Merri Dee’s legacy, Salena Claybourne’s killing: reminders of the violence we face

The longtime WGN-TV anchor survived her kidnapping and shooting. The WGN studios security guard was killed at a gas station where she’d stopped in South Shore.

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Merri Dee at the Museum of Broadcast Communication in Chicago in 2013.

Merri Dee at the Museum of Broadcast Communication in Chicago in 2013.

Sun-Times file

Chicagoans love their media personalities.

Chicago broadcasters, columnists, meteorologists and reporters become like family members who sit around the dinner table nightly, debating the day’s news.

Merri Dee, who died Tuesday, was probably the most beloved media personality.

Her warm, welcoming smile made her timeless. And she was as graceful in the waning days of her career, when she was picking the winning Illinois lottery numbers, as she was in her heyday as one of the few black news anchors in a major city.

Her image was everywhere.

When I walked in to my first newspaper job (at a shopper in Melrose Park), the adman had a large poster of Merri Dee in his cubicle.

Besides being a daily presence in the homes of countless viewers, she was a philanthropist, public speaker and the mistress of ceremonies gala organizers coveted.

But Merri Dee’s comeback from a violent attack — a crime that temporarily rendered her blind and paralyzed — made her a legend.

In 1971, she and a guest on her show were kidnapped while sitting in her car. She was forced to drive to a forest preserve and shot twice in the head. Her guest, amateur psychic Alan Sandler, was shot and killed.

It was a nightmare that Merri Dee later shared hundreds of times with audiences, stressing her faith in God and the grace she was given to survive.

What struck me about this tragedy was Merri Dee’s status.

She was a trailblazer, someone people considered a Chicago treasure. In 1971, she had a talk show and was admired by millions.

And yet her popularity wasn’t enough to stop a criminal from hijacking her car, robbing her, shooting her twice in the head and leaving her for dead.

She managed to crawl to the highway and was rescued by an ambulance.

Sadly, nearly half a century later, another woman employed by WGN-TV was murdered earlier this month under similar circumstances. Salena Claybourne, 35, was confronted by two masked men as she finished pumping gas at 6700 S. Jeffery Blvd. after having just left work as a security guard at WGN’s studios.

Claybourne, the mother of two daughters, was shot twice by one of the carjackers who leaned inside the car and apparently noticed the word “security” on her clothing.

Salena Claybourne.

Salena Claybourne.

WGN-TV

The police have arrested Gregory Watson, 22, and his brother Daemeontae Watson, 17, and charged them with her murder.

According to the police, the older brother told them that “all they wanted was Claybourne’s car.”

Despite a half century of advocacy and lobbying, crime has only gotten bolder since the attack on Merri Dee.

While her attacker drove the victims to a remote location in the dark of night to commit his heinous act, Claybourne’s attackers committed their crime in broad daylight at a busy gas station.

Claybourne was an ordinary woman taking care of the mundane details of life.

But someone coveted what she had just as someone craved what Merri Dee had.

Samuel Drew, then 21, was caught driving Merri Dee’s car and with a .38 caliber pistol in the vehicle, convicted and sentenced to concurrent sentences that were supposed to put him behind bars for over 100 years. Instead, Drew was out on parole after serving only 12 years, prompting Merri Dee to advocate for the nation’s first Victims’ Bill of Rights in 1992.

Merri Dee’s survival was a miracle.

She lived to tell her story and also used her rare perch to raise public awareness about other vital issues, including adoption.

But who will speak for Claybourne?

How do we make it clear to all that these Black lives matter, too?

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