How a native New Yorker became one of Johnson County’s most visible community volunteers
By Scott Hall

»To local news viewers, he’s our own Mike Wallace, the man with a camera whose very name gives bad guys heartburn: “Rafael Sanchez. Call 6 for help.”

He doesn’t apologize for approaching his job with vigor.

“I’m OK with putting a mic in your face if you’re an evil person,” says Sanchez, who turns 45 in August. “There are people who prey on the elderly and the uneducated. … If you’re going to be a bully, then ‘game on.’”

But to people who know him off the air — especially around Franklin, his adopted hometown — WRTV’s veteran investigative reporter and consumer troubleshooter is a man of many dimensions, none of them nearly as intimidating.

Sanchez is a regular dad at a ball game or choir concert; a respected trustee of Franklin College, his alma mater; a pretty good ballroom dancer, apparently; and a community volunteer who is generous with his time and talent, emceeing fundraisers or simply lending a hand at dozens of events each year for causes, including education, homelessness and domestic violence.

His personal history is almost too charming not to be a movie script: Ambitious son of immigrants escapes the New York projects to chase a TV dream and finds home and true love in the heartland.

How’d he end up in Indiana, of all places?

“He blames that on me,” says his wife of 22 years, Beth Sanchez, who has deep local roots. The two met as Franklin College students and got engaged even as he took his first TV jobs in Arizona and Texas.

“I convinced him to come back, and I’ve tried to keep him here ever since,” she says.

Though proud of her husband’s ongoing investigative work, she hopes his newest gig will introduce more people to the personality that she and their teenage son and daughter know. In April, amid hot competition in the central Indiana TV market, Rafael began co-anchoring RTV6’s “The Now Indy,” a new 4 p.m. weekday newscast with a youthful, techy edge.

“I’m kind of hoping that will change people’s view of him a little bit, that he’s not just going after bad guys,” says Beth, a kindergarten teacher in the Clark-Pleasant schools. “He’s a jokester most of the time. He loves to have fun.”

The Sanchezes’ all-American story begins with Rafael’s parents, hardworking folks who took a chance and came to the United States from the Dominican Republic in 1966. Settling in New York City, his father found work as a building superintendent, his mother as a factory worker and nursing aide. When his parents split, Rafael and his brother went to live in a public housing complex in the Bronx with their mother, who spoke little English. The neighborhood was economically and racially diverse, he says, not necessarily dangerous but certainly gritty.

Perspective came, however, in the form of summertime visits to see family in the Dominican Republic, where livestock ran loose, plumbing was outdoors and opportunity was reserved for the elite. The trips had a big impact on young Rafael. One might say they created a sense of obligation.

“You can understand poverty, and you understand that you are lucky,” he says. “I’m on television, and my job is to help people with their problems. I have to give back, because it’s the right thing to do.”

Life in the Flyover Zone

Sanchez was comfortable growing up in New York City. His first job was at a candy store in the World Trade Center. He rode the subway to his high school in Manhattan, a vocational magnet school with a printing press and a television studio.

In the afternoons, he and his classmates would go to “TV shop,” which is where he caught the broadcast bug and found his calling. Fortunately, he was already in the Big Apple, pretty much the capital city of the global news industry.

“That’s the center of the universe, right?” he says. “Why would you want to leave the golden palace?”

But then, through a special program designed to recruit students from the Northeast, he heard about a school called Franklin College. It was somewhere in the Midwest.

“I flew out with my mom, and we loved the place,” Sanchez says. “It was just a good feeling.”

He decided to become a Grizzly, though his grandmother was still confused.

“She thought I was going to India,” he says. “I had to explain that Indiana was a state.”

Professor Joel Cramer was teaching broadcast journalism when he first ran into Sanchez. He recalls the young student as “very personable but very focused.”

“I have a distinct memory of meeting him on campus and him saying, ‘I’m going to be a television reporter,’” Cramer says. “He really wanted this career.”

Known then as “Ray,” the guy from New York also made an impression on a thoroughly Franklin woman. Her parents were both Franklin College grads. One of her grandfathers was longtime school superintendent Custer Baker, for whom an entire building is named.

Ray was friendly to everyone, Beth says, a real “Mr. Social.” And during sophomore year, when she was president of her sorority and getting pretty stressed out, he took time to listen.

“I just remember one night, him being there and saying, ‘It’s all going to work out. It’s going to be fine,’” she recalls.

They started dating, though her big-city guy didn’t have a driver’s license.

“I drove him to all the college functions,” she says. “I got all the slow dances, but all the fast dances, he was always out there, and there were probably five or six girls around him most of the time. He was the life of the party.”

Upon earning his bachelor’s degree with a triple major in journalism, political science and Spanish, Sanchez plunged into his much-anticipated TV career. After that initial year reporting in Yuma and Lubbock, he returned to the Indianapolis area and spent a year commuting to a reporting job in Fort Wayne before landing his first WRTV gig as producer of the morning newscast. After three years behind the scenes, he grew eager to be reporting again and took a position in South Bend, where he got off to a rough start.

