Philadelphia broadcaster Lisa Thomas-Laury: A story of perseverance
By Bill Conallen
Lisa Thomas-Laury’s story begins in the small town of Institute, West Virginia, where she was known as Lisa Howard. She was the oldest of four children. Her mother, Blossom, was a social worker. Her father, Thomas Howard, served in the Air Force and worked at the chemical plant in town. It was during this early part of her life when a strong work ethic and commitment to details was instilled upon her.
Thomas-Laury’s lifelong passion for broadcasting began during her time as a student at Marshall University in the early 1970s. While in college, she landed her first job in television broadcast ing as a weather reporter for the NBC affiliate in Huntington, West Virginia. Her career in Philadelphia begin in 1978 when she competed for the position with fellow journalist Oprah Winfrey and secured the job as anchor of the noon news on 6abc.
Upon obtaining the position over Winfrey, Thomas-Laury reflected on the prejudices that existed within the media: “It was more than obvious that a significant reason why I got the job and my appeal to management at 6abc was that I was African American but didn’t look ‘too black.’”
Thomas-Laury made it her mission to not only be the hardest working journalist in the room but to also pave the way for those who would follow. “We have come a long way since my start in Philadelphia, and I am encouraged by the diversity that exists throughout news media today and the potential for further growth,” she said.
In 1983, when Action News 5 o’clock anchor Jim O’Brien died tragically in a skydiving accident, Thomas-Laury was promoted to the highly watched news hour. Thereafter, Thomas-Laury co-anchored the evening news for the next 19 years with fellow journalist Marc Howard. She established herself as one of the Delaware Valley’s most trusted news sources and became a staple in millions of homes throughout the Delaware Valley. Throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, Thomas-Laury hosted WPVI’s award-winning monthly public affairs program, “Fast Forward.” She also hosted special events, including Philadelphia’s annual Thanksgiving parade, and reported from London, England on the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana.
For many years, Thomas-Laury comfortably juggled marriage, raising two sons and a busy broadcasting career. Then in 2001, she started to feel pain in her legs and feet while powerwalking. It was determined that she had lost 30% of the strength in her ankles. Doctors suspected she had a rare blood disorder, known as POEMS syndrome.
Later, seeking a second opinion, other specialists disagreed with this original diagnosis, and wrongly concluded that Thomas-Laury was suffering from a chronic neurological inflammatory disorder, called CIDP. She struggled for two years, while physicians continued to investigate the cause of her symptoms and searched for the best course of treatment.
By late 2003, she was unable to walk and had to use a wheelchair. Her internal organs were starting to shut down. Her vocal cords were paralyzed, as were some of the nerves in her digestive tract stripping her of her iconic voice that so many had come to recognize.
Thomas-Laury was finally able to find some relief in 2004, when she went to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Doctors there determined that she was indeed suffering from POEMS syndrome. She received a bone-marrow transplant, using her own good marrow, and several rounds of chemo therapy.
The arduous health challenges she’s faced have given her a deep under standing of the importance of having strong advocates. She is married to Dr. William Laury, an internal medicine specialist, yet she struggled to find the correct diagnosis and treatment for her condition. “I wonder about older adults in South Philly, West Philly or North Philly who very likely don’t have the access to the same resources I have,” Thomas-Laury said. “How will they know how to advocate for themselves? How will they know where to turn in their time of need? Aging is anything but a burden; it’s a precious opportunity to make the most of life and contribute to the world.”
Thomas-Laury, now 68, is a role model for active aging with chronic health conditions. For this reason, she was selected, along with fellow former 6abc newscaster Vernon Odom, to be co-grand marshal of Philadelphia Corporation for Aging’s (PCA’s) 50th anniversary celebration in 2023.
“PCA has been dedicated to supporting and empowering older Philadelphians and to enhancing their quality of life,” she said. “Through its compre hensive range of services, older adults can age with dignity. I have had more than a few allies in my corner over the course of my career and health struggles, so those supported by PCA and their own stories of perseverance are incredibly personal.”
It took Thomas-Laury more than a year to recover from her illness. Before she could return to work, she had to overcome an addiction to the prescription medication she took for the unbearable pain throughout her legs, feet, and ankles.
“It is important to let people know that it is okay not to be okay,” Thomas-Laury said. “Addiction to prescription painkillers is reaching epidemic proportions and impacts people of all ages. Community advocates, like PCA, serve as a reminder that there are people who care about doing good for those who may need help.”
Action News viewers were thrilled when Thomas-Laury was able to return to work part-time in 2007, and she was overcome by the number of viewers who supported her recovery.
“I realize what a powerful community and connection we have throughout the city of Philadelphia,” said Thomas-Laury, who retired in 2016. “That is why I was so glad to join the PCA family to champion its stellar track record of providing community and connection to older adults and individuals with disabilities. We all need to have allies in our corner, and PCA has been just that for 50 years.”
Meet Lisa Thomas-Laury: Staying Positive When Faced with Life’s Challenges
Come meet former WPVI-TV news anchor and co-grand marshal for PCA’s 50th Anniversary celebrations, Lisa Thomas-Laury, on Thursday, April 13, from 1:30-3 p.m., at Center in the Park, 5818 Germantown Ave. The Emmy award-winner, who broke barriers as one of the first Black anchors in the country, will discuss her journey of living with a rare disease and navigating the complex health care system. She’ll offer suggestions to others with similar challenges and how she maintains a positive outlook on life despite the obstacles it sometimes brings. In her own words, “It’s about never giving up or losing hope.”
Space is limited. Register at 215-765-9000, ext. 5055. or LisaThomasLaury.eventbrite.com
Bill Conallen is the public relations specialist at Philadelphia Corporation for Aging.