Golden Achievers: Pat Sajak

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This is the first installment in a series of local celebrity success stories about people who were either raised in Severna Park or Arnold, or people who moved to the area and continued to achieve lofty goals.

As the host of “Wheel of Fortune,” Pat Sajak presides over perhaps the world’s most expensive puzzle.

The career choice was not foreseen by Sajak, who lives part-time in Severna Park, spending the rest of the year in Los Angeles, where “Wheel of Fortune” is filmed.

Born as Patrick Sajdak in 1946, he was raised in Chicago, where he developed an affinity for broadcasting by using as wooden spoon as a microphone.

“My maternal grandmother was an admirer of radio and early television broadcasters like Arthur Godfrey, Art Linkletter and Garry Moore,” Sajak said. “I used to spend a lot of time at her house, and I came to admire them as well. I’ve always thought of myself as a broadcaster, a term you don’t hear of much these days. So, from an early age, that’s what I wanted to do. Didn’t matter whether it was radio or television; I just wanted to be a part of that broadcasting tradition.”

Sajak grew up in the lower middle class. His father worked in factories, Sajak recalled, and his parents divorced when he was about 10. Sajak’s father died in 1961 and his mother remarried to a man who unloaded trucks in the Chicago summers and winters.

“I don’t remember envying people who had more than we did,” Sajak said. “Instead, I became determined to carve out a career in broadcasting. It was a long and winding road, but I learned to persevere.”

The long and winding road started at Columbia College in Chicago and made a fork in Saigon when Sajak joined the Army in 1968 in a fit of patriotism. As a finance clerk, he kept track of promotions and records, but he eventually earned the job he coveted: disc jockey for the Armed Forces Vietnam Network. He has repeatedly told the story of yelling “Good morning, Vietnam!” like Robin Williams in the film of the same name. The next wind in the road, as Sajak recalled, was being assigned to the Pentagon during his last year in the Army.

“When I was discharged, I assumed I could find work in broadcasting in the D.C. area, but nothing worked out,” Sajak said. “Eventually, I made my way to a 250-watt radio station in a little town called Murray, Kentucky. A friend knew the owner, and I was hired as a disc jockey. After a year there, I packed up what I had and moved to the nearest big city: Nashville. After months of knocking on doors, I was finally hired as a staff announcer at WSM-TV in early 1972. I haven’t had a day out of work in TV ever since. It’s been a good run.”

With WSM-TV, Sajak handled station breaks, weather and news. He then moved to the West Coast for a weatherman gig with KNBC Los Angeles to do weather. In 1981, producer Merv Griffin called on behalf of NBC. He asked Sajak to replace Chuck Woolery as the daytime host of “Wheel of Fortune,” a daytime game show in which contestants solve word puzzles by choosing from three options: spinning the wheel and naming a consonant, buying a vowel, or solving the puzzle.

Sajak thought he was too low-key for the position, but he accepted. In 1982, Sajak was joined by co-host Vanna White. In 1983, the show became a syndicated evening program. Since 1981, Sajak has earned three Emmy Awards, a People’s Choice Award and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

“We take our jobs seriously, but not ourselves,” Sajak said. “We’ve been very lucky to be a part of such a long-running show. Doing a game show is difficult for some because it goes against a performer’s natural instinct to want to be the center of attention. But I have to remember that the show is about the game and the contestants, and not about me. I had to learn to step back and let the spotlight shine elsewhere.”

Sajak stepped into the spotlight as late-night talk show host from 1989 to 1990, but “Wheel of Fortune” remains as his main claim to fame.

On the East Coast, he has made an impact in his community. In 2005, he acquired two Maryland radio stations, 1470 WTTR and 1430 WNAV, which he sold in 2013. He also donated $1 million to Anne Arundel Medical Center.

“My wife’s family lives in the area, so we’ve always had a place here,” he said. “I still enjoy the West Coast, and I obviously spend a lot of time there, but it’s nice to have some variety in life. Our kids were able to grow up spending a lot of time with their extended family, and I think that’s helped them stay grounded.”

Sajak is currently filming “Wheel of Fortune” through April. When asked about his success, he said that although he never expected to become a game-show host, he did anticipate reaching great heights in broadcasting.

“I’m not sure where the confidence came from, but I always assumed I would achieve some level of success in my chosen profession. Even when things were not going well, and I had to turn to other jobs to pay the rent, I always knew that, if I persisted, it would all work out.”

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