Warner Saunders — ‘towering figure in broadcast in Chicago’ — dies at 83

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Longtime NBC Chicago anchor Warner Saunders with his wife, Sadako Saunders and son, Warner Saunders, Jr. | Sun-Times Archives

Warner Saunders, a “towering figure” in Chicago television news history and a trusted fixture on the anchor desk at NBC5 for nearly 30 years, died Tuesday. He was 83.

Saunders collapsed Tuesday night in Chicago. He was taken to Illinois Masonic Medical Center where he was pronounced dead, according to the station’s website.

Art Norman, a longtime family friend and NBC5 colleague of Saunders, said Saunders suffered a heart attack. He had no history of heart problems, Norman added.

A tribute produced by the station on the eve of Saunders’ retirementin 2009 detailed the Chicago native’s journey to becoming a broadcast icon, marked by a commitment to honesty in both his journalism and his personal life and a passion for giving back.

Aside from a brief stay in New Orleans to attend Xavier University, Saunders was a lifelong Chicagoan who rarely strayed far from his home in the Second City, though he also maintained a home in Hawaii.

He was born Jan. 30, 1935, at Cook County Hospital to a Pullman porter and a maid, and he attended Corpus Christi High School on what is now Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, back when the address was 4620 S. Parkway.

It was the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. that led Saunders to his career in broadcast journalism. While working as a teacher on the West Side and driving a CTA bus at night, Saunders was one of several activists on the ground asked to tell a firsthand story of the community reaction to King’s assassination from the streets of Lawndale.

He would go on to win 20 Emmys for coverage of news, sports, documentaries and community town meetings, plus several beloved special programs, including his star-studded talk show, Common Ground, and the Good Gang Express, whose bright orange bus was instantly recognizable to Chicagoans young and old.

A two-time cancer survivor, Saunders extended his philanthropy efforts to Gilda’s Club, the American Cancer Society and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, in addition to his early involvement with the Better Boys Foundation and longtime commitment to organizations promoting diversity in journalism, particularly the National Association of Black Journalists.

NABJ-Chicago President Maudlyne Ihejirika said Tuesday that Chicago has “lost another giant.”

“Warner Saunders built an enviable career from a foundation of grit, determination and love for his community, and over several decades ingratiated himself into the hearts and respect of the viewership whose living rooms he entered daily as a veteran NBC Chicago news anchor,” Ihejirika said. “The passion and wisdom he shared has left an indelible mark on Chicago’s media landscape, and his critical role in steering the helm of NABJ-Chicago for many years left just as great a mark on the organization. Warner Saunders will be missed.”

Memories and messages about Saunders’ lasting impact on individuals and the Chicago community as a whole poured out Wednesday as news of his death spread.

Carol Marin, political editor for NBC5, called Saunders a “towering figure in broadcast in Chicago” whose reporting on Nelson Mandela was a representation of “what he could deliver to an audience that hungered for a deeper understanding of struggle.”

Joan Esposito shared the anchor desk with Saunders for about eight years at the channel.

“Warner Saunders was one of those people you could always count on. He was kind and big-hearted and would go to the mat for a friend. He was my friend first and foremost, and I was lucky to work with a man who was so kind. My heart goes out to his wife Sadako, who was the love of his life, and to Warner Jr., a son he couldn’t have been more proud of.”

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr. issued a statement calling Saunders a “community treasure and friend” and said “we miss him already.”

“He was an outstanding journalist who covered the campaign of Harold Washington in 1983 with fairness and wisdom,” Jackson said. “He brought to light another shining moment when he covered the South African release of an imprisoned Nelson Mandela. Wherever he landed, his presence was always felt. The partnership with Warner and his wife, Sadako, is a source of inspiration for all. He will be missed as much as he was loved.”

Former WBBM-TV colleague Dorothy Tucker called Saunders a “gem” who was “never too busy to listen and always managed to say exactly what you needed to hear.”

“When I first started at the station, Warner and I developed a special relationship because I was raised on the West Side and was personally familiar with the community organizations he had once led. We knew many of the same people and often had deep conversations about the issues facing the community. He was always looking for the next solution that would positively impact black people,” said Tucker, investigative reporter for CBS2 Chicago.

Saunders is survived by his wife, Sadako Saunders, and his son Warner Saunders, Jr.

Arrangements are pending.

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