OPINION: Jeff Hullinger’s Obscure Atlanta history tour

Jeff Hullinger, an Atlanta TV anchor going on 40 years, has been a familiar face with local viewers. He speaks with Chipper Jones after the former Brave was inducted into the Hall of Fame.
caption arrowCaption
Jeff Hullinger, an Atlanta TV anchor going on 40 years, has been a familiar face with local viewers. He speaks with Chipper Jones after the former Brave was inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Credit: Courtesy of Jeff Hullinger

You never know where you’ll discover Atlanta’s forgotten past. Jeff Hullinger, Atlanta media’s veteran jack-of-all-trades, found it cutting through the parking lot behind the Home Depot on Ponce de Leon Avenue.

The antiquity was a magnolia tree near the store’s loading dock, adjoining the Beltline. The tree, looking shabby with a bedraggled man urinating underneath, was once a dramatic centerfield feature of the Atlanta Crackers’ long-demolished ballpark. Babe Ruth was said to have homered into its branches. Hullinger did some research and jotted some thoughts for his Facebook blog about Atlanta’s often obscure past.

“Jackie Robinson saw that tree; (Lou) Gehrig saw that tree,” said Hullinger, now a Channel 11 news anchor. “Jack Dempsey fought in its shadows. I wrote about it and it took off like crazy.”

Hullinger is not an Atlanta native but has tapped into a vein about his adopted town. I called the WXIA news anchor a week ago after he wrote about the closing of Rhodes Bakery after 68 years on Cheshire Bridge Road.

“That has gotten like 140,000 views already; it’s crazy,” he said. Some months he gets a million-plus views.

caption arrowCaption
George Rhodes of Rhodes Bakery displays a sheet of festive cookies. The bakery announced it was closing after 68 years on Cheshire Bridge Road. Photo by Jeff Hullinger

Credit: Jeff Hullinger

George Rhodes of Rhodes Bakery displays a sheet of festive cookies. The bakery announced it was closing after 68 years on Cheshire Bridge Road. Photo by Jeff Hullinger
caption arrowCaption
George Rhodes of Rhodes Bakery displays a sheet of festive cookies. The bakery announced it was closing after 68 years on Cheshire Bridge Road. Photo by Jeff Hullinger

Credit: Jeff Hullinger

Credit: Jeff Hullinger

December was a busy a month, with stories like:

— A 102-year-old dying and leaving behind his identical twin brother.

— The Rhodes Bakery closing.

— An interview with singer Brenda Lee, a Grady baby who just turned 77.

— A yarn about an artist who redefined the image of Santa Claus through his paintings for 1930s Coca Cola ads.

— An Ansley Park woman with a fallout shelter in her yard.

— An interview with the son of Arnold Hardy, a Georgia Tech student who won a Pulitzer Prize for shooting photos of the devastating Winecoff Hotel fire.

— An interview with Joy Piccolo O’Connell, wife of late NFL running back, Brian Piccolo, on the 50th anniversary of TV-movie tear-jerker “Brian’s Song.” (They were married at Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church off Briarcliff Road.)

I once referred to Hullinger as this generation’s Franklin Garrett, the venerable historian who died at 93 in 2000 and who seemed to know — and often witnessed — just about everything that occurred in Atlanta during his long life. Hullinger saw the comparison as a passive aggressive jibe. But I’ll stand by it.

There are photos of Hullinger, usually a microphone in hand, with everyone from Hank Aaron to Ted Turner to MC Hammer to John Lewis to Mikhail Gorbachev, who dropped into the booth in 1999 when Hullinger was broadcasting the Falcons.

“I’m just a guy who lives in town (the Morningside neighborhood) and who’s curious,” he said. “There’s so many interesting things about living here that people don’t notice.

caption arrowCaption
Jeff Hullinger interviews the late Congressman John Lewis.

Credit: Courtesy of Jeff Hullinger

Jeff Hullinger interviews the late Congressman John Lewis.
caption arrowCaption
Jeff Hullinger interviews the late Congressman John Lewis.

Credit: Courtesy of Jeff Hullinger

Credit: Courtesy of Jeff Hullinger

“This city is so racially divided, so economically divided, transplant versus people from here. It’s just so layered. You don’t get below the surface. I’m telling those stories. I’ve had the luxury of a well-known face that puts me in communities where I would not be welcome. People come up and tell me stuff. I’m sort of a comfortable old blanket.”

Hullinger came to Atlanta in 1984 as a 25-year-old lizard-skin boot-wearing, Corvette-driving hotshot. He was hired to anchor Channel 5′s sports cast on the nightly news. It was a time when local TV sportscasters were stars in their own right.

A 1997 AJC story featured his “insane schedule.” He did a daily three-hour morning show on WGST radio and regular pop-ins at Channel 5′s “Good Morning Atlanta” and had a recurring role on the then-highly rated 96 Rock, a weekly show with then-Falcons’ coach Dan Reeves, as well as his main gig, Channel 5 sports.

But all good things must crash to an end. Hullinger wanted to be the news anchor and got himself sideways with management, who tossed him out in 2002. He had a pregnant wife and was forced to reinvent himself — and keep his family afloat — with part-time radio gigs. His journey in the media wilderness was so odd that AJC media columnist Rodney Ho wrote a story in 2010 headlined “Whatever happened to… Jeff Hullinger?” A couple of weeks later, Channel 11 hired him and eventually he became a news anchor there.

TV news can be a brutal, fickle biz. The movie “No Country for Old Men” (and Women) might as well be the industry’s operating guide. Hullinger is 63.

He knows that and works hard to demonstrate value in an business where local institutional knowledge is increasingly diminishing. His Facebook blog was born of a dis by a know-it-all hired consultant brought in by the station a few years ago.

caption arrowCaption
Sportscaster Jeff Hullinger shares a bit of Hammer Time with MC Hammer at a Braves game in the early 1990s.

Credit: Photo courtesy of Jeff Hullinger

Sportscaster Jeff Hullinger shares a bit of Hammer Time with MC Hammer at a Braves game in the early 1990s.
caption arrowCaption
Sportscaster Jeff Hullinger shares a bit of Hammer Time with MC Hammer at a Braves game in the early 1990s.

Credit: Photo courtesy of Jeff Hullinger

Credit: Photo courtesy of Jeff Hullinger

“He came in with ideas. He told us, ‘The future of local TV is social media. But you’re an older guy and won’t have an impact,’ " Hullinger recalls. “I walked out (of the meeting) gritting my teeth. ‘You have no clue!’”

Station general manager John Deushane (who was not the consultant) hadn’t heard the backstory of what spurred Hullinger to go all in on social media. The GM called Hullinger “a savant when it comes politics, sports or anything to do with Georgia history. (His posts) have touched a nerve within our city.”

The popularity of his blog shows a resilience, an instinct needed to thrive — and survive — in a tough business.

Richard Belcher, Channel 2′s investigative reporter, worked with Hullinger in the 1980s and later was in his wedding.

“He’s a real student of pop culture and history and has gotten into local history in a way that astonishes me,” Belcher said. “He’s had his ups and downs in his career and is back.

“We all like the Major leaguer who gets sent to the minors, struggles and then comes back to pitch in the World Series,” said Belcher. “In some ways that’s Jeff’s story.”

About the Author

Editors' Picks