By Mike Ellis
At 2:30 a.m., while most Chicago area residents are fast asleep, WLS Ch. 7 morning anchor and Hinsdale resident Judy Hsu awakens to go to work. She has two hours to prepare herself for the 4:30 a.m. newscast—a show she has anchored since arriving at the station in April 2001.
Broadcast journalism is a field Hsu dreamt of pursuing from a young age, growing up watching anchors and reporters at the network for which she now works. But one might be surprised to learn that Hsu, a native of Taiwan, who speaks perspicuously for a living, did not know any English when she arrived in America with her family as an 11-year-old girl.
Hsu, whose father is a grandmaster of Tai Chi, a form of Chinese martial arts, said her family immigrated to Chicago so that he could continue teaching. They originally lived in Chinatown, where Hsu attended Chicago Public Schools, before moving to Rogers Park and, later, north suburban Morton Grove, where she attended junior high and high school.
Performing Tai Chi demonstrations with her family around the area, Hsu improved her English-speaking proficiency, while honing her public speaking skills.
Hsu said she does not know the precise reason she wanted to study broadcasting, but thinks her rationale stems in part from her determination to learn the primary language of her new home country.
“There was something in me that said, ‘I really want to master this language and be able to communicate effectively, just like I did in Chinese,’” she said.
In order to learn English, Hsu said she watched a lot of television, much of which included news.
“I remember watching the newscasters deliver the news, and thinking to myself, ‘Gosh, I’d like to be able to maybe one day tell a story in that flawless tone, maybe on television,’ ” she said. “That’s kind of, I think, the seed that was planted.”
As a freshman at Niles West High School, Hsu joined the high-school newspaper, and said she “loved every second of it.” It was this initial experience with journalism that she said propelled her to major in broadcast journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign—much to the astonishment of her parents.
“They had a hard time believing that you can go from an immigrant child learning to speak English, and then wanting to do this for a living,” Hsu said.
“What I love about my job truly is learning all these different things about different fields and different people and different communities,” Hsu said, “and being able to bring it all together and tell the story.”
While at the University of Illinois, Hsu performed two internships: the first for a semester with former WBBM Ch. 2 anchor Walter Jacobsen, and the second with the CBS affiliate in Champaign-Urbana during her last year in college. The day after graduating, Hsu said the same affiliate offered her a job as a general assignment reporter.
After spending a year and a half in a small market, Hsu was hired by a station out west in San Diego, where she transitioned from a reporter to her current role as an anchor. Hsu said she worked for about six and a half years in San Diego, serving as a weekend anchor before becoming the anchor of the station’s weekday 4 p.m. newscast. (San Diego is also where she met her husband, Tracy.)
Chicago is where Hsu developed her passion for broadcasting, and where she always dreamt of working. But after more than a half decade in San Diego, she said she was not actively seeking a position in her childhood home when she received a surprise phone call from the news director at WLS Ch. 7, Chicago’s top-rated station.
“Sort of out of the blue, I get a call from the news director at Channel 7,” Hsu said. “And it hardly ever happens this way...I literally thought it was a joke. You don’t just get a phone call from the news director at WLS to offer you a job—but it wasn’t a joke. They were looking for a morning anchor, and here I am.”
Returning home to Chicago in April 2001, Hsu said it was surreal to be joining many of the familiar faces she grew up watching on television as a fellow anchor.
“I watched Linda Yu on TV, I watched Ron [Magers], I watched Mark Giangreco,” she said. “Those are the people who I watched in high school, while I was sort of, kind of thinking about possibly doing this for a living. ...
“Fast forward to the day that I walked into Channel 7...I was star-struck.”
Despite the pressures of speaking to thousands or millions of viewers each time she sits at the anchor desk, Hsu said the most difficult aspect of her job is probably waking up in the middle of the night.
“It’s like having a newborn for 14 years that wakes you up at 2 [a.m.] every day,” she said, adding that parental responsibilities often preclude her from going to sleep until 9 p.m. “The schedule is grueling. That’s probably, I would say, the hardest part of my job.”
During her first months at WLS Ch. 7, Hsu was pregnant with her first son, Luke. That September, just about two weeks from her scheduled due date, she and co-anchor Hosea Sanders relaxed after wrapping up a show on what seemed like an ordinary morning—Sept. 11, 2001.
“All of a sudden, we look over, and GMA (Good Morning America) had the live pictures of what was happening,” Hsu said. “Charlie Gibson said, ‘We don’t know what’s happening; we’re just seeing these first pictures.’
“It was hard to believe, even for us, sitting in a newsroom, knowing that this news was happening, but nobody knew exactly what it was.”
During her first year back in Chicago, Hsu and her husband resided in the city near the station. But then, like many young families, after Hsu gave birth to her first child, they looked to move out to the suburbs, seeking more space and good schools.
Hsu said they looked at suburbs throughout the Chicago area, ranging from the North Shore to Oak Park and La Grange. She said Dick Johnson, a longtime Hinsdale resident who was then an anchor with Channel 7, suggested she consider Hinsdale.
Although she grew up moving around Chicagoland and had anchored the morning news at the station for more than a year, Hsu said she was rather unfamiliar with Hinsdale at the time.
“I certainly knew where it was, but we didn’t come out here really for anything,” she said.
Attracted by the quality of the schools and the “charming” village, Hsu and her husband moved to Hinsdale, originally renting near the community pool. They now reside in their third home in Hinsdale and their oldest son and two daughters attend Madison Elementary School.
