The family name, says Al, was Sonnenschein “in the Old Country.” An immigration officer changed it when his German Jewish ancestors came through Ellis Island.
Sunshine graduated from high school in Metuchen, N.J., where he wrote about and shot photos of football games for the school newspaper, and learned the tenor saxophone.
At UM, he joined the marching Band of the Hour, which played during the New York Jets/Baltimore Colts Super Bowl at Miami’s Orange Bowl in 1969. Exempt from the Vietnam War-era military draft because of a heart condition, he chronicled anti-war activities at UM.
Through the ‘70s and ‘80s, Sunshine reported every big story to hit South Florida. The December 1972 Eastern Airlines Flight 401 crash in the Everglades. The Miami-based Watergate “burglars.” The Mariel Boatlift. The 1980 riot in Liberty City — during which he and a reporter were nearly killed in an attack on their car. The 1982 riots in Overtown. The drug wars raging on Miami’s streets..
“Miami was a very dynamic community back then,” said Sunshine. “Al started covering a lot of murders and shootings after Mariel. ... I wasn’t very popular with my editors. It was not a good story for Miami.”
‘All over it’
But it was a gold mine for local filmmakers Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman, who went looking for archival television footage for their 2006 documentary, Cocaine Cowboys, and found the best of it came from an unexpected source.
“Al Sunshine was all over it, this young turk reporter, out on the street, at murder scene upon murder scene,” said Corben. “We grew up knowing him as a consumer reporter. ... He felt like he’d lived history.”
He’s featured prominently in the film.
In 1983, Sunshine went to CNN as acting Miami bureau chief. He covered Latin America, and spent three months on the Space Coast after the 1986 shuttle Challenger disaster.
Two years late he settled down with CBS, where he became a mentor to younger journalists.
“The interns gravitate to him,’’ says Elliot Rodriguez, a former print reporter. “He was a mentor to me. My first day, they sent me out with Al,’’ who got into an argument with a gas-station owner but “stood his ground.’’
Generally, if Al Sunshine shows up at your business, it’s not a good thing, but Richard Baker, president of the South Florida Auto Dealers Association, says he’s fair.
“He always lets me know what the story is before I go on camera so I can be knowledgeable, whether its about ‘lemon laws’ or advertising issues,” said Baker. “He’s never tried to pull a fast one on me.’’
In fact, Sunshine “led the charge to get [auto] technicians licensed,” he said. “It’s better for the consumer.”
Right now, Sunshine is paying close attention to the insurance and financial-services industries, both of which “remain rife with white-collar fraud.”
He says he has to keep up the pressure on his bosses to do more such stories because “it’s not sexy and really not a good TV story [but] the same people that got us in this mess are still working very hard to carve out as much money at your expense as they can.”
He’s seen human nature at its greedy worst, and South Floridians rise to the occasion during disasters and tragedies.
“I’ve been blessed with doing a story about someone in the community who’s been ripped off that generated enough care and concern by people of good will come forward and try to offer help’’ he says. “On balance, I’ve probably met more people who are caring and nice.’’