She wrung her hands as her eyes pooled with tears, and profusely apologized for struggling to utter three words that seemed to both pain and comfort her: “Job well done.”

Her face purpling, she lifted her head up just enough for her eyes to be visible again, this time with red surrounding the gray irises, she exhaled and apologized once more before explaining more steadily, albeit still excruciatingly reluctant, that this is what she needed to tell herself.

Jenny Martinez, news director, talks with reporter Christian Von Preysing about a story the offices of KRGV News on Thursday, Oct, 3, 2019, in Weslaco. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

That emotionally charged moment came Tuesday when Jenny Martinez, the news director for KRGV Channel 5, spoke candidly about her time as a journalist — a rare instance considering she’s long worked behind the scenes, opting against attending public and social gatherings to remain uninfluenced.

Even searching for a photo of Jenny by Googling her name will yield few results.

“It’s a compromise of your own values, and the easiest way to stay away from it is to stay away from it,” she said about being unapologetically unsociable with local officials and sources. “It’s about thinking through what’s right and what’s wrong, and truly being — through a very conservative way — the leader I feel like my team needs. That’s to not be influenced by a lot of outside things, distractions, or whatever you want to call them.

“And I don’t care what people say. It circles back to what is truthful. If we are telling the truth, then the criticism doesn’t matter.”

A hardened journalist of 38 years and a 29-year veteran at KRGV, Jenny — who’s led and guided scores of reporters in the station’s coverage of public corruption, natural disasters and cartel violence, as well as advocating for the disenfranchised — is now forced to step down for undisclosed health reasons.

Today is her last day on the job. Zoltan Csanyi-Salcedo, formerly of CBS 4, takes over Monday.

Her decision, though something she’s put off for some time, came earlier this year and has since been a source of anguish, as she is by no means ready to walk away. And yet she must.

“I don’t know how I’m going to do without them, to tell you the truth,” Jenny said about her reporters before pulling out her cellphone and swiping through photos of her staff, not unlike a proud parent. “These are my kids. This is who my people are.”

Outside of the Emmys and Texas Associated Press Broadcasters awards that adorn the lobby and offices at Channel 5, the legacy she leaves behind has proven more tangible than hardware. She believes it’s visible in a better-informed community, and in the relationships she’s helped build with her staff over the years.

‘24 HOURS A DAY’

Unflinching and unfazed, Jenny is somewhat of a reserved, even-keeled figure in her newsroom who very rarely reveals what she’s thinking, at least not outside the purview of her role as news director. Some have even described her as enigmatic and aloof.

Jenny Martinez, news director, talks about her time at KRGV News in her office on Thursday, Oct, 3, 2019, in Weslaco. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

If you ask her staff, however, they’ll speak of her as a warm and kind individual who may surprise from time to time with a personal revelation, especially if it means guiding someone through a particularly difficult story.

Such steadiness makes her a sought-after resource in the newsroom who for decades — and all while remaining relatively unknown to viewers — served as one of the most influential journalists in South Texas.

This also means her cellphone does not stop chirping.

“It’s always on, and always blowing up, around the clock, 24 hours a day,” she said. “Recently, my phone has not been as loud as often, and I expect it will become even quieter. I’m not looking forward to that. A lot of people would. I’m not.”

A former paralegal and private investigator, Jenny pulls from an eclectic background in various positions and industries — mainly in a public service capacity — when offering advice to her reporters.

The weight of journalistic authority she carries, though, belies a gentle spirit.

Her first day as news director, for instance, was 9/11, and she was tasked with guiding a newsroom as wary as the American public was at that time through the devastation.

“It was very daunting to lead a new, young team of folks who really didn’t understand what was going on either, and our whole focus was making sure people here in the Valley knew they were safe,” Jenny said.

It didn’t get any easier when a part of the Queen Isabella Memorial Causeway collapsed three days later, tragically killing several local residents.

She recalls trying to get the most experienced journalist at KRGV on the story, but could only reach a new reporter at that time, Kristine Galvan, who Jenny said took the job of covering the collapse to heart.

