Merri Dee, one of the first Black news anchors in a major U.S. city, died Wednesday (March 16) at home in her sleep, the Chicago Sun-Times reports. The beloved Chicago newswoman is also remembered as a fierce victims’ rights advocate and philanthropist who raised millions for children's charities. She was 85.
Dee was a staple of news broadcasting in the Windy City for more than four decades. She was on-air at local TV station WGN from 1972 to 1983 before serving as WGN’s director of community relations until her retirement in 2008.
“Chicago’s Very Own, Merri Dee, was a one-of-a-kind legend. From WGN staff announcer to hosting parade telecasts, telethons and even the Illinois Lottery drawings, she was synonymous with WGN-TV,” WGN stated. “She was groundbreaking in the broadcasting field and an inspiration to several generations of young women. …Merri Dee was a pioneer who will be greatly missed.”
Dee graduated from Midwestern Broadcasting School, now known as Columbia College Chicago, and landed her first job in 1966 at radio station WBEE. In 2011, she was inducted into the National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame.
Dorothy Tucker, president of the National Association of Black Journalists, and a Chicago native, recalls Dee as “one of my TV role models” as a child and as someone who impacted her life as a college student.
Tucker wrote, “Imagine my thrill when I attended Northwestern and lived down the hall from her daughter, Toya. The girls in the dorm always looked forward to Ms. Dee’s visits. She was full of energy, had a big beautiful smile, and dressed like a couture fashion model. Over the years, I remained awestruck by how she made everything she did look easy. I feel fortunate to have known Merri Dee. My sincere condolences to Toya and the rest of the Durham family.”
Dee, a Chicago native, lost her mother at age 2 and was raised by an abusive stepmother, she recalled in her 2013 memoir, Life Lessons on Faith, Forgiveness & Grace, according to the Sun-Times. Living on her own at 14, Dee managed to graduate high school and then college as a single mom.
After working for two years in radio, she landed a TV broadcasting job at WCIU in 1968 before joining WSNS where she hosted The Merri Dee Show.
In what became a life-changing moment, Dee and a guest on her program were kidnapped one night in 1971 when they were leaving the station. The assailant, who demanded money, took them to a forest preserve. He fatally shot Dee’s guest, Alan Sandler, but Dee survived two gunshots to the head. She recalled, at that moment, praying to God before crawling to the roadway where someone helped her.
After the shooting, she battled paralysis and blindness to make a triumphant return to TV news the following year at WGN. However, the trauma returned. Dee’s attacker began harassing her in phone calls after his release from prison. Dee fought back by advocating for passage in Illinois of the nation’s first Victims’ Bill of Rights.
As community relations director, Dee advocated for children’s causes, raising more than $30 million for WGN-TV Children’s Charities, according to WGN.
“I was inspired to work on behalf of adopted children because of my experiences with my stepmother. I made up my mind to get involved so that no other child would go through that,” the Sun-Times quoted Dee in a 2005 interview with Contemporary Black Biography.
The legendary broadcaster is survived by her daughter, Toya Campbell, son-in-law Keith Campbell, and three grandchildren.
Keith Campbell said she taught her grandchildren about the power of resilience and hope.
“Gammy, as they call her, was always supportive and motivating them to pursue what gave them joy,” he said. “Even when it seemed no one else was in their corner, she always was.”