In October 2009, Hsu suddenly went from news anchor to newsmaker in a most unanticipated fashion.
Having already given birth to three children, she and husband Tracy were expecting their fourth child. Nothing about the pregnancy was unusual—until the wee hours of the morning of Oct. 13. Hsu had gone on maternity leave roughly a week earlier, and was expecting for her baby to arrive in about two days or so, when suddenly, at 3:30 a.m., she felt she was going into labor. Waking her husband up, Hsu called her neighbor from across the street, who had incidentally volunteered to supervise her children under such circumstances, while they boarded their sedan and hurried for Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago.
She said at this point, “the contractions were getting closer,” but nevertheless, expected everything to proceed normally.
“I still wasn’t concerned about going to the hospital, because there was no traffic at four o’clock in the morning,” Hsu said. “I still never thought that we wouldn’t make it.”
Tracy darted up Ill. Rte. 83 to Interstate 88, before merging onto the Eisenhower Expressway. After about 15 minutes in the car, the couple reached the Cicero Ave. exit, 4800 W., or about six miles from downtown Chicago.
Hsu said she could see the darkened skyline in the distance, but knew they had to pull over. Tracy asked her if she would like for him to move over to the side of the road, and after she agreed, he moved into a conveniently-situated
pull-out area along the right shoulder of the eastbound Eisenhower. Once he had pulled over, Tracy dialed 9-1-1, and was connected with an operator that attempted to help them through the delivery process.
“It’s Judy, myself, this voice and this soon-to-be baby,” he said.
When Tracy had moved over to his wife, he said the baby’s head had already appeared. The 9-1-1 operator instructed him to communicate for Hsu to “push,” which she did, and the couple’s fourth child, Alexander James (A.J.), was born in the middle of a roughly 40-degree night in the unlikeliest of settings along one of the nation’s busiest expressways near several of the city’s roughest neighborhoods.
But that was not the end of the matter. A.J. had been delivered, but his parents quickly noticed that he wasn’t sounding the cries a newborn baby generally makes.
“He was just silent,” Hsu said. “There was no crying, no [sound]. That was actually the more scary moment for both of us."
Tracy thought he knew what was wrong. In what can only be described as a fortuitous coincidence, approximately two weeks earlier, following his normal routine of watching his wife on-air before the kids awoke in the morning, Tracy saw her tell the story of a woman who had given birth in a similar predicament.
“In the story, they need the shoelace to cut off the circulation and bring the baby to life,” he said, adding that he stored the delivery story as useful information just in case he might need to apply it weeks later.
Meanwhile, after she verbalized the story on-air, Hsu said she laughed with co-anchor Hosea Sanders, saying, “Oh, my gosh, that would never happen to me.”
Still situated at the pull-out just east of Cicero Ave., Tracy made a suggestion to the 9-1-1 operator.
“I just said, ‘Well, how about I cut off circulation between baby and mom by tying a knot on the umbilical cord?’ “
He said the operator thought it was a good idea, and he proceeded to remove the shoelace from one of the tennis shoes he was wearing, put it around his neck, and use the knot to cut off the circulation between the two bodies.
“As soon as he tied off the umbilical cord, the baby cried,” Hsu said. “That was a huge moment of relief.”
After the successful delivery, paramedics transported Hsu, Tracy and the baby to nearby West Suburban Medical Center in Oak Park.
Hsu said at this point, she did not even contemplate the newsworthiness of her remarkable ordeal.
Although the couple made no immediate attempt to reach out to friends or family—let alone media outlets—, Tracy was surprised to learn that the story was quickly picked up on the radio waves after receiving a congratulatory text message from a neighbor in Hinsdale at the hospital. Then, he said “it took off like wildfire.”
“What we suspect is that the paramedics recognized me, and I think it was simply picked up over the scanner, where we pick up all sorts of emergency
stories,” Hsu said.
But the miraculous delivery wasn’t only picked up in Chicago; it made headlines nationwide. Hsu said the story made the Yahoo! landing page, and a photo of her and A.J. appeared on the front page of the Chicago Sun-Times the next morning.
“I got calls from friends who were in New York who saw on the news that I had a baby on the expressway before we had said anything to our friends,” she said. “My mom in Arizona saw a picture of ‘baby Ike’ on TV before I could talk to her about the experience of delivering on the Eisenhower.”
After realizing she was becoming part of the news cycle she ordinarily conveyed, Hsu contacted Channel 7 to share the news firsthand with her colleagues.
“The first question is, ‘Oh, my gosh, I can’t believe it,’ ” she said. “The second is, ‘Are you okay?’ [The] third is, ‘Can we send a camera crew?’”
The next day, Hsu conducted a national interview with Good Morning America live from the hospital via satellite.
“I was surprised that Good Morning America wanted to take a live picture with me and the baby in the hospital the next morning,” she said.
A.J. is now five years old, and will start kindergarten at Madison next fall.
Hsu said she learned a lot from the experience, including gaining a greater appreciation for how it feels to be on the other side of the camera as an interview subject.
“It was a bit overwhelming,” she said. “I had just stayed up all night delivering a child, and I really was in no shape to conduct all these interviews.”
As for her advice to other moms preparing to give birth, Hsu shared the following tips:
• “Never say never.”
• “If you’re anywhere close to your due date, have your husband wear gym shoes with laces on.”
• “If you have a choice of taking a minivan or a sedan to the hospital, take the minivan.”