Last Saturday, Viking Days was in full swing as alumna Mary Hart, class of 1972, arrived for the weekend to celebrate her fortieth class reunion.
Since graduation, Hart has become famous for interviewing the rich and famous as 29-year host of NBC’s “Entertainment Tonight” (E.T.).
“If I look back on my Augie days, I have so much appreciation for the faculty who were here,” Hart said. “My experiences here led to so much. It gave me an opportunity to perform and it gave me, not a total comfort level, but an experience from which I’ve been able to build through most of my career.”
She did not get there overnight, however. Hart started with KELO in Sioux Falls, hosting a talk show during odd hours while also teaching at Washington High School.
“I knew I wanted to do television full-time, but I loved the three years of teaching at Washington High that I got to do,” Hart said.
After KELO, Hart and her former husband moved from Sioux Falls to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, for less than a year and then to Oklahoma City, Okla.
In Oklahoma City, Hart did television full-time on “Danny’s Day” hosted by Danny Williams.
“[Danny’s Day] was an incredible springboard for me. I did that for three and a half years in the late 70s and started getting job offers from around the country. Ultimately I had the choice, the decision, to go to New York or go to California.”
She chose Los Angeles, Calif., in 1979. After working on “PM Magazine,” she co-hosted “The Regis Philbin Show” for four months in 1982 until it was canceled. The show’s quick cancellation, however, was the reason she ended up at E.T.
“We get canceled and I’m suddenly out of a job,” Hart said. “Then this new show, E.T., comes to me and says, ‘We’d like to interview you because we want to know what it’s like to be on a show that gets canceled and how difficult it is.’ Oh great! I was fired and now they want to come interview me about it.
“Two days later they called and said we think you belong over here, we think there’s a spot for you.”
A little less than 30 years later, in 2011, Hart retired from E.T.
“We were the first show of its kind. I’m really proud to have helped established a new type of genre for T.V.,” Hart said.
For someone who has interviewed celebrities from Gregory Peck and Lucille Ball to George Clooney and Justin Bieber, Hart said she has a hard time playing favorites.
“It’s hard to pinpoint one,” Hart said. “I’ve met all of them through the years so George [Clooney] is definitely one of them because he’s so diverse in what he does, because he’s a filmmaker as well as an actor.
“For me the most interesting people are the ones who had success in their careers, lost the success and then found it again… Nobody stays on top forever.”
Hart was also Miss South Dakota her junior year in 1970 and a top ten qualifier in that year’s Miss America Pageant.
“One of my most touching and favorite moments at Augie was coming back after being in the top ten in the Miss America Pageant and having the Augustana Band meet me at the Tarmac as I walked off the airplane,” Hart said. “Not to mention a huge part of the student body with signs welcoming me home. It was so neat, I didn’t expect it and I was just so filled with pride.”
That moment and her friends flooding her floor in Bergsaker Hall for fun made the top two, the latter being a memory her house mother, Professor Sandra Looney, might not find as humorous.