A special item stands out among the work-related papers on Hoda Kotb’s desk at NBC – a Virginia Tech onesie. The co-host of NBC TODAY is not only the proud mom of toddler Haley Joy and newly adopted infant Hope Catherine, but also a proud Hokie.
“Virginia Tech was such a great place,” says Hoda, who graduated from Tech in 1986 after majoring in broadcast journalism. “It was one of the coolest places on earth.”
Born in Oklahoma, Hoda was living with her family in Alexandria when she started the college application process. “There was something about Virginia Tech that I loved,” she says, adding, “My older sister Hala went there.”
At Tech, Hoda was a member of Delta Delta Delta sorority, and she loved sorority life. “It was where I fit in. I liked showing new kids how cool our sorority was and our school,” she says, noting she was a pledge trainer. “I would lead the cheers during sorority events. I like that kind of stuff. I think I should have been a professional cheerleader.”
While her bubbly, upbeat persona would do well on the sidelines of say, a New Orleans Saints football game – she’s a die-hard Saints fan! – it has also proven to be a great asset to her career in broadcast journalism.
Since landing her first professional gig in 1987 in Greenville, Mississippi, Hoda has covered stories around the world, often in hot zones such as Baghdad, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Burma. She has interviewed everyone from world leaders to people suffering through a crisis to sports stars and celebrities.
But one thing she hasn’t done is buy into her own hype. If there’s one lesson she’s learned on her journey from working in the field to having a place at the table of a top-rated morning show, it’s to “check her ego at the door,” she writes in her 2010 New York Times bestselling autobiography Hoda: How I Survived War Zones, Bad Hair, Cancer, and Kathie Lee.
Cultivating a Love of Journalism
Hoda’s love of journalism was a natural outgrowth of her father’s keen interest in current events. He always included the family in conversations at the dining room table. “We would watch 60 Minutes, and he would ask us questions about it,” Hoda recalls.
Her interest grew in high school, but it wasn’t until her time at Virginia Tech that she says she fell in love with broadcast journalism.
For Hoda, college was a time of hope and loss. Her father passed away suddenly when she was a junior. Like anyone who has lost a parent, Hoda had to work through her feelings. She found comfort in two favorite spots. “The Duck Pond was the most peaceful place on campus,” she says. “The other place was the Cascades, not far away. Those two places became a respite for me, an escape.”
Hoda learned about the power of optimism from her mom, who she refers to as a “sunrise kind of person.”
Strong and always hopeful, each morning, her mom would wake Hoda and her sister and brother, Hala and Adel, with a cheery greeting. “My mom set the tone for our childhood,” she says. “I think that’s where my positivity came from.”
Hoda has embraced the concept of being happy. “I don’t want to be a Pollyanna. I do want to experience what it feels like to have loss, but you have to fix your gaze on something that is happy, a bright light,” she says. “I think about that when I look at Haley. Two people can have the exact same scenario, but have two different lives. I want Haley to choose light.”
Today, Hoda carries on her mother’s morning wake-up tradition with Haley. She slips into Haley’s room, and together, they greet the day: “Good morning Hudson River! Good morning New York!” No doubt, Hope will soon be a part of the same joyful tradition.
The Road to TODAY
Hoda’s first job interview after college was in Richmond at WTVR. She thought her field experience – she spent time in Cairo after graduation watching and learning at the CBS bureau – would be enough to land the job, but the news director told her she wasn’t ready for Richmond. In the weeks to come, she would hear that same sentiment in Roanoke, Memphis, and Birmingham. But then she met Stan Sandroni, who hired her for the job in Greenville, Mississippi. From there, she moved to journalism positions in Illinois, Florida, and then, New Orleans, where she spent six years before going to Dateline in New York in 1998.
While working in New Orleans, Hoda cultivated a love of The Big Easy – the city and its people. That’s why covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 for NBC was so gut-wrenching for her. “This was my house, my people,” she says. “It was painful. After my live shots, I would have a major breakdown.”
As horrible as it was, Hurricane Katrina taught her that people are resilient. She remembers the sight of four nurses walking down the highway abandoned, crying, and leaving bloody footprints in their path. “I was awestruck by the resilience that these people have,” she says.
That experience serves as a framework for how she covers tragedies today. “I realized I was home [in New Orleans], and whenever I cover a story I have to think ‘this is home’ and treat it like that,” she says. “You don’t realize how much pain is out there. When you cover it, you don’t stand on the outside and cover it. You are there with them.”
Hoda had the same empathy and love of place when she delivered the commencement address at Virginia Tech in 2008, one year after thirty-two people were killed at her beloved alma mater. “I remember walking on that campus and thinking it was forever changed. It was a profound trip back,” she says. “It reminded me that whatever people go through, they want to be joyful.”
Hoda struggled with the words she wanted to use in her address, searching for just the right ones. At the end of her address in Lane Stadium, she pulled out her iPod and put the earbuds next to the microphone and tapped play. Metallica’s song, Enter Sandman – a Hokie home football game favorite – blasted across the stadium. “It was as if there was a full concert in Lane Stadium,” she says. “The entire student body jumped out of their seats.”
Joy filled the stadium, and, says Hoda, “Joy is what you need to live through whatever you have to go through.”
The Worst and the Best
In 2007, Hoda learned she had breast cancer that would require a mastectomy. At the same time, she was going through a divorce. Hoda writes in her autobiography: “Only now when I look back, can I say the year 2007 was a gift. That’s the year my body and my heart broke at the same time.”
She coped with the cancer by trying not to “live in it,” she says. “I’m a control freak. I’m that type of person on little things. When it came to this big thing, I did a trust-and-surrender.”