“When this young reporter arrived at her desk in the morning she was already crying; tears were flowing,” Jenny said. “I told her we have a job to do, and that’s to tell people they are safe. That definitely helped shape some of the way I manage the newsroom, even today. I think in a moment like that, it takes a real human hand, not a management hand, to do the job.

“It didn’t take a boss, it took a person who understood the fear and the doubt about what was happening to our country.”

Kristine eventually went on to cover several high-profile stories, earning a Texas Associated Press Broadcasters award for investigative reporting along the way, and eventually landing a job at a Fox station in Houston. She returned in 2017 and has since helped KRGV launch its Spanish newscasts.

Though reluctant to heap praise, Jenny looks back on that time as a source of pride, and as the beginning of her time as a leader who would go on to influence generations of broadcast journalists.

“I think that I’m most proud that the reporters who left here left with a better understanding of journalism, what it should be and what we should strive for,” Jenny said as she continued to glance at her phone while sitting in a small cafe in Weslaco, which is not far from the station, occasionally taking small bites of her lunch after having already talked for two hours about news.

“I think that the standards are set in our newsroom,” she added, “so that doesn’t change no matter what happens. Yes, we do have debates and discuss different points of view, but the bottom line is the bottom line. We can better deliver truth to our viewers and what it means to them and our community and our nation if we spend the time talking about it.”

If not for the 5 p.m. newscast, she could do this all day.

OLD HABITS DIE HARD

In discussing the current state of journalism, Jenny considered several virtues while both reminiscing about the past and looking ahead to the end of the week, her last with the station.

Among the accountability measures she insists on stressing are fundamentals Jenny urges mustn’t be forgotten in today’s quick-to-tweet climate, such as waiting 24 hours before some stories air, remaining focused on the plight of the vulnerable, and questioning whether reporters are living up to brand.

They’re considered wise words from an elder in the industry who’s “old enough to know better than to tell you” her age.

“We need to be careful that our support is swayed only by the truth,” Jenny said as she leaned over the table, her hands no longer fidgeting, her eyes now affixed intently on the interviewer, and while sun rays peeking through the diner’s window caught the pristine blue pantsuit she wore that day in a different light. “It’s so easy to be manipulated and to have your own personal opinion in either what you tell the viewers or what you write in the newspaper, but the only thing we should ever be persuaded by is truth.

“I would hope that journalists here continue to dig, because there’s so much that hasn’t been told. Just keep peeling back the layers until you get to it: the truth.”

Her propensity to share such wisdom is as much a habit now as the Diet Coke or Gold Peak Tea she needs at work every day.

‘LIVES AND BREATHES NEWS’

A photo of her husband, Larry, once served as one of the few items of sentimental value inside Jenny’s office. Now, aside from boxes filled with awards and personal effects, white roses and other flowers sit atop her desk, a gesture of appreciation and support for the beloved news director.

In fact, it wasn’t exactly clear to Jenny how much of a fixture she’s been at Channel 5 until she began packing up. She also didn’t realize how much she’s experienced.

Consider that a quarter of a century of history rested in her office: the Valley’s evolving landscape, the changing face of immigration, the border wall now becoming reality.

“We’ve seen a lot in our days, we’ve seen the environment also change for farm workers, from the time they were sprayed in the field with pesticides to now,” she said.

For her staff, Jenny proved to be a guiding light during these times.

“She’s a legend here,” Michelle Rubio, Jenny’s administrative assistant for 16 years, said of her boss.

Heather Arevalo, digital executive producer, said Jenny will be missed.

“I started here as an intern and she believed I could be a producer,” Heather said while standing inside Jenny’s office, where she was asked to share an endearing anecdote about helping Larry buy a white rose for every year Jenny worked at KRGV. “The best thing about Jenny is that she lives and breathes the news, and that her heart is in everything she does.”

Although she leaves Channel 5 on Friday, this isn’t the end of Jenny’s career. While she’ll need to hear “newsroom noise,” such as a police scanner from time to time to feel normal, she’s considering writing a book and continuing her passion for news in another way.

“I’m very open to whatever comes next,” Jenny said Tuesday. “On to the next chapter.”