His first day on the job, Sanchez and a cameraman named Jason Scheuer were sent to look for storm damage and do live reports for the morning news. A little rusty in front of the camera, Sanchez struggled to remember his new station’s call letters and even the fact that, after a few years of answering to his given name at the office, he had chosen to use “Ray Sanchez” as his on-air moniker.

“Inevitably, that entire morning, he forgot what his name was or what the station was,” Scheuer recalls with a laugh. “I just remember shaking my head, ‘Oh, what are we in for here?’ But the next day he was fine.”

The two became friends and stayed in touch when Sanchez returned to WRTV in 1998 to take the reporting position he still holds now. As Call 6 investigator for the past 17 years, he has shone a cleansing spotlight on con artists, unscrupulous merchants, uncaring bureaucrats, exploitative employers and other unsavory characters who mistreat decent folks. Along the way, he has won multiple Emmy, Associated Press and Society of Professional Journalists awards. For the past two years running, 2013 and 2014, the Associated Press of Indiana has named him the state’s Best Reporter in Metro TV.

That’s a level of success that makes a college professor proud.

“As a teacher, you assume that students eventually won’t need you anymore and that some will surpass you, but Rafael has managed to outdo my expectations,” Cramer says. “I’ve been absolutely impressed with how he became a part of this area of the state. He really fell in love with Indiana.”

Sometimes Sanchez’s job involves surprising people with on-camera questions and even following after them if they decline the opportunity. But he’s just giving them a chance to tell their side of the story, right?

“We will always be polite,” he says. “I don’t go home and tell my wife, ‘We chased somebody today.’ It’s not the joy of the chase. It is the joy of exposing someone who’s doing something wrong.”

Shortly after his own return to WRTV, Sanchez helped Scheuer get a job there, and the two have worked together off and on ever since. A few years back, Scheuer again became the designated photographer for Sanchez and his Call 6 investigative partner, Kara Kenney. He is proud to work with a man he calls one of the hardest-working and most widely recognized personalities in the central Indiana TV market.

“Just the contacts that he has and the interest he takes in the community, I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it,” Scheuer says. “We joke that he needs to run for governor, as popular as he is, or at least mayor.”

Indeed, Sanchez, who also hosts the weekly Sunday morning political program “Indianapolis This Week,” is the kind of figure who gets asked for autographs at the shopping mall, much to the amusement of his wife and kids. To him, being a local celebrity is not an end in itself, but it can be put to good use.

“It’s afforded me the opportunity to do a lot of community service,” he says.

A chance to give back

“A lot” is a fair estimate. The WRTV website says Sanchez participates in 20 charity events each year. His wife says he doesn’t really keep track, and the number is surely much higher. These are not paid appearances to promote newscasts. They are personal commitments to causes he believes in.

To name a few: In March, Sanchez emceed Visit Indy’s annual ROSE Awards for the city’s top hospitality workers. In April, he emceed School on Wheels’ Education Celebration, the Madame Walker Theatre Center’s Spirit Awards and the Coburn Place domestic abuse shelter’s Blue Breakfast fundraiser at the Colts complex. Every Thanksgiving for more than a decade, he has helped to assemble the free holiday meals that are given away at Watkins Park community center in Indianapolis.

Last September, Sanchez was one of the eight local volunteers who paired with professional hoofers for Dancing with the Johnson County Stars, a two-day ballroom dance contest that raised $180,000 for eight nonprofit organizations. With his fancy footwork, he earned the highest scores and claimed the Judges’ Choice Award for both nights of the competition.

He was dancing for Kids In Crisis – Intervention Team, or KIC-IT, a Franklin-based nonprofit that provides coaching and support services to at-risk and homeless youths ages 16 to 25, including a drop-in center where a desperate child can get a meal and a coat. KIC-IT board President Dave Sever, a retired Franklin school administrator, says Sanchez’s support has been invaluable to the developing organization, formed in 2011.

In the run-up to the dance contest, Sever says, Sanchez was all over social media promoting it. And in April, he emceed KIC-IT’s main fundraiser, the fourth annual “Walk a Mile in My Shoes” 5K Family Walk/Run.

“Rafael’s just an all-around good guy,” Sever says. “We’ve been thrilled to have him representing us.”

If there’s a lesson in Sanchez’s charity work, he says it’s simply the fact that everyone has time and talents to contribute to the community. You don’t have to be rich or famous or even a good dancer.

“I’m not going to be Oprah. I’m not going to be Bill Gates,” he says. “I’m encouraging others … just to do what you can do. Just do what you can in the space that you have.”

And if there’s a broader lesson in his life, Sanchez says, it’s the fact that the United States really is a land of opportunity, a place where anyone can find their version of success “if they get a fair shot on a level playing field.”

“The American Dream is a reality,” he says.