After 37 years at WBTV, Paul Cameron is retiring: ‘I kind of like this vacation thing.’

Longtime Charlotteans have had decades to get used to watching and listening to Paul Cameron report stories for Charlotte’s CBS affiliate with clarity and authority in a pitch-perfect, classic-newsman’s voice.

And now they have just a few months to get used to the idea that the veteran WBTV anchor is ready to take off his journalism cap so he can spend time concentrating on other things he might have an aptitude for — like, say, turning empty wine bottles into candles.

“The best way to do it,” he says, handing a candle made from a bottle of Cameron wine (no relation) to his guest in the living room of his Lake Norman home, “is to score it evenly and then use hot and cold water, and it’ll just snap off. Sometimes you have to polish the glass a little bit — this is a little bit rougher than I like. But then you hot-glue the wick down, then you melt the wax and put the wax in. And there you go.”

That’s merely a glimpse, though, at what the next stage of life looks like for Cameron, who exclusively told the Observer on Thursday that he plans to retire from broadcasting Dec. 31 after an illustrious career spanning close to 43 years on television, including more than 37 at WBTV in Charlotte.

He’ll continue making candles for friends, sure, but he also wants to play more tennis (now that his artificial knee is problem-free); play more guitar (and perhaps get the band back together); spend more time on the boat that’s docked 100 yards behind his house (and less time in late-night construction traffic on I-77); and finally start getting to bed at a more-reasonable hour during the week.

Why? It just seemed like the right time for the man who has anchored the weekday 5, 6 and 11 p.m. newscasts since Bill Clinton was still in his first term. For a number of reasons.

One, his contract is up at the end of the year. Two, he turns 65 in December, which sounds like a nice round retirement number. Three, Gray Television Inc. and Raycom Media Inc. (the latter of which owns WBTV, the Observer’s news partner) this summer announced a merger that will create the third-largest television broadcast group in the United States (“and there’s always uncertainty with that,” he says).

And on top of all that, his daughter Andrea — who is married to former WBTV reporter David Spunt (now at CBS 3 in Philadelphia) — is due to give birth to Cameron’s first grandchild in January.

Paul Cameron (at right) with (from left) his son-in-law David Spunt, daughter Andrea Cameron Spunt, wife Jan and son Patrick Cameron on Amelia Island in Florida last month. Courtesy of Paul Cameron

“If you’d asked me six months ago, I’d have probably said, ‘Meh, maybe another year, maybe two years,’” Cameron says. “But (these things) really sharpened my focus. And we (he and his wife of 42 years, Jan) went to the beach a couple weeks ago and I thought, ‘I kind of like this vacation thing.’”

Cameron never really had a chance to feel settled as a kid. The son of a Lockheed Aircraft Company employee, he was born in Pauls Valley, Okla., grew up in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, and graduated high school in Los Angeles right before his dad got a job with Eastern Airlines in Miami.

So in a way, perhaps it’s not surprising that his decision to study pre-med at the University of Florida didn’t stick — staying put just didn’t come naturally to him.

But journalism truly felt like a calling.

“I was in college watching the Watergate hearings back in 1973, and I saw Senator Sam Ervin and I thought to myself, ‘I want to be one who tells people of the good and the bad in this world.’ That was an important moment in our history, and I just felt a need to be part of that.” He switched his major to journalism and communications not long afterward.

After cutting his teeth on a mix of news, sports and disc jockeying at a radio station near campus in Gainesville, however, he fell into sports, not news. He interned and then was hired full-time to do sports at WJXT-TV in Jacksonville; within five months, the sports director had been canned and Cameron was tapped to run the department — at age 22.

With that responsibility came doing play-by-play for Jacksonville University’s Sun Belt Conference men’s basketball games for the station, and as it happened, Charlotte Coliseum was the host site of the conference championship from 1977-1980, back when UNC Charlotte was a Sun Belt powerhouse. Cameron’s work here during the tournaments got noticed by WBTV, which lured him north in 1981 to join its sports team.

Paul Cameron, left, on his first day on the air at WBTV in 1981, with then-sports director Jim Thacker. John D. Simmons Courtesy of Paul Cameron

Over the next 15 years, he covered all the bases (if you’ll pardon the sports pun).

Super Bowls. Final Fours. The Masters. NASCAR races. The birth of the Charlotte Hornets. The birth of the Carolina Panthers. He did play-by-play for ACC basketball games and hosted the regionally syndicated ACC Sports Center show, and was the original driving force behind Football Friday Night, a now-36-year tradition at the station that in the early days saw him arriving at games via helicopter armed with little plastic WBTV footballs he’d throw to fans.

Some of his favorite sports-related memories in Charlotte, though, were ones where no cameras were around. Before he and Jan built their house on the lake in 1997, for instance, they lived in south Charlotte near Quail Hollow — right across the street from then-Hornets guard Dell Curry and his wife Sonya.

