Merri Dee, a fixture on Chicago television screens for decades as a reporter and anchor for WGN-TV, has died at age 85, ending a life of philanthropy, advocacy and survival as compelling as ever. any of the stories she’s covered on TV.
Ms. Dee was a pioneering host who captured the hearts of Chicagoans hosting public affairs shows, charity telethons and sweepstakes for 43 years at WGN.
Art Norman, NBC 5 News contributor and former presenter, said he recalled people approaching Ms Dee because she picked the winning lottery numbers.
“People wanted to touch his hands, for Merri Dee’s luck,” Norman said.
Ms Dee was also a vocal advocate for victims of violent crime following her own contact with a near-death kidnapper while working for another television station in 1971.
“If you want to live, you must be determined to live,” she wrote in her 2013 memoir, Life lessons on faith, forgiveness and grace.
“If you have any kind of trauma, you have to tell yourself that you don’t deserve worse, you deserve better.”
Her death was reported Wednesday by WGN-TV and family members, who said she died overnight in her sleep at her home.
Ms. Dee was born in Chicago on October 30, 1936, but her mother died when she was 2 and her stepmother was abusive, she wrote in her memoir.
Alone from age 14, Ms. Dee graduated from Englewood High School in the 1950s, and as a single mother she graduated from Midwestern Broadcasting School, now known as Columbia College Chicago.
Ms. Dee landed her first radio job in 1966 at WBEE in Harvey, moved to television at the newly established WCIU-Channel 26 in 1968, then moved on to hosting “The Merri Dee Show” on WSNS-Channel 44 in 1971, quickly gaining a huge local following.
As Ms. Dee was leaving the station one evening, a man kidnapped her and a guest who had appeared on her show. Demanding money, he eventually took them to a forest reserve, where he shot Ms. Dee twice in the head.
“In the heavy moments that followed, I realized I wasn’t dead,” she later wrote. “I prayed earnestly, ‘Dear God, help me.’ …Instead of a great white light, I heard the roar of the ocean… I had a vision.
She wrote that she heard a man’s voice say, “It’s okay…You can come in.”
Mrs. Dee’s guest, amateur medium Alan Sandler, was killed. She managed to drag herself to the side of a road to ask for help.
“A life-changing moment takes virtually all of your emotional, spiritual and sometimes physical reserves to survive. It is a moment that forces you to determine what you will or will not accept, and makes you choose how you will respond,” Ms. Dee in his memoirs.
She responded by battling paralysis and blindness to return to television news the following year at WGN, as one of the first black news anchors in a big city.
Her attacker was paroled after 12 years and he continued to harass her on the phone.
This prompted Ms Dee to rally state politicians to draft the first National Victims Bill of Rights in 1992, legislation that was later followed by other states.
Ms Dee was on the air until 1983, when she became director of community relations for WGN, a position she held until her retirement in 2008.
“Chicago was Merri Dee,” longtime friend Andrew Hayes said. “She was proud of her diversity; she was proud of her resilience; she was proud of the city’s culture.
She helped raise more than $30 million as director of WGN-TV Children’s Charities, according to the station, becoming the face of adoption advocacy in Illinois through fundraisers and telethons. Former Governor Jim Edgar praised his efforts at the station in 1998, crediting them with increasing adoptions in the state by 50%.
“I was inspired to work on behalf of adopted children because of my experiences with my stepmother,” Ms. Dee said in a 2005 interview with Contemporary Black Biography. “I decided to get involved so that no other child goes through this.”
This year, Ms. Dee was chosen by the mayor’s office to be featured for Women’s History Month in March, Hayes said. A few days before her death on March 10, she was interviewed and photographed for the feature film.
“Merri Dee was a local broadcasting legend whose time as a radio and talk show presenter and host made her a beloved local celebrity,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a statement.
“In addition to her work in television and radio, she also had a tremendous impact on communities in our city and state through a number of philanthropic activities that reflected her passion for protecting the vulnerable. such as children in need of adoptive homes.
“Merri Dee has truly left a positive and indelible mark on our city and has inspired countless others to follow in her footsteps.”
In her private life, Ms Dee has focused on her family – her five siblings, daughter, son-in-law and three grandchildren.
She taught the power of resilience and hope to her grandchildren, said Keith Campbell, husband of Ms Dee’s daughter, Toya Campbell.
“Gammy, as they call him, always supported them and motivated them to pursue what gave them joy,” said Keith Campbell. “Even when it seemed like no one else was in their corner, she still was.”
Micah Materre, a current WGN-TV presenter, said losing Ms Dee was like losing a “second mother”.
“She made it possible for girls like me, black women like me, to sit on the anchor desk,” Materre said. “She was the epitome of style, class and grace.”
Linda Yu, a former ABC 7 Chicago anchor, said Ms. Dee had a sincere commitment to the city and the people of Chicago.
“She cared about it, and it showed in everything she did, for every bit of Chicago, because it was all part of the city she loves so much,” Yu said.
An author and motivational speaker, Ms. Dee was inducted into the National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame and served as president of the AARP Illinois chapter.
“Merri Dee has used her endless talents to help people around the world,” Reverend Jesse Jackson Sr. wrote on Twitter. “She was an honorable anchor and a do-it-all television personality. A respected journalist and an excellent communicator. And she was a survivor. Merri Dee will always be a Chicago landmark. She will be missed. RIP.”
“She will forever be etched in the memory of millions of Chicagoans,” WGN-TV said in a statement.
The services have not yet been announced.