It is impossible not to be happy for Eva Pilgrim. As she talks about her husband, Ed Hartigan, and their French bulldog puppy, Walter, Eva’s storytelling is occasionally punctuated with spontaneous musical laughter, the kind that makes you want to be her friend.
Eva, who anchors Good Morning America Weekend and is a correspondent for ABC News, seems content to be settling down in New York, as her journalism career has required long days and nonstop travel. Since graduating from the University of South Carolina College of Journalism and Mass Communications in 2004, she worked in West Virginia, Charlotte, Indianapolis, and Philadelphia before joining ABC in New York. Named a Distinguished Alumna by her college in 2016, Eva says that her university experience was instrumental in shaping the journalist she has become.
An overachiever at Airport High School in West Columbia, Eva was a leader in several clubs and student government and was the editor of the school newspaper. She even wrote articles, mostly about high school sports, for the county’s local newspaper, The Lexington Chronicle, and thought she might like to become a print journalist. In college, Eva and Sarah Messer — a classmate and fellow distinguished alumna who also works for ABC — worked together in Columbia for two years, writing web stories for WIS-TV while attending classes.
One February day in 2004, their Carolina News team instructor, Rick Peterson, wanted someone to cover the story of a suspicious death in Winnsboro. Eva volunteered and got an exclusive interview with an 18-year-old man who told her he had accidentally killed his infant daughter. In shock from what they had heard, Eva and her photographer went straight to the sheriff’s office, where they learned that they had just filmed the prime suspect. That afternoon at WIS, Eva says, “I remember walking into the news director’s office, telling her, ‘Oh, I interviewed that guy today.’” Eva, just a senior in college, was terrified to call attention to herself, yet she also realized that she had important information to share. Craig Melvin, who then also worked at WIS but now is Eva’s competition on NBC’s Today Show, ran the story several times. The news director gave Eva a WIS T-shirt.
WIS producer Addie Bradshaw left to be a reporter in West Virginia and encouraged Eva to follow suit. Subsequently, Kenneth Moten, still a close friend and colleague, was instrumental in her being hired in Philadelphia and in New York. “We’ve definitely helped each other navigate being at the network,” Eva says about Kenneth, who is from Abbeville. “We talk to each other about everything.”
Eva stays in touch with many of the people she interviews. “Life happens as you’re telling these stories,” she says. “As much as you stay professional, you learn about each other’s lives, and so you still check in with each other.” She worries about a girl who was kidnapped in Tennessee in 2017 and another who, kidnapped as an infant, is trying to get to know her biological family while the South Carolina woman she believed to be her mother is in prison.
“This business is about how much you can bear,” Eva says. “So much of it requires working harder to do the extra thing to get the story, and I mean that in a completely ethical way. A lot of other parts of life are compromised by that because you are constantly gone. Now, I’m in a very different position, but the first several years of the network, I had no days off. Vacations got cancelled constantly.”
Eva and Ed met at a friend’s wedding in Miami and got to know each other better when ABC sent Eva to London, where Ed lived, the very next weekend for an extended assignment. In November 2019, because Eva was scheduled to be on the campaign trail with ABC News, they decided to get married legally ahead of an early fall wedding this year. They had hoped to have the wedding in Ireland — Ed is half Irish, half English. But COVID-19 prompted them to put off their nuptials until 2021. Now they are planning an intimate destination wedding at Harbour Island in the Bahamas.
“We are just trying to keep it small because neither one of us is great with big crowds. I know that seems crazy because I do the job that I do, but he’s not a crowd person, and I don’t like big groups of people either.” Ed, who works in advertising and marketing, is able to work from home, so he moved to Brooklyn to be with Eva.
Two days after their New York City Hall wedding, Eva and Ed welcomed Walter, a French bulldog, into the family. The puppy’s name pays homage to both the broadcast journalist Walter Cronkite and Walter Peyton of the Chicago Bears. When Eva says Peyton is Ed’s favorite American football player, she is corrected by Ed: Walter Peyton is his favorite American, period. Eva adds, “And British slang for idiot is Wally, so we call our puppy Wally a lot, because he is a complete idiot.”
Eva missed the wedding of one of her dearest friends in South Carolina this summer because of the quarantine. She and Michelle Kerscher Plyler grew up together at Airport High School and at Holland Avenue Baptist Church. Michelle taught Eva how to be a cheerleader.
“I usually come home to South Carolina about once a month when I’m in the United States,” Eva says, “or my mom comes to visit me. I’m pretty close to my family. My whole family is in South Carolina. Nobody left except me.” Eva’s father, Tim Pilgrim, grew up in South Carolina. He served in the Army; after Eva was born in South Korea, the military family moved many times before settling in West Columbia when Eva was in the third grade.
“It was good preparation for this job,” Eva says. “My dad used to joke that I never met a stranger.” Moving so often taught Eva to make friends quickly, but South Carolina, the home of her father’s extended family, will always be home to Eva. “I’ve lived in New York a little while now, but it’s funny how so much of who you are is where you were raised.”
Eva’s mother, In Sook Gayle, works at a nursing home, so during the pandemic, she has been cautious about spending time with all of her family members. Eva’s younger sister, Sherry, lives in Batesburg-Leesville with her husband and two sons, and their younger brother, Sean, also lives nearby. Normally, Eva says, “I plan a mother-daughter trip with my mother every year; we go away for two weeks, just the two of us. I couldn’t do that this year.”
