Mary Jo Perino's interest in television was cultivated at a very young age. She grew up in the small Minnesota town of Alexandria. Her grandfather started a small TV station there. "I knew when I was about three years old. My dad worked (at the TV station) in promotions. So when I was 2, 3, and 4 years old I would go to work with my dad and I'd sit on the anchor desk every day and pretend I was doing the news," she recalls. She also tested her talent for weather casting. "That was when weather maps were like magnets; i.e., magnet of a cloud, magnet of a sun, etc. So I'd do the weather." Back then, broadcasting sports was not on her radar.
"I've always loved sports and played sports in high school," she says. Attending college at the University of Missouri, Mary Jo worked for the football team her entire college career. She has always been a big sports fan, but admits—back then—she did not realize the opportunity existed for her to broadcast sports as a female. "It was the late 90s, so there were some females but not like it is today. It was not necessarily an option for me at school; everyone pushed me into news," she says. After graduating from college, Mary Jo landed her first job in TV in Terra Haute, Indiana. After two years reporting news, she made an all or nothing decision. "I decided I was going to get out of the business or someone was going to give me a sports job." The timing was just right. The weekend sports anchor at the station was leaving. She entered her news director's office "on my hands and knees, begging" as she says. She made an offer her boss couldn't refuse. She would continue to be a news reporter three days a week if she could anchor sports on the weekends. That lasted a year and gave her the experience and confidence to market herself strictly as a sports anchor/reporter. She sent tapes to larger cities hoping for her big break.
It happened. LEX18 liked what they saw in the aspiring sports broadcaster. Mary Jo was hired for the sports department in 2002. She anchored sports on the weekend and covered the Cats, high school teams and everything sports-related. She continued in that role for four years before accepting a job at CNN in Atlanta. It was a different pace, for sure. There were luxurious perks at the network that you don't get at the local level. "I got my hair and makeup done every day. Airbrushed makeup by professional makeup artists." But bigger was not necessarily better. "At Headline News there just wasn't much work to be done, so we never left the studio—ever," she recalls. Covering sports for CNN was not like covering sports for ESPN. "That's what I missed. I like being at the games. I like interviewing people, covering athletes, getting to know them." She wasn't getting any of that access sitting in an Atlanta studio under the lights. "I enjoy high school, college, and pros. Lexington is a place where you can get all three. I was hoping when I went to Headline News I would get to cover a Super Bowl or a Final Four or something like that," she says. Instead, there were four sports anchors at CNN. One day, on the rare occasion when they did get an out of town assignment, Mary Jo waited with anticipation. "They said ‘Mary Jo you get to go the Kentucky Derby!' I said, ‘great, I've done the Kentucky Derby four times' (not that I don't love it, but I wanted a different experience)," she says.
Her time at the network was short-lived. After one year, Mary Jo was back in the bluegrass. This time around, she settled into the main sports anchor job back at LEX18. She returned in 2007 with no regrets. "It's been awesome! It's absolutely home. My son was born here. I'll never leave Lexington—I'm here for the long haul."
She has a list of reasons to plant her roots here. "I love the size of the city. I liked Atlanta a lot, but when I first came to Lexington it was the biggest city (by far) I'd ever lived in. I love that it's kind of big but, not too big. I love the people here; I love the horses. I never thought I'd say that, but I love being around the horse industry. The fan base is so passionate." It's that passion that gets her charged up. "I challenge you to go to five places in the country where the fans are more passionate about their teams than Kentucky fans. It makes my job more important because people demand to know what's going on (in KY)," Mary Jo says. She credits the passion among Kentucky fans (in part) to the lack of competition for attention. While there are pro-teams in Cincinnati to root for, Mary Jo sums it up simply, "It's still Ohio. It's a different state." In addition to having pro teams a state away, tradition plays a big part in the Kentucky fan base. "I think it's the way people are raised here. Kids are born and their parents can tell you ‘he watched his first Kentucky basketball game when he was three days old'. That's just how it is. I remember my son's first Kentucky game. Sam was about two years old and he was just starting to talk," she says. He named one of his first teddy bears, which happened to be blue, Rich Brooks. "So I'm trying to raise my son the same way!" she says with a big smile. "It's bourbon—it's horses—it's basketball."
There have been many memorable moments during her ten years in Lexington. The most memorable: Kentucky's win over LSU in 2007; the Final Four last year and the 2005 Derby. Giacamo won that year and so did Mary Jo. "He was the only horse I bet on that day. The odds were 50–1. I was so excited!" Mary Jo is also looking forward to the future of her Alma Mater, then Enjoying UK Fan Day with son Sam University of Missouri. "They are going to be in the SEC now, so I finally get to cover my Alma Mater; although I haven't figured out who I'm going to cheer for when Kentucky and Missouri play each other. I am going to be very torn—very torn," she says.
Mary Jo follows sports on and off camera. "I watch sports all the time," she says. The Minnesota Vi-kings is her favorite football team, bar none. It's a passion she's trying to pass on, "I'm trying to get Sam to love the Vikings but he just won't. He tries to get my goat." He's doing a really good job at that. Take this season's loss to the Denver Broncos. Her son told her he wanted a football card of Tim Tebow. Mary Jo jokingly recalls, "I said buddy, if that's what you want for Christmas you are not getting a single present!" Don't worry—Christmas went just fine for Sam. That said, "We're serious about sports; football especially," Mary Jo says.
Mary Jo and her son are also big Wildcat fans. Sam knows all the players and Coach Cal; he can even do the John Wall dance! Mary Jo beams with pride and says she is raising a very good sports fan.
She loves movies and has seen "a million". When her dad got out of TV he bought a movie theater in her hometown when she was 6, something he still owns. "So I've never paid for a movie in my whole life." Her favorite flick is Dumb and Dumber. Mary Jo claims to have watched it 500 times and could watch it 500 more. She also loves to bowl, sing karaoke and admits she is obsessed with the Food Network. As far as cooking in her own kitchen she says, "I try. I did my whole Thanksgiving with Barefoot Contessa (recipes). I love her. I want to find a Jeffrey (Ina's husband). I want to be Ina and Jeffrey!" She favors Italian food.
Another big part of Mary Jo's time away from work is spent with Sam, now five years old. "I try to hang out with him as much as I can since I work late nights. He is in kindergarten now, so any free time is spent doing mommy things," she says.
"I really do feel like I'm living my dream. I'm at a great station. I work with great people. They are really flexible with me since I want to spend more time with my son." Mary Jo has become a big Kentucky fan during her ten years here and can't wait to go to the games. Her job gives her a front row seat to all the action; a perk that is not taken for granted. "People would kill for my seats at the North Carolina game or at the Louisville game. To have that and get paid for it is really living the dream. It almost doesn't feel like work."
You can watch Mary Jo weekdays on WLEX at 5:30, 6, & 11
Listen Sunday mornings on 590 WVLK 9-11
Join her 6,000 other followers on Twitter and and look for her Facebook Fan page.