Don McClellan, a WSB-TV reporter for more than half a century, died of Parkinson’s disease at his Smyrna home, his family confirmed to Channel 2 Action News on Sunday.
McClellan was 88.
McClellan, who was nicknamed “Don Mac” by those inside the WSB-TV building, joined the TV station in 1960 and continued to file reports with the station part time well into the 2010s. He was not self-aggrandizing and never had an official retirement party. He was inducted into the Georgia Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 2010.
“He was the center of what I call institutional knowledge about anything that happened in the city of Atlanta the past 50 years,” said Monica Pearson, evening anchor at WSB-TV from 1975 to 2012 and who nominated him for the GAB award. “Long before there was Google, there was Don McClellan. And he was one of the genuinely nicest people you’d ever meet."
She said when she arrived in Atlanta in 1975 from Louisville, Kentucky, McClellan personally walked her through Atlanta street names and Georgia cities with unusual pronunciations such as Dacula, LaFayette and Ponce de Leon Avenue. And when he stopped working full time, he gave Pearson his entire file about the Atlanta missing and murdered children cases from the early 1980s.
John Pruitt, an anchor and reporter who worked at WSB-TV two different stints over 30 years until he retired in 2010, said McClellan was the first person to give him a tour of the old “White Columns” WSB-TV building when he came in as a gopher in 1964.
“I knew nothing about TV news," Pruitt said. “It was pretty new at the time. He was from the generation that had transitioned from radio to TV news. He was one of my main mentors at the time.”
Pruitt said McClellan was ethical and would rather be right than first: "He taught me a lot about objectivity and fairness and how to be aggressive in getting answers from people.”
McClellan covered many civil rights stories in the 1960s and knew the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. personally. In 1979, he interviewed James Earl Ray, the man who assassinated King in 1968.
Bill Jordan, a photographer who worked closely with McClellain the early 1990s, said McClellan was a big believer in ensuring opportunity for Black journalists. He would go out of his way to work with Black photographers at the station, Jordan said. “He wanted to show people that Black and white people could work together.”
He said McClellan was equally adept at investigative pieces and breaking news. “He was very good at the walk and talk, demonstrating things,” Jordan said. “He was an excellent live reporter."
Jordan said McClellan never seemed to have a bad day. “He was extremely even-tempered, never flustered. I’ve only seen him angry once and that was with a police officer who was interfering with his ability to do his job."
Marian Pittman, executive vice president for digital strategy, research and technology for Cox Media Group, worked as a producer and news director while McLellan was there. “He was an old-school journalist who built relationships," she said. “People really trusted him. He’d break stories all the time. Even after retirement, he’d call one of our reporters and say, ‘You need to check on this.’”
She said he was the consummate employee who did his job without complaint and provided producers with quality product no matter what the story was. “He had a knack for finding the best sound bites,” Pittman said. “He let people tell the story. Producers would build the run downs around him. When I was news director, he owned Cobb County. He considered Channel 2 his extended family.”
He grew up in East Tennessee, served in the U.S. Air Force and later graduated from East Tennessee State University. He began his broadcasting career with radio stations in Tennessee and then Georgia before joining WSB-TV on June 6, 1960.
McCLellan’s favorite avocation was running. He began jogging in the 1970s before it became a common hobby and ran more than 100 marathons over the years and countless more 5K and 10K races. Even after open-heart valve surgery in 2013, he continued to run, according to a blog he wrote from 2007 to 2013.
At one point, he wrote, “I pray God will always remind me that so many others are bearing burdens well beyond mine."
He would cover The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Peachtree Road Race every year, running the race and interviewing participants along the way. Pearson recalls him convincing her to join the race because it was such an institution in town. “He would run and stop and talk to people for a report as he went along,” she recalled. “And he still ended up with a better time than me!”
McClellan is survived by his wife of 44 years, Gisela; son Scott; stepson Chris Nichols and his wife Alexia and four step-grandchildren. A celebration of his life will happen at a later date due to the pandemic.
Rodney Ho writes about entertainment for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution including TV, radio, film, comedy and all things in between. A native New Yorker, he has covered education at The Virginian-Pilot, small business for The Wall Street Journal and a host of beats at the AJC over 20-plus years. He loves tennis, pop culture & seeing live events.