Eva’s favorite vacation was their most recent jaunt to Paris, London, and Amsterdam. Her mother insisted that they needed to tour Paris by motorbike. “I couldn’t understand why, but sure enough, you see so much more on the back of a motorcycle than you would in a car or a bus,” Eva says. “She was right about it, but it gives you some insight into her mind as a younger person and into what her life was like prior to me. You have these conversations with your parents at this stage of life. You learn about their histories and how much fun they used to be. My mom is just a troublemaker — she just can’t help herself.
“We were in Amsterdam looking at the flowers. Because these flowers have to be sold and shipped off, big signs on the farms clearly say, ‘Do not walk through the tulip fields,’ and my mom grabs me to take a better picture. I point out, ‘Mom, the sign says no.’ She’s clearly more adventurous than I am, so it was fun to see that side of my mom. And it’s probably the first trip we’ve had where I think we shared more like girlfriends than mom and daughter.”
Eva gained more knowledge of her mother’s history while covering a story for ABC: President Trump’s 2018 summit with North Korean President Kim Jong Un. Although she knew that her maternal grandmother had escaped from North Korea to Seoul, the details were unclear because the family rarely spoke about it. “It’s really hard to know what’s going on beyond the border,” Eva says. “I was really interested so I was asking her all these questions as a journalist and also as a curious child.” Eva’s grandmother, whom she called “my Halmony” (which is Korean for “grandmother”), had left her whole family behind in North Korea, and she regularly tried to send letters and money to her family.
“So many of us vary closely as to how we ended up here in the United States,” Eva says. “That’s the beauty of America, right? So, I think it’s significant to remember how we got here and why our country is so special, but we also can fail to pay attention to what’s around us. It’s really easy as Americans to live in our own little bubble because we’re so fortunate, but the things that are happening around us are not that far, really, from our homes.”
With more than 47,000 followers on Instagram, Eva tries not to think about being a role model. “But I think about trying to do the right thing a lot just because of how I was raised.” Having looked up to Asian American journalists Connie Chung, Juju Chang, and Ann Curry, Eva is now one of their colleagues. “What is so interesting about these women whom I idolized growing up is that they’re way cooler, way nicer, way more down to earth than I ever would have dreamed they were.”
A chat with Eva Pilgrim at home in Brooklyn
Q: What neighborhood did you live in when you were growing up?
Q: What is your favorite restaurant in Columbia?
A: Zesto’s. I always get the same thing, a hamburger and a chicken leg, because I like the chicken, but I don’t want tons of it, and I really like the burger. And I always get a milkshake.
Q: Is there a part of the city that you miss most when you’re not home?
A: I miss home, which is why I went home so often pre-pandemic. It’s just a different feel. People are different to each other. It’s comfortable for me. So it’s just nice to go home and drive your own car. I always stop at Zesto’s. I usually get Krispy Kreme. I hang out at my mom’s house.
Q: What’s your favorite comfort food?
A: Sweets. Anything sweet I’ll eat.
Q: What’s your favorite thing to cook?
A: I’m more of a baker; that’s the sweet thing again. I’ll bake anything, but I love carrot cake. My mom taught me how to make my grandmother’s recipe, and I make that whenever I can.
Q: What advice would you give to a young person starting out who sees you on Good Morning America or ABC News?
A: That they can. I grew up in Lexington County, South Carolina. My parents are not rich people. And I just worked hard and was nice to people. Treat people well and be kind to them, and they will help you and cheer for you. Where I am today is a thousand and one percent because of the really kind, nice people who helped me along the way. I wouldn’t be here without them. Most of them are from South Carolina. And I think people often mistake kindness and being polite for weakness. But I also think that if you really pay close attention it’s actually a strength. People won’t always expect for you to make the hard decision or do the hard thing, but right is right. We were all raised that way. And you get a little more grace when you’re nice to people.
Q: Are you an introvert or an extrovert?
A: I’m an introvert. I think people are really surprised by that. They think that I must be really outgoing because I do this job, but I’m not. I do really well with people one on one, but that’s different than being extroverted.
Q: What do you do for fun?
A: Go to the beach. I play with my dog. I play the violin, like old classical pieces, stuff that I remember as part of the repertoire that I was taught. I fall back into the rhythm and routine of old music that I know but can’t play the way that I once did.
Q: Is your desk messy or neat?
A: Neat. I’ll send you a picture of my refrigerator. It contains Mason jars with white lids, with everything in those jars so that it’s all ready to eat. It’s color-coordinated. It gives me great happiness. I think it drives my husband a little crazy, but I think he appreciates the ease of use as much as he messes with me by turning things the wrong way. I like all the labels turned the same way. He’ll turn something and wait for me to notice that it was moved.
Q: How do you stay ready to travel at a moment’s notice (when we’re not quarantined)?
A: I keep two suitcases, one for weather and one for regular stories, with dress clothes in it that are seasonal. I have two suitcases in my office as well, so if I’m at home or at work I can get one out.
Q: Has it been nice to stay home for a while?
A: It has been nice, and being newly married, I don’t think I would have had this kind of time with my husband. We were just laughing that we haven’t fought, really, and so if there was any question that we made the right decision, this quarantine has told us that we really get along! I have some single friends here in the city, and we’ve all definitely looked after one another. New York isn’t a city where you buy an apartment or get an apartment with the idea that you’re ever actually going to be in it. These apartments are not large. They’re not meant for living. They’re meant for sleeping.