As the commercials rolled during one of his final TV broadcasts, Jeff Passolt took a swig from his lucky plastic bottle that he refills with fresh water every night.
“He calls it going green,” said chief meteorologist Ian Leonard, piping in from the set’s weather station. “I call it staying cheap.”
It’s that kind of good-natured ribbing that the 61-year-old anchor will miss most when he signs off Sunday after 23 years as a lead anchor for Fox 9, a streak that has made him one of the most long-standing and popular newscasters in Twin Cities history.
“When you grow up like I did with six boys in St. Louis Park, you learn to share,” Passolt said last Wednesday with one eye on a rough draft of that evening’s script and another on a television showing the Twins game. “It’s time for me to share. I rode this thing for a long time. Now it’s someone else’s turn.”
The teasing isn’t restricted to banter during the breaks.
A few hours before going on the air, Passolt tried in vain to polish off a box of Chinese food from his favorite Eden Prairie restaurant while colleagues joked about everything from his gray hair to his encyclopedic knowledge of Minnesota.
Leonard had just returned to work after starting a new round of chemotherapy for skin cancer, but he had more than enough pep to tick off some of his most memorable practical jokes, such as the time he convinced his buddy that his car had been stolen from the station parking lot.
Passolt gives as good as he gets. Leonard once made the mistake of leaving a pair of jeans at his desk. When he got home, he realized they had been cut off at the knees.
“We try to keep it loose, for everyone’s sanity,” said Passolt, his suit coat draped over his chair, his tie slightly loosened. “We report enough bad things.”
It’s impossible to forget those somber moments: Sen. Paul Wellstone’s plane crash in 2002 near Eveleth, Minn., a story that kept Passolt on the air for 10 straight hours. The 2003 death of Herb Brooks. The arrest of Jayme Closs’ kidnapper. The closest Passolt ever came to losing it on camera was when Jacob Wetterling’s body was found in 2016.
“The best thing about leaving is that I won’t have to do another obit,” he said.
But even on serious news days, Fox 9’s signature broadcast stuck with an approach that was looser and folksier than the competition. That’s partly because the crew has an hour, allowing more time for unscripted conversation. But it’s mostly because of Passolt, who is more likely to be spotted in his off hours at a meat raffle than a four-star restaurant.
“Not every anchor can be as conversational as Jeff and go with their instincts,” said fellow Fox 9 anchor Randy Meier, who taps in for Passolt at 10 p.m. “His style is comforting. We all aspire to that.”
Passolt’s image as a blue-collar everyman has been augmented by regular appearances on Tom Barnard’s wildly popular, wildly irreverent morning radio show on KQRS Radio (92.5 FM).
After retirement, Passolt will continue to join the freewheeling conversation.
“He’s never going to go on the news and say he likes skin-on wieners,” said Barnard, who met Passolt more than 40 years ago during a game of touch football in St. Louis Park. “You just can’t be that human on television.”
Passolt said spending the vast majority of his career in his hometown helped keep him grounded.
“If I wasn’t myself, my five brothers and the guys I grew up with would let me have it,” said Passolt, who rarely wears makeup on the air. “They may not know it, but they’re responsible for some part of my success.”
Passolt made a name for himself as a hockey star for St. Cloud State University, but he also scored with the bosses during a 1981 internship at WTCN (now KARE), so much so that they put him on the air when weekend anchor Dick Bremer called in sick.
Passolt refers to that moment as the “longest 12 minutes of my life,” but he made enough of a mark that KSTP tried to lure him over the very next day. Passolt suddenly found himself in the middle of a bidding war.
In the end, he stayed with WTCN for $25,000 a year, enough that he could quit his part-time job as a salesman at American Eagle Outfitters.
After rising to the position of sports director, Passolt went to Denver in 1993, where he reported on everything from the opening of Coors Field to the Lillehammer Winter Olympics.
After three years, it was time to come home.
For 14 years, he shared the desk with Chicago native Robyne Robinson whose love of the arts complemented her partner’s sports background. They were both inducted last year into the Minnesota Broadcasting Hall of Fame.
“Jeff can’t tell a joke. He tries, but for someone who loves comedy he really can’t,” said Robinson, who left journalism in 2010 to explore other roles, including arts consultant. “On the other hand, 20 years in Minnesota taught me the ‘Minnesota Jab.’ It’s sort of a joke that’s really a tease. I loved to watch him squirm when I called him ‘The Silver Fox.’ He attracted a lot of attention from mature female viewers.”
“Whether it’s a restaurant to go to or the history of a place we’re reporting on, he’s just been a wealth of knowledge,” said the Indiana native. “He’s taught me so much.”
There are health issues. Passolt was found to have diabetes 40 years ago and Crohn’s disease 20 years ago. There are days after doing the 5 and 9 p.m. newscasts where he can feel the fatigue.
But there’s also the sense that the industry is passing him by. Robotic cameras have replaced human crew members in the studio, meaning there are fewer people to chat with about the new “Mental Samurai” game show or hear Passolt reminisce about the days he could get away with wearing shorts behind the desk.
He also wants to spend time with his grandkids. (His fourth is due this summer.) Passolt’s desk is loaded with photos of them, just past his cup of McDonald’s iced tea.
He wants to spend more time fishing, working on his Wisconsin cabin, traveling with his wife. He’s never been to Nashville, just one of many cities on his bucket list.
There are no plans to return to television.
“I got to do all this in my hometown. I mean, are you kidding me?” he said as he prepared to enter the studio for one of the last times. “Who does that happen to? I’m the luckiest guy there ever was in this business.”