnett,” Travis said. “One of the judges would sneak away from the bench every afternoon and head to a bar in Atlanta and drink like a fish then drive back to Gwinnett. We actually filmed him drinking like 20 beers and shots in a single afternoon.
“Perhaps someone would say, ‘Why don’t you follow him and see if he gets into a wreck?’ But that wouldn’t be the responsible thing to do, so we actually tried to stop him from leaving the bar. Now, we knew how much he had been drinking because we filmed it all, but he wouldn’t admit it and said he was only drinking iced tea. So he ended up leaving in his car, and we called 911 but (the police) couldn’t find him.
“Thankfully he made it back home without getting into a wreck of hurting anyone, but he ultimately resigned.”
And while Travis has run after – and caught -- some of Atlanta’s most notorious rip-off artists, corrupt politicians and shady business people, this avid runner would actually prefer not to run after them at all.
“Contrary to what some people might think, I do not enjoy chasing people down,” Travis said. “I’d much rather us sit down at a table, put a microphone on your tie or dress and talk about this issue, whatever it is. I’ve found that always works out for the best.
“Now, many people don’t want to talk and I have to be ready to run, and I will. That at least shows viewers that you’re really trying to ask the tough questions.”
Travis was born in Minnesota but moved to Athens in 1967 when his father accepted a professor's position at the University of Georgia. He graduated from Cedar Shoals High School in 1978 and matriculated to UGA, where he cut his news teeth at the nationally acclaimed Henry Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. Before graduating from UGA in 1982, Travis got his first big break when he earned a position as a sportswriter for the Athens Banner-Herald, which brought him up close and personal to countless Georgia athletes and future heroes.
“It was a great sports time at UGA,” Travis said. “Dominque (Wilkins) in basketball and Herschel (Walker) in football. And it did help me when I went out and started looking for TV jobs because I already had two, three years’ experience writing fast and writing on deadline.”
That experience helped land Travis a position as a reporter for WMAZ-TV in Macon, where he worked from 1982-83. From there, he moved to WYFF-TV in Greenville, S.C. (1984-88), then to WMC-TV in Memphis, Tenn. (1988-89), before landing in his dream job at WAGA in 1990.
“It’s kind of like baseball,” said Travis, who is a big Atlanta Braves fan. “You start at Single-A, then move to Double-A, then Triple-A. You have to learn to hit the curveball before you’re ready to hit in the majors.
“But my biggest thrill was sitting at the anchor desk with Jim Axel, the (Fox 5) anchor. I grew up watching Jim. He said, ‘Randy, whatcha got?’ And I said, ‘Jim, here’s what I’ve got.’ Jim’s passed away now, but that was a great thrill. And meeting and working with (Fox 5 meteorologist) Ken Cook, who just retired, that was another great thrill.
“I never dared dream having a job like this. It really is the best job in local TV, in the country, really.”
In his 25 years at WAGA, Travis has earned accolades, awards and the valued respect and admiration of colleagues and viewers alike. He’s won several regional Emmy awards and twice has been honored with the prestigious national Edward R. Murrow Award. The first was for his story that exposed the illicit sale of crack cocaine supplies in metro Atlanta convenience stores. The other was for his revealing a collection of audio-taped dispatches from prison employees as they watched Georgia death penalty executions. A few months after that series aired, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled the state’s electric chair unconstitutional.
But don’t ask Travis if he has a story of which he is most proud.
“That’s like asking who your favorite child is,” chuckles Travis, who is the proud father of two daughters, Katie, a special education teacher in Gwinnett, and Millie, who is a senior at Berry College. “It’s hard to say.”
What isn’t difficult for Travis to explain is his love of Gwinnett County. In 1990, he and Joan, then new parents for the first time, were searching for a location that would be both convenient to WAGA in Atlanta and close to his parents in Athens and her parents in Walton County. They found Snellville, where they lived for 10 years before moving to Lawrenceville in 2000, and the Travis family has been in Gwinnett ever since.
“In 1990 our oldest daughter was just 6 weeks old and, of course, our youngest daughter was not even born yet,” Travis said. “We bought in Gwinnett because we wanted to be closer to my wife’s parents, who lived in Walton County, and my parents, who were in Clarke County. We figured it would be easier for baby sitters.
“After a while, we found that Gwinnett has just the right balance. I don’t think we would be comfortable living in any other part of Atlanta. It just feels right to us.”
As right and comfortable as Travis’ favorite running shoes.