by Elizabeth Coady
There is no off switch for the electric current that keeps Kristen Welker perpetually running.
At 41, the Philadelphia native has for seven years reported the news as White House correspondent for NBC news and its cable and online outlets, a position that’s more calling than career.
Her workday typically begins at 5 a.m. when she rises and reviews the political headlines breaking overnight to prepare for her Today show segments, then often doesn’t end until 11 p.m. While covering the 2016 election, she slept only two or three hours each night. If she makes it home for dinner, her husband of a year, John Hughes, usually cooks it for them.
She wouldn’t have it any other way.
“NBC is unique because we have a network and a cable station, so the volume of work that we do is probably greater than any other network,’’ Welker said during a recent telephone interview. “But this is a really important moment in our history, so every day I wake up invigorated to meet the challenge.’’
Of covering the presidential election, she said in 2015: “It is this electric feeling to be out on the campaign trail. You are living a part of history.’’
Welker, who grew up in Fairmount, has visualized herself as part of history as far back as grade school when journalism was on her to-do list.
“My friends and I would joke about it, in part, because they knew that I talked a lot, and they thought that was one of the key qualities of a journalist,’’ Welker recalled. “… I loved writing, I loved interviewing people, and of course, I liked listening to people.”
While writing for the school newspaper, the Earthquake, at Germantown Friends School, Welker lobbied for a “Frozen Yogurt Day” for lunch period and analyzed dreams as an “EQ psychologist’’ in a column dubbed “Kristen’s Couch.’’
Today, she deciphers the implications of Trump’s “bromance” with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the First Lady’s white hat, both on view during the President’s first State Dinner held April 23.
In 1994, the year Welker graduated from GFS, she predicted on a questionnaire that she would be either (1) the first black woman president, (2) the next Oprah Winfrey, (3) the head news broadcaster of TV news magazine 20/20 or (4) an ambassador to Italy.
Prediction three fits her reality as she now reports daily on the political contretemps of President Donald J. Trump’s White House and previously, that of Barack Obama. Allegations of Russian presidential election meddling and a “Stormy” extramarital affair are but two of the stories that have kept Welker occupied during Trump’s first year in office. And while she didn’t talk party politics directly, she did acknowledge that Trump’s “fake news’’ label is an affront to most journalists she knows.
“The term ‘fake news’ I think has been used as a weapon against the media,” Welker said. “… Obviously President Trump has really coined that term to talk about stories he disagrees with, sometimes with stories that have factual errors that have had to be corrected … It’s been used to discredit the media. And I think it underscores the necessity of getting it right … I think that that is a responsibility that every journalist I know takes very seriously.”
Every day’s an adrenalin rush when you’re reporting history’s first draft for a network. But Welker caught the political bug long before she landed her television gig. While growing up, her mother Julie Welker, described as “uber-realtor’’ by Philadelphia Magazine, ran for Philadelphia’s City Council twice. And Kristen recalls interviewing former Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode for a school term paper.
“I just learned an incredible amount about politics and reporting just from living in Philadelphia,’’ said Welker, who grew up a few blocks from the Philadelphia Art Museum and frequently jogged along Kelly Drive, then known as East River Drive. When she visits home, she still likes dining at her favorite neighborhood haunts: Pete’s Pizza, Figs and London Grill.
“She was an outstanding student, and my main memory is … the class would pretty much start because she would walk in and ask a question,’’ recalled Anne Gerbner, who taught Welker 11th grade English at GFS. Gerbner, who has kept up with Welker periodically, described her as inquisitive, warm-hearted, a great communicator and serious-minded but also very funny.
After high school, Welker attended Harvard University, where she majored in history and wrote articles for the school newspaper The Crimson on topics ranging from Earth Day to the Unabomber. She interned for the Today show as a rising senior.
She later joined the ABC affiliate WLNE-TV in Providence, Rhode Island, where she began her ascent in television news. She joined NBC’s Philadelphia affiliate WCAU in 2005 and joined the network’s West Coast headquarters in Burbank, CA, in 2009. She became a White House correspondent in 2011.
Such devotion to work can put a crimp in romance, and Welker had pretty much resigned herself to never marrying. But then friends set her up on a blind date with John Hughes, a marketing director at Merck & Co., and he proved undaunted by the crush of demands on Welker’s time.
When the two married last March at a lavish affair at Center City’s Bellevue Hotel, he knew what he was getting into: her job had made her two-and-a-half hours late for their second date. While waiting for Welker to show, he concocted a crossword puzzle of presidential trivia, a memento that was printed inside the couple’s wedding program.
Welker said of her husband. “He really keeps me grounded in an incredibly busy fast-paced news environment.” Hughes, 45, still works for Merck but has relocated to Washington, D.C., where the couple live.
A history major as an undergraduate at Amherst, Hughes says the now-storied crossword puzzle he created while waiting for Kristen on their second date took about two hours to devise.
He also gave a shout-out to Chestnut Hill, which he loves and would visit frequently while residing in the Lansdale area. “I thought about living there many times,’’ Hughes said. “Chestnut Hill is a real gem, so I’m happy to connect with the readers.’’
So what’s left for Welker? “That’s a great question. I love covering the White House and foresee doing this for some period of time,” she said. “I also fill in for Andrea Mitchell and Chuck Todd and so would love to add more of that.”
Welker says the best advice she ever got came from fellow broadcaster Soledad O’Brien, host of the newsmagazine “Matter Of Fact” on Hearst stations. “She said, ‘Don’t think you’re getting into broadcast journalism because you are a good talker … The key to being a good journalist is being a good listener, asking follow-up questions, really understanding what your interview subject means’”
And the best advice she has given to others? “The most important advice I give to young journalists is to believe in yourself, be prepared to work hard and … push through those challenging moments.”
Welker can be reached at https://twitter.com/kwelkernbc.