Phil Gomez has been a fixture and a comfort for Santa Cruz County viewers during his decades at KSBW-TV, and while he says “I’m scared. I’m nervous. I don’t know what to expect” about stepping away, he’s plenty ready to trade in the deadline grind for a chill Aptos retirement.
Who’s the most prominent and familiar media figure in Santa Cruz County?
That’s a debate that can begin only after Friday, the day that Phil Gomez punches the clock for the final time at KSBW, Channel 8. Until that moment, there is no argument: The man behind “The Mustache” is still Santa Cruz’s alpha news reporter.
Last week, Gomez, 65, announced on Facebook that he was retiring from his perch as Santa Cruz County’s ace reporter at KSBW. The announcement was greeted with a cascade of congratulatory messages from locals, many of whom have been watching his reports on TV for 25 years. “Thank you for all you’ve done,” said one commenter. “You make our days a lot easier to swallow the bad news and embrace the good news.”
A few days before his final day on the job, Gomez sat under an umbrella outside Pacific Coffee Roasting Company in Aptos, presenting a picture of relaxation at odds with his recognizable image on camera reporting from the front lines of wildfires or winter storms.
“The time is right,” he said of his decision to step away after nearly 40 years in the TV news game, the past 25 of those years at KSBW. But after four decades of chasing the story, will he be able to turn off the reporter’s internal news ticker?
Larry Blitstein, a retired veteran TV newsman and photographer mostly at KCRA in Sacramento, is a friend, former colleague and even ex-roommate of Gomez. “He lives it, sleeps it, drinks it,” said Blitstein of Gomez’s news instincts. “He hates to get beat on any story. He hates to come in second. He’s a super-competitive guy. He’s all about the TV biz, all the time.”
“I don’t know what the future holds,” said Gomez. “I hope it’s all good. My buddy Larry will say, ‘You ask yourself, Why didn’t I do this [retire] sooner?’ So, I don’t know. I’m scared. I’m nervous. I don’t know what to expect.”
Still, the deadline stresses and the physical demands of his job have, he said, taken a toll on his health. “When I was younger, I could handle it,” he said. “Now, not so much.”
In the early days of his career, he would often go out in the field alone, carrying a 35-pound pack and a camera, often to out-of-the-way places or in difficult circumstances. With almost four decades of memories, the man has his stories. Once, to cite only one of many examples, he was standing in the living room of a home on the oceanside cliffs of Via Gaviota in Rio Del Mar when an enormous storm wave surged through the living room.
In fact, Gomez has been around so long, he’s become a verb, at least at the office. “I used to get hit a lot and get the equipment wet or whatever,” he said. “And I’d go back to the office and the engineers [would look at the equipment and] say, ‘Oh, it’s been Gomez-ed.’”
In TV news, it’s unusual for a field reporter to be on the job as long as Gomez was at KSBW. But before that job, his career took the winding path through various TV markets that is more typical in the business. He grew up in San Jose, and first got interested in broadcast news at San Jose State University. He began at KMST in Monterey, first as an intern, then as a camera operator. When he got his shot at KMST as an on-air reporter, he covered a bit of everything, most memorably the arraignment of “Trailside Killer” David Carpenter, and the parole hearing for Santa Cruz serial killer Herbert Mullin.
Before long, though, Gomez began climbing the career ladder. Moving on from Monterey, he resettled in Bakersfield, then on to Reno, Nevada. From there, he shot back across the country to land along the Gulf Coast of Florida in Tampa Bay. Then, back to California at KSBY in San Luis Obispo and KNTV at San Jose. From there, he was off to Colorado Springs, Colorado, before finally planting at KSBW in Salinas, where he established himself as the station’s go-to guy for Santa Cruz County.
All the while, he was exploring many facets of the news business, as a reporter, technician, producer and anchor, often covering spot news, but also diving deep into big-picture stories on homelessness and prison reform, among other subjects. He was also a versatile features reporter, interviewing people as diverse as singer Joan Baez, aviation legend Chuck Yeager and the famed landscape artist Christo.
I unveiled it at one of my wide shots in Watsonville and [KSBW anchor] Dan Green texted me afterward and said, “That’s the best thing to happen during this whole pandemic.”
— Phil Gomez, on his now-famous mustache
But it wasn’t until the pandemic that Gomez’s already recognizable face became even more so. Yep, we’re talking about the Mustache.
For the past few years, Gomez has sported a broad, nearly ear-to-ear, neo-Wild West mustache that has become his late-career trademark, and has made him Santa Cruz’s answer to Sam Elliott.
He grew the ’stache in the early days of COVID, but management at the station wasn’t keen on it, so he would shave it off whenever he had to participate in a Zoom meeting. That happened twice. The third time, a new manager had come in and Gomez was allowed to keep the mustache.
“I unveiled it at one of my wide shots in Watsonville,” he remembered, “and [KSBW anchor] Dan Green texted me afterward and said, ‘That’s the best thing to happen during this whole pandemic.’”
KSBW’s viewers and Gomez fans have responded largely favorably to the cowboy facial hair. One viewer told Gomez that the mustache distinguished him from other “cookie-cutter” news reporters. “Some people have said, ‘It’s ridiculous. Get rid of it. I can’t take you seriously,’” Gomez said. “But most people really, really like it.”
TV news people have to be hyperaware of their presentation in a way that print or radio journalists simply do not. By the nature of the medium, looks are important in TV, which is why Gomez going with the big mustache has bigger stakes than it would if he were in just about any other industry. “People can be positively vicious,” he said about the mandate to look good on camera, “especially with the women. I’ve gotten a few [vicious messages about looks], not as much as others.”
Perhaps because of the ’stache, Gomez is recognized in public much more than he has been in the past. The good news is that even though Gomez is leaving TV news, the mustache will stay.
He plans to stay in Aptos where he’s lived with partner Debbie for 20 years. As for his post-retirement plans, he’s leaving things open. But a priority is to visit the United Kingdom, where he was born and where he still has family members. He hasn’t visited England, he said, since 1975. He’s eagerly looking forward to pulling for the England national team at the FIFA World Cup, kicking off in November in Qatar.
But will he be able to reorient himself to something other than the daily local-news cycle? “I’m going to try not to look at stuff for a while,” he said of his news curiosity. “But I’ll always have an eye on what’s going on.”
He gestured to the patio out front at Aptos Center, where not a table was empty on a picturesque Sunday afternoon. He hinted that he’ll be spending a lot of time in this very spot: “This is where this community comes, to talk to people about what’s happening. And they’ll always have questions about what’s been happening in the news. And sometimes they don’t have an answer. So I’m going to have to know what’s going on.”