Mourners honor broadcast pioneer Merri Dee’s legacy at memorial
Some 200 people gathered at Christ Universal Temple Tuesday to honor Merri Dee, beloved broadcast pioneer and philanthropist, who died March 16 at 85.
For decades, broadcast pioneer Merri Dee used her platform as one of Chicago’s most beloved news anchors to share compelling stories, host charity telethons and advocate for victims of violent crimes.
On Tuesday, about 200 people gathered to honor that legacy during a memorial service at Christ Universal Temple, 11901 S. Ashland Ave.
Dee died March 16 at age 85. She had spent 43 years of her career at WGN, and was one of the nation’s first Black news anchors in a major U.S. city.
After a choir sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” often called the Black national anthem, WGN anchor Micah Materre reminded mourners the ceremony was actually a celebration.
Speaking from the pulpit, behind a gold urn framed with pink and white roses, Materre said Dee’s “extraordinary appeal” was that “people who never actually met her feel that they, too, lost someone close to them. She came into our homes nearly every single day. She was the very essence of compassion, of duty, of style and beauty. All over this city, she is loved — a symbol of selfless humanity, a standard bearer for the rights of the truly downtrodden, a Chicago girl who transcended nationality.”
Materre also highlighted Dee’s resilience, calling her “a woman who had been through so much in her life, and came out stronger than ever before.”
Growing up, Dee was abused by her stepmother, an experience documented in her memoir, “Life Lessons on Faith, Forgiveness & Grace.” In 1971, Dee was kidnapped and shot twice in the head by a man who abducted her. Dee would go on to push Illinois politicians to pass the country’s first Victims’ Bill of Rights, in 1992.
“What I will miss most about my friend isn’t the impeccable way she dressed or the refined way she carried herself or how she epitomized class,” said Materre. “What it will be is that she always listened to me and always gave me sage advice.”
Dee’s ability to listen and lift up those around her was shared time and again at Tuesday’s ceremony.
Marty Wilke, former general manager of WGN, recounted how she and Dee met and the way Dee believed in her.
“She would always say to me, ‘Someday you’re going to run this place,’” Wilke said. “I would smile and think, ‘No, I just can’t see that in my future.’ But Mary did see that future for me. … She was fearless when it came to change and disruption and always looked to the possibilities ahead of us and within all of us.”
On Wilke’s first day as general manager, Dee, “with that knowing smile of hers, stepped into my office and gave me the biggest hug. She said, ‘Martha Mary, I have been waiting my whole career for you.’”
Longtime radio host Richard Steele said it also is “important to note the enormous impact [Dee] had on women of color in television broadcasting — both in front of and behind the camera.”
Gov. J.B. Pritzker proclaimed Tuesday as “Merri Dee Memorial Day.”
Secretary of State Jesse White called Dee a “longtime friend.”
“She had a curious spirit and a commitment to duty,” White said. “When she said she was going to do something, you could take it to the bank. Our city and our state have lost an icon.”
Besides “icon,” Dee was called “pioneer,” “vivacious,” and “in a league of her own” in a tribute video played Tuesday that also had been shown at last fall’s Illinois Broadcast Association awards ceremony.
But it was a letter from Dee’s daughter, Toya Campbell, read by longtime friend Andrew Hayes, that had perhaps the most emotional impact.
In it, Campbell shared the two songs she and her mother used to sing to each other (“A Song for Mama” by Boyz II Men and “Sadie” by the Spinners); discussed thanking God for saving her mother after the 1971 shooting; and how it was her mother who taught her how to be a good wife and mom.
“I picked up the phone this morning to give you my morning call and then I remembered your body is no longer here with me,” Campbell wrote.
“Sometimes I cry remembering that fact because I miss you so and sometimes I smile because I feel your presence and know you are here with me. We used to say that we are inseparable. We will always be there for each other. That has not changed. You just changed your place of residence.”
“I have learned grief is just love,” the letter continued. “All the unspent love gathers in the corners of my eyes and eventually I have to let it out. ... If there is a heaven above, I know you’re teaching the angels how to love, Mom. Your love is like tears from the stars and I just want you to know that loving you is food to my soul.”