BY GABE LICHT
NEW YORK, NY Everyone has a story.
Zachary “ZT” Kiesch’s job is to share those stories on a national stage as a correspondent for ABC News.
His own story has prepared him for that task.
Kiesch was adopted by Manfred and Carol Kiesch, and grew up as one of the few black individuals in Delano, which brought its own set of challenges.
“When I was young, I was trying to find my way,” Kiesch said. “In Delano, I confronted some amazing things, and also confronted things like race and identity that were really challenging. The foundation of who I am is Delano and the people who have given me love and support along the way . . . There were always people in Delano who helped me and encouraged me.”
Those people included coaches, former Delano High School principal Ted May, and his friends’ mother, Debbie Johnson.
May remembers the 2001 grad well.
“He had something that set him apart from the typical teenager,” May said. “His mind was reaching. He had a longing. He had a quiet but deep aspiration, a curiosity that, I think, stemmed from his heritage as a biracial guy in a homogenous school, an all-white school, essentially.”
May classified Kiesch as a good listener.
“I think that’s important to his role today,” May said. “He affirmed others by listening. He made them feel that their story was worthwhile. He was nice to everybody in the school. I see in his career now that he continues to be nice to everybody.”
That doesn’t mean he was always well-received.
“I remember coming home from school and KKK was spray-painted on our mailbox or when crosses were burning in our yard,” his sister, Logan Hoegh, said. “He’s definitely grown from that, and can relate to others and can strive through those hardships. It makes me so proud of him.”
He also faced challenges as an athlete, which led him to success off the field.
“His dream, like every little boy, was to be a football player,” Carol Kiesch said. “That dream kind of fizzled. I said, ‘Go into sports journalism, or something like that.’”
Kiesch first injured his knee during his junior year at DHS, and re-injured it during his final game in junior college, with both injuries requiring ACL reconstructions.
His first injury cost him a full-ride athletic scholarship to play football at Baylor University.
With his second injury came a new opportunity.
“As I was rehabbing, a coach who originally recruited me to play at the Naval Academy out of high school came to see me,” Kiesch said. “He had left Navy and was now at Ohio University. They flew me out for a visit to Athens, OH, and I committed shortly after.”
Unfortunately, Kiesch never rebounded from his second knee injury.
“Not completely realizing my football goals was devastating, and it took me years to get over that loss,” Kiesch said.
Fortunately for Kiesch, Ohio University honored his scholarship despite his injury, which allowed him to attain a journalism degree.
“Ohio University has one of the top journalism programs in the country,” Kiesch said. “I also learned about leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, and met people from all over the country, which had a profound impact on me.”
Following college, Kiesch landed a job in St. Thomas covering sports and news in the US Virgin Islands for two years.
He decided to move to Washington, DC, in hopes of taking the next step in his career, which proved difficult.
“The economy was bad, and nobody was impressed with St. Thomas on a résumé,” Kiesch said. “I was down and out, crashing on couches. I was willing to take anything.”
That included a job advertised on Craigslist as an “entry level news job.”
“It ended up being with the company who had the courier and mailroom contract for NBC News,” Kiesch said. “My job was to drive around correspondents and deliver equipment. But, in a short time, I realized that there were people around that would support me, and that my skills could be useful.”
NBC News correspondent Tom Costello was one of those people.
“Tom Costello got into the car and started talking to Zachary,” Carol Kiesch said, noting that the couriers had been instructed not to talk to those they were transporting. “Zachary told him his goal. Tom walked him up to NBC. That’s how he got the job. It all went up from there. If he wouldn’t have met Tom Costello, he probably wouldn’t have gotten the job.”
Kiesch went from being a driver, to an editor, to a producer, before working two-plus years on air.
“I jumped from a no market to a top-10 market,” Kiesch said. “Some journalists work their whole lives and never make it to DC.”
He went on to New York, where he worked for a Fox affiliate.
“I was able to find my voice, and continue to get a lot of reps, and be in a big market, and be thrown a lot of different things,” Kiesch said.
He made the move to ABC News Jan. 15.
“ABC is true to what I was taught journalism is all about: being unbiased and telling stories that matter most,” Kiesch said. “I thought it was an opportunity not only to take the next step, but I view myself as green in a lot of ways, and wanted to be in an environment, grow, and be around the best in the business. I’m thankful to James Goldston, the president of ABC News, and all the folks here who have granted this opportunity for me.”
In a memo announcing the move, Goldston wrote, “Throughout his career, Zachary has been drawn to the intersection of class and race, reporting on criminal justice reform, education, and housing issues. He’s covered many civil rights protests and, notably, the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death in Baltimore. His report on the relationship between communities of color and the police was nominated for an Emmy in 2016.”
Kiesch said he is not in the news business for awards.
“I do this to tell stories not traditionally told and to build bridges,” Kiesch said. “I’m proud of the ability I’ve had to go into small towns and big cities, and tell the stories of everyday people, much like the people I grew up with in Delano.”
Barbara Fedida, ABC News vice president of talent and business, lauded Kiesch for his ability to do just that.
“Zachary is a true storyteller,” she said. “He draws the audience in with his authenticity, and takes them along on every story he covers. It’s almost as though he reaches out of the screen and grabs people by the hand, and says, ‘Come with me.’”
She called his work memorable and said that he shows empathy and compassion when interacting with the people in his stories, connecting with them in a unique way.
Kiesch said those interactions, rather than one particular story, have been his favorite part of his career.
“I think I’m humbled by the ability to walk into a room or out onto the street and approach people who have never met me and have an honest and, in many ways, vulnerable conversation,” he said. “They’re all my favorite interviews. Every time someone is honest with me and articulates what their experiences are, not only do the viewers learn something, but these people have had an impact on my life, as well.”
He is thankful for everyone he has met along his journalistic journey.
“I think they’re all contributing factors to why I’m here,” he said.
He is especially grateful for his family.
“They’ve always been here to support and encourage me,” Kiesch said. “It’s been an emotional few weeks for me. It’s been an opportunity to be introspective and think of how we got here and all the people who have loved me, supported me, and encouraged me when you could argue the future was unknown.”
He specifically remembers his mother teaching him how to be a good communicator from an early age.
“As a youngster, I had a lot of fire,” Kiesch said. “Sometimes, that made it difficult to communicate. My mom and I would write letters back and forth about things we were trying to figure out . . . I learned early on how to articulate myself using the written word.”
His communication skills and charisma went hand-in-hand, even at a young age.
“As a kid, I remember going to campground or cabin and he’d be on his bike going to all the other campers, having breakfast with other families,” Hoegh said. “He’s a people person. He gets people. He understands them and is compassionate with them.”
Hoegh said she is thankful for the effect her brother has had on her and is pleased to watch him achieve his goals.
“I’m at a loss for words at how he has made me a better person by watching him live his life and the choices he has made in his life,” she said. “It almost goes without saying because everyone would want their sibling to be successful and happy in life, and he is, so that’s good.”
Kiesch said the support he has received has been humbling, and in return, he takes the responsibility he has been given very seriously.
“With humility I know I’m a vessel,” he said. “I’ve been given a platform and opportunity to do something, but there are people out there who are great parents or leaders in the community who deserve attention. I’m trying to live up to my potential and make my family proud of me for everything they’ve given me.”