Merri Dee, a Trailblazing Media Icon, Passes Away at 85

Merri-dee
Image: Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images.

Merri Dee, a trailblazing broadcaster with WGN-TV in Chicago, has passed away, the Chicago Times reports.  She was 85.

Confirmed by her family and by WGN on Wednesday, Dee passed away in her sleep at her home. 

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Dee “truly made a positive and indelible mark on our city and inspired countless others.” She reigned for 43 years at Chicago station.

Dee was born in Chicago on Oct. 30, 1936. Her mother passed away when she was 2. She was raised by an abusive stepmother; she detailed the experience in her 2013 memoir Life Lessons on Faith, Forgiveness & Grace.

Striking on her own at 14, Dee graduated from Englewood High School in the 1950s and graduated from Midwestern Broadcasting School, now known as Columbia College Chicago, as a single mother.

In 1966, she was hired as a radio broadcaster at WBEE in Harvey, Illinois, eventually moving to TV at WCIU-Channel 26 in 1968. In 1971, she hosted the widely successful The Merri Dee Show on WSNS-Channel 44.

One night following a show, a man kidnapped Dee and a guest who had been on her show, demanding a ransom. He took them to a forest preserve, where he shot Dee twice in the head. 

“In the heavy moments that followed, I realized that I’m not dead,” she later wrote. “I fervently prayed, ‘Dear God, help me.’ … Instead of a great white light, I heard the roar of the ocean … saw a vision.”

Dee’s guest, an amateur psychic named Alan Sandler, was killed in the kidnapping but Dee was rescued after being discovered flagging down vehicles on the side as they passed by.

Paralyzed and blinded, she rehabilitated herself to be able to return to TV as an anchor at WGN, becoming one of the first Black news anchors in a major city in the U.S.

After 12 years, her attacker was paroled and he began harassing her over the telephone. In response, Dee lobbied state politicians to draft the nation’s first Victims’ Bill of Rights in 1992 and other states followed suit.

Dee worked as an on-air broadcaster until 1983 when she became WGN’s director of community relations, a position she held until retiring in 2008. Through her efforts, she helped raise over $30 million as manager of WGN-TV Children’s Charities, according to the station.

Because of her experiences as a child, Dee was compelled to be an advocate of adoption. Former Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar noted that the station’s fundraising and telethons boosted adoptions by 50% in the state.

“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 made up my mind to get involved so that no other child would go through that.” 

We extend our prayers and deepest condolences to the family and friends of Merri Dee.

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