Hoda set out to find the best doctor in New York and ask that doctor “to do what they studied for all those years,” she says. “I don’t want to be involved in the minutia. I wanted them to do it. I was uninterested in having all that information. I spent
my career looking for information, but then didn’t want it. I felt free.”
After her surgery, she tried to keep positivity flowing. When doctors asked if she needed medication for the stress of the surgery and the divorce, she remembers thinking, Then how do you know when it’s through? “I tried to live in it, and every day was a little better,” says Hoda.
At the same time she was battling cancer, Hoda was making her mark on television. In 2008, she began co-hosting NBC’s TODAY with Kathie Lee and Hoda. Kathie Lee Gifford retired from the show last month, and Jenna Bush Hager is now Hoda’s co-anchor on the show. The week leading up to Gifford’s last day was extremely emotional for Hoda, but true to her spirit, she found joy in those moments, too.
“I still get to enjoy Jenna and learn about her,” she says. “It’s fun. We’ve been having such a great time.”
The new co-host is having fun working with Hoda, too. “Every day, she surprises me with something else. The fun part about being part of the show is that we are going to grow, and our friendship is going to grow over the years,” says Bush Hager, who, like Hoda, has two daughters.
Hoda can be very deep, serious, and soulful as well. “She definitely has this soulful side of her and this kind of introspective side and always wants to know more. I think that sort of surprised me. I love that side of her too,” Bush Hager says.
Hoda is at home with her TODAY family and it shows. She began co-hosting the show in 2018 and covers the serious, the heartwarming, and the lighter side of news. “TODAY is a beautiful mixed bag of everything,” she says. “I get to do the show with people I love. It’s cool.”
“Hoda is not so much a person as she is actually a force of nature,” says Al Roker, NBC’s TODAY weather and feature anchor and co-host of TODAY Third Hour. “What I love about her is that she is one of the most positive people I know, but also very vulnerable. If she’s not having a great day, she tells you. I adore her, I feel like she’s one of my sisters.”
When he first started working with Hoda, Roker didn’t expect her honesty. “People in this business tend to put on a happy face and put their best foot forward – all that jazz,” he says. “But she is a remarkably honest and refreshing person who shows you all sides. She is a complete person. She is unflinchingly honest.”
“I feel like I was born again, that I’ve gotten another life. A life that I was intended to live,” Hoda says about being a mother.
She had been thinking about motherhood for a while, and after her battle with cancer, believed she may have missed that opportunity in her life. “I had a yearning that was almost unspeakable,” she says.
Hoda says she began feeling hopeful about becoming a parent through adoption after watching a story about Academy Award-winning actress Sandra Bullock, who had adopted a son a few years earlier. “She was my age and she adopted,” says Hoda, who was fifty-two at the time.
Hoda kept seeing what she considered signs that she should adopt. One day, she decided to talk to her partner, Joel Schiffman, about her idea. “I said, ‘I am going to ask you something, and it’s an important question. You don’t have to rush your answer. I would like to explore adoption with you.’”
Hoda says Schiffman didn’t have to think about his choice. He told her yes on the spot.
Hoda adopted Haley Joy, the following February. Their first meeting was in a room where parents wait to see their child. The doors opened and a woman came in the room holding the newborn. “She placed Haley in my arms and she fit in the crook of my arm. She fit next to me and in my heart,” says Hoda. “Everything fit. She looked at me and I looked at her. It was the most beautiful moment I have ever experienced in my life.”
Hoda doesn’t remember life before Haley, she says. “The best moments in my life arrived after she arrived.”
Roker describes Hoda as “one of those joy-filled moms. She celebrates her daughter in every way. But I think she’s also one of those people who knows there are going to be bumps in the road and our kids never follow a straight path. And she’s celebrating that path.”
“Hoda is a beautiful mother,” adds Bush Hager. “I feel like she’s shown to so many people that motherhood happens at any stage in life and that motherhood can look like a thousand different things.”
Hoda is Raising Readers!
When Hoda puts Haley to bed, her daughter – who’s two now – looks at her and smiles. “I get to read her the same book every night and I love it,” she says, noting the Haley-requested reading is a Sesame Street title, Zoe’s First Book of Seasons.
When a book publisher was interested in talking with Hoda about writing a children’s book, Hoda dismissed the notion at first. “It was when I was drowning in life, and it was the last thing I wanted to think about,” she says.
But later, she agreed. The process started organically, she says. “I put my heart on the pages. Suzie Mason, illustrator and artist, is the glue of this whole thing. She is amazing.” Hoda’s first children’s book, I’ve Loved You Since Forever, was published in 2018. Her second, You Are My Happy, was just released.
Hoda’s emotions were hard to conceal when Grammy Award winner Kelly Clarkson recorded her version of I’ve Loved You Since Forever for a video that was debuted on TODAY. “I wept,” Hoda says, adding that Haley likes to sing the song at home. “When I chime in, she says ‘I got it mama.’”
Haley has already embraced her mother’s love of reading. Hoda’s two picture books have been read so much, they are now held together by tape instead of binding. “Haley likes looking through both of them,” Hoda says, adding with a chuckle, “But if you put Elmo anywhere near her, my books are roadkill.”
As a communications pro and a mother, she believes in the power of reading to children. “Haley wants to read at lunch and dinner. She likes it,” Hoda says. “I watch her brain grow in front of me. It’s almost freaky.”
Haley knows her favorite Sesame Street book by heart. One night, Hoda improvised a bit and said the baby birds sing, instead of chirp. Haley piped up and said “No Mama, chirp.” She began flipping the page and mumbling the words.
“She is paying attention, and she knows what’s going on,” Hoda says. “Watching her falling in love with books is so cool. I hope she has a lifetime of reading.” And joy and hope!
Photos: Nathan Congleton /NBC’s Today