By KEN LEISER
DALLAS — Long before his Emmy Award-winning journalism career and anchor spot on the ABC hidden-camera series "What Would You Do?", 6-year-old John Quiñones sat in Mrs. Gregory's first-grade class. It was his first day in public schools in San Antonio. He spoke no English. Mrs. Gregory spoke no Spanish. He mistakenly thought the recess bell at 10 a.m. meant school was out for the day, so he went home.
Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr./© CHA
His late mother, Maria, who had to drop out of grade school to go to work, grabbed him by the ear that day and took him back to Mrs. Gregory's class. "She knew the value of an education not having gotten one herself," Quiñones recalled.
During a June 10 keynote address at the Catholic Health Assembly, Quiñones recounted the many hurdles he overcame from a childhood in which he once picked cherries and tomatoes to help support his family to a career where he has attained the highest reaches of television journalism. He recalled the perseverance and personal heroes that helped him get there.
A lifelong Catholic, Quiñones grew up in extreme poverty on the west side of San Antonio. His father, Bruno, was a janitor and his family had very little. The younger Quiñones learned to speak English fluently and at age 12, decided he wanted to be a television journalist. (Geraldo Rivera was one of his early idols in broadcast journalism.)
Quiñones worked hard to overcome a "heavy Mexican accent" for future television audiences. He signed up for drama classes, successfully auditioned for the lead role in a city performance of "Romeo and Juliet," and even snuck into the sound studio while interning at a local radio station to practice his delivery. After graduating from St. Mary's University in San Antonio, he met an alumna of Columbia University who took an interest in his career goals and wrote the university a letter of recommendation on his behalf.
Quiñones was accepted, graduating with a master's degree in journalism. He landed his first television news reporting job in Chicago. While there, he went undercover posing as an immigrant crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. He chronicled paying a coyote $300 to provide phony documents and help him cross the Rio Grande River. The story also exposed a Chicago restaurant owner refusing to pay undocumented workers. The piece won Quiñones the first of seven Emmy Awards.
Around that time, ABC News was looking for its first Latino reporter. The late Peter Jennings, then-anchor of "ABC World News Tonight," another of Quiñones' heroes, happened to see the immigration piece. Later, Quiñones was hired to cover the war in Nicaragua.
Quiñones recalled how he called Jennings to tell him that he had landed an interview with then-Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega. Nicaraguan officials later canceled the interview. Quiñones said he was nervous about telling Jennings, not knowing whether he would be reprimanded, or worse.
"'John, this is going to happen again in your career, where someone promises you something that they don't deliver,'" Quiñones said Jennings reassured him. "He said, 'Don't worry so much talking about the movers and the shakers of the world, instead talk to the moved and the shaken. You can talk to the real victims of war and natural disasters.'"
Quiñones' show "What Would You Do?" uses hidden cameras to test the public's response to a variety of situations, such as someone collapsing in the middle of a busy sidewalk. It's about doing the right thing at unexpected decision points.
Compassion like that shown by some of the show's unwitting participants is an important virtue now more than ever, he said, considering the deep divisions in the U.S. and the debates over race, politics and immigration.
"Down along the Mexican border not far from here, families (are) being ripped apart simply because they weren't born in this country," he said. "You know politicians, they keep talking about building higher and higher walls in this country, when in my humble opinion, we should be building stronger and stronger bridges between the different factions."
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