Merri Dee, ‘homegrown, broadcasting legend’ who used her powerful voice to speak for crime victims, dead at 85

Merri Dee, a fixture on Chicago TV screens for decades as a reporter and anchor for WGN-TV, has died at 85, the news station reported Wednesday.

A trailblazing broadcaster who won the hearts of Chicagoans while hosting public affairs shows and pulling lottery numbers over a 43-year tenure at WGN, Ms. Dee also was a fierce advocate for victims of violent crime following her own near-death brush with a kidnapper while she worked at another television station.

"If you’re going to live, you have to be determined to live," she wrote in her 2013 memoir, "Life Lessons on Faith, Forgiveness & Grace."

"If you have any kind of trauma, you have to tell yourself you don’t deserve worse, you deserve better."

Ms. Dee died in her sleep at her home, according to a family message posted on her website.

Ms. Dee was born in Chicago on Oct. 30, 1936, but her mother died when she was 2, and her stepmother was abusive, she had told the Sun-Times.

On her own 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.

Ms. Dee landed her first radio job in 1966 at WBEE in Harvey, moved to TV at the then-fledgling WCIU-Channel 26 in 1968 and then switched to host "The Merri Dee Show" at WSNS-Channel 44 in 1971.

When Ms. Dee was leaving that station one night, a man kidnapped her and a guest who had been on her show. He took them to a forest preserve, where he shot Ms. 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."

She said heard a man’s voice telling her, "It’s OK … You can go back."

Ms. Dee’s guest, amateur psychic Alan Sandler, was killed. She managed to drag herself to the side of a road to flag down help. After a year of fighting through paralysis and blindness, she was hired by WGN as one of the first Black news anchors in a major city.

"A life-changing moment takes practically 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 wrote in her memoir.


Her attacker was released on parole after 12 years, and he continued to harass her over the telephone.

That prompted Ms. Dee to rally state politicians to draft the nation’s first Victims’ Bill of Rights in 1992, legislation that was then followed by other states.

"Merri Dee was a homegrown, broadcasting legend whose time as an anchor and radio and talk show host made her a beloved, local celebrity," Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a statement. "In addition to her television and radio work, she also made a huge impact on communities across our city and state through a number of philanthropic pursuits that reflected her passion for protecting vulnerable individuals such as children in need of adoptive homes.

"Merri Dee has truly made a positive and indelible mark on our city and inspired countless others to follow in her footsteps."

Ms. Dee was on the air until 1983, when she became WGN’s Director of Community Relations, a position she held until retiring in 2008. She also helped raise $31 million as manager of WGN-TV Children’s Charities, according to the station.

An author and motivational speaker, she was inducted into the National Association of Black Journalists’ Hall of Fame and served as president of Illinois’ AARP chapter.

"She will forever be enshrined in the memories of millions of Chicagoans," WGN-TV said in a statement.

Ms. Dee is survived by her husband and two children.