Shelly Holt Allen ’81 has documented many significant events in the state during her nearly 42 years as a videographer with WCAX. She’s covered crime scenes, weather events, press conferences, judges being sworn in, governors signing new laws, and features of all kinds, working long days, nights, weekends, early mornings, and many holidays to cover the stories that impact Vermonters.
On Friday, November 17, the Lyndon State College (now Vermont State Lyndon) alum will enjoy her final day behind the camera in her role as Assistant Chief News Photographer at WCAX. Shelly will retire from a trail-blazing career that includes induction into the Vermont Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 2021.
A pioneer in this male-dominated profession, Shelly was the first female videographer and only the second female photographer at the Burlington-based station. Joe Carroll, Chief News Photographer at WCAX, a colleague of Shelly’s for 38 years, and also a Lyndon alum, believes she’s enjoyed the longest career of a female news photographer in the country. “Shelly came to this career at a time when not many women did, and she’s been at it ever since!” he said.
Shelly was always interested in photography, but chose to study History when she began at Lyndon State College in 1977. However, when her roommate’s homework looked a lot more interesting than hers, she switched to communications. “I picked up a video camera and that was it!”
At the start, her classes focused on still photography and visual literacy and they were shooting on a black-and-white reel-to-reel videotape. News Center 2 (the precursor to News7) was limited, and students taped news and took it to St. Johnsbury Cable to broadcast. Between her third and fourth year, the program received a grant to build a new television studio in the back of the Alexander Twilight Theatre to send broadcasts from campus directly via microwave signal. Students earned credits for building the TV station and they broadcast news programs at 6 a.m. and 5 p.m., rerunning taped versions later on the same day.
“I loved working in the TV station,” Shelly said, “and because of that experience, I knew what to do when I started at WCAX after graduation.”
Beyond travelling most roads through most towns in the state and covering every governor since 1980, Shelly was a witness to some particularly interesting stories over the years. Some were challenging, like the bank robber shot in Montpelier, and some a lot of fun, such as WCAX’s in-depth coverage of five towns a week over fourteen months in 1990-1991 in celebration of Vermont’s Bicentennial.
The 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway marked a career highlight. There were so many athletes on the U.S. Team with ties to Vermont, she said, that the station covered athlete stories for months in the lead up. Before the games opened, they shipped all of their equipment to Lillehammer. Since they didn’t have Olympic Village entrance privileges, they arranged a way to meet with local athletes on the street for interviews and used the CBS satellite to send those stories to Vermont, live!
The job of a news photographer certainly has exciting moments, but it comes with unique experiences, too. “The news camera is a passport that takes you places the average person can’t go,” Carroll said. “But it’s also a very unusual job. In the morning, you might be loved for shooting a feature story, but then you’re shooting a crime scene and are told ‘get that camera out of my face.’” The news team spends a lot of time together covering stories while traveling the state, he said, and you become very close to each other. Shelly has become a mentor to the younger photographers at the station, he added.
“I’ve met some absolutely fantastic people along the way,” Shelly said. “It’s been fun, and stressful at times, and there’s been a lot of change in the industry. I never thought I’d stay this long!”
“There aren’t many female photographers in the news landscape who have accomplished what Shelly has accomplished, or who have stayed with a station nearly as long,” said Meaghan Meachem, Professor and Chair, Journalism & Communications at Vermont State Lyndon. “I’ve really appreciated her willingness to sweep our students under her wing when she runs into them in the field, offering tips and even mentoring News7 photographers and reporters during busy election seasons at political headquarters in Burlington over the years. Shelly has left her mark on the budding photojournalists of the next generation, and the journalism program at Lyndon is beyond happy for her as she embarks upon new adventures in retirement.”
The physical demands of this career are great, and after just six days shy of 42 years of shooting with a heavy camera on one shoulder in every kind of weather, carrying all of her gear even through two pregnancies, she’s ready to put that camera down and travel with her husband (and fellow alum) Doug Allen ‘81.
Tune into Channel 3/WCAX Friday, November 17 at 6 p.m. for the “Look Back” segment and hear from Shelly Holt Allen in her own words about her professional journey as we celebrate her contributions to news journalism!