“One day Dell was on a trip,” Cameron recalls, “and Sonya called us and said, ‘Hey, Steph wants to learn how to ride a bike.’ So Jan and I went down there and taught him how to ride a bike with the training wheels. We sent him down the street on training wheels, and — whoosh-whoosh — he came right back. Took one off — whoosh-whoosh. Took the other one off — whoosh-whoosh — he was riding a bike. A natural athlete ... we could see that.”

Another time, Cameron brought his then-4-year-old son Patrick (who’s now 30 and a software engineer who lives in Huntersville) along for an interview with Dale Earnhardt on the NASCAR legend’s farm.

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Paul Cameron with Dale Earnhardt Sr. in 1986. Courtesy of Paul Cameron

“After the interview, he said, ‘Come with me. We’re gonna take a ride.’ So we get in his truck and we go out on his property, and he stops at this little dirt road intersection. He says, ‘Paul, you stay in the truck and let me take Patrick.’ He takes Patrick over just a little ways, and he squats down, puts Patrick on his knee and starts calling turkeys.

“These three tom turkeys stick their head up and come over, and they hand-feed these turkeys — my son and Dale Earnhardt. He says, ‘Don’t take a picture of this, ‘cause if you do, all my neighbors, they’ll come hunt these turkeys.’ ... But it was a moment that will always be ingrained in my head of Dale Earnhardt — Mr. Tough Guy — showing how big-hearted he was.”

Paul Cameron in a photo taken in the summer of 1996, when he moved from sports to news at WBTV. HO Observer File Photo

Cameron’s switch to news came in the summer of 1996, when news anchor Bob Inman — whose own venerable broadcasting career spanned 26 years — vacated the position.

According to an Observer story announcing the move, Cameron was selected after a nationwide search that sent WBTV management through hundreds of audition tapes. Eventually, the candidates were narrowed down to 10 finalists, who were tested with local focus groups. Cameron scored highest.

Since then, he’s shared the studio with a list of broadcasters that reads like a who’s who of former WBTV all-stars: Janet England, Clyde McLean, Doug Mayes, Diana Williams, Sara James, Mike McKay, Madeline McFadden, Denise Dory, Tonia Bendickson, Shannon Bream; longtime colleagues include meteorologist Eric Thomas and sports director Delano Little, and for several years now, Cameron has co-anchored with Maureen O’Boyle (at 5 and 6 p.m. weekdays) and Molly Grantham (at 11).

As for gets, his favorite names to drop are names that pretty much any journalist would love to put on their list of “most-notable-people-I’ve-interviewed” list: Billy Graham, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Margaret Thatcher, Luciano Pavarotti. But he also includes the North Carolina Marines he spoke with who were stationed at Guantanamo Bay after the 9/11 attacks.

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Paul Cameron interviewing President Barack Obama at the White House before the Democratic National Convention in 2012. Courtesy of Paul Cameron

His weekly Crime Stoppers segment has been popular with viewers since he started it back in the ‘90s, and he’s been a fixture of WBTV’s coverage of Charlotte’s Thanksgiving Day Parade for years.

The 2018 edition of the parade, we now know, will be his last.

And though his contract expires Monday, Dec. 31, it’s likely Cameron will sign off before then by way of vacation days he’ll need to use or lose forever. (“Whether I do it on the 14th, or the 21st ... that’s going to be an emotional day,” he says.)

What will he miss most? “The camaraderie. The excitement of the newsroom when a story is breaking. The triumph of putting on a show at the last minute, as things are changing, ad-libbing something that you know needs to be talked about. All of us pitching in as a unit to try to get that information. There’s something about that that just stirs your blood. It really does.”

But there’s a tennis racket calling his name, and now that the knee he had replaced in 2015 and again in 2016 is in good shape, he’d like to play more often than he has been (the current routine is limited to Monday and Saturday mornings). Since his Friday nights are going to free up soon, it’s also possible he’ll return to gigging with one or two of the different bands he used to play guitar and/or bass for at spots around the lake.

His wife Jan, who plans to continue to work as a Realtor for Allen Tate for the foreseeable future, has plenty of projects for him to do around the house. They also have big travel plans, and long walks they want to take, and good wine they want to sip on the back patio at sunset.

Oh, and that new baby granddaughter will be here before they know it.

“As I’m turning 65 ... you’re seeing that there’s this tunnel, and there’s an end down there someplace. You’re not sure exactly where it is. ... But you go, ‘Geez, who knows how much time you have left?’ You want to spend it with your family.

“I mean, family’s number one to me. I am absolutely the luckiest guy in the world to have the family I do. A wonderful wife, two adult children who couldn’t be better. And then the television gig for a total of almost — well, January will be one month shy of 43 years in broadcasting continuously on television: Five and a half years at WJXT in Jacksonville and it’ll be 37-1/2 here in Charlotte. So, 43 years.

“And you know what?” he says, laughing, as he leans back on his sofa and claps his hands together. “That’s enough.”