TV journalist Elizabeth Brackett, critically injured Wednesday in an apparent bicycle accident, died Sunday at Stroger Hospital surrounded by her family. She was 76.
“It was very peaceful,” said “Chicago Tonight” executive producer Mary Field.
“All of us at WTTW are devastated by the news of Elizabeth’s death,” Field said. “She is a friend and beloved colleague, and her loss will be felt not only here but in Chicago’s journalism community, of which she was a highly respected member, and among her many friends and competitors in the athletic world.”
At four TV stations and across five decades, Ms. Brackett was an accomplished and indefatigable journalist who grilled politicians, hosted news programs and reported on complex financial stories and natural catastrophes.
She also swam, biked and ran with such prowess she became a world-class triathlete who won five global titles in her age group. She competed in Australia, Canada, Germany, Mexico and New Zealand.
Ms. Brackett was found Wednesday in a grassy area about 30 feet off a lakefront bike path near 3900 South. At least one neck vertebra was fractured, according to WTTW.
Though authorities still aren’t sure what happened, her family believes it was an accident because there was damage to her helmet. She often biked for training.
“Athleticism and competition were a part of her life,” said “Chicago Tonight” host and co-worker Phil Ponce.
In 1991, Ms. Brackett told the Chicago Sun-Times, “I’ve always liked to challenge and test myself. One reason I like athletics is … you can see the goal so clearly, unlike the rest of life.”
From 1984 to 2011, she worked as a Midwest correspondent for “The PBS NewsHour.”
And for 20 years, she worked as a correspondent and host for WTTW’s “Chicago Tonight.” In 2014, she scaled back her TV schedule, telling media blogger Robert Feder she wanted more flexibility after the retirement of her husband, Peter Martinez, from UIC’s Center for Urban Education Leadership.
She filed her final story 10 days ago, WTTW said.
Ms. Brackett started her broadcasting career in 1977 as a researcher at WBBM-TV, eventually becoming a weekend anchor. She also worked for WGN-TV and WLS-TV.
On air, she was resourceful and unflappable, with a cut-to-the-chase demeanor.
“She was one of the most competitive people I’ve known. She did not like to be scooped on a story and did not like to lose in competition,” said Ponce.
“She was always going to be your competitor,” said Carol Marin, a “Chicago Tonight” colleague. “She was out there to get the story, get the story first, and get the story best. That’s what made her so good at what she did.”
Ms. Brackett covered politics, city schools, the CHA, Chicago financial exchanges, the Challenger disaster, the funeral of Pope John Paul II and catastrophes including Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Mississippi River flooding, a San Francisco earthquake and a mudslide in Puerto Rico.
And she co-hosted WTTW’s weekly science and technology show “Chicago Tomorrow” with comedian Aaron Freeman.
In 1984, she won a national Emmy for her coverage of the U.S. farm crisis. And she won a national Peabody award for her reporting on the 1988 presidential campaign.
She also received four Chicago/Midwest Emmy awards and two Lisagor awards, according to her biography on the Chicago Emmy website.
“Elizabeth Brackett was an institution in Chicago journalism, because her reporting informed, educated and enlightened generations of Chicagoans,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a statement. “While Elizabeth rightfully received nearly every journalism award under the sun, anyone who knew her knew her passions stretched beyond the bounds of her career and that her greatest treasures were her beloved children. I will deeply miss our conversations about family, politics and triathlons. Chicago’s thoughts and prayers are with the Brackett family, and Elizabeth’s professional family at WTTW, in the wake of this tragic loss.”
In 2009, she was inducted into the prestigious Silver Circle of the Chicago/Midwest Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. In nominating Ms. Brackett for the award, Field said, “She made the switch from film to tape at WGN and was the first WGN reporter to do a ‘live shot.’ “
And, Field said at the time, “No one works harder on a story.” She’d stay up all night reading a book to prepare for interviewing an author the next day.
“Another time she arrived to solo anchor a late night newscast at WGN with two enormous black eyes, the result of a sailing accident,” Field recalled. “In the days before we had professional makeup, Elizabeth borrowed from Bozo” to cover up the damage.
The show went on.
Ms. Brackett also wrote the 2009 book, “Pay to Play: How Rod Blagojevich Turned Political Corruption into a National Sideshow.”
In midlife, she wanted to get back into shape. “I did my first triathlon when I was 50,” she said in a Chicago Tribune interview.
At a recent WTTW news meeting, Ponce recalled, the subject of push-ups arose. He said Ms. Brackett told the group, “ ‘I can give you 30, no problem.’ ’’
“She hit the floor – 30 push-ups, no sweat,” he said.
Known as “Dibi” to close friends, she was a swimmer at New Trier High School, where she graduated in 1959. At Indiana University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree, she was “a serious diver – and she dived with the men’s team,” said Field.
She had to, Ponce said. There was no women’s diving team in those pre-Title IX days.
“She just wanted the best possible coaching,” he said.
Ms. Brackett earned a master’s in social work from Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio. “My daughter [Ilsa] was born the day I graduated from grad school,” she said in the 1991 Sun-Times interview. For a time, she worked as a social worker at the Uptown YMCA.
In 1972, she was a delegate to the Democratic presidential convention in Miami Beach. In 1976, she ran unsuccessfully for 43rd ward Democratic committeeman. She also served as Illinois Issues Coordinator for the Jimmy Carter presidential campaign, according to her Emmy bio.
Perseverance helped her get her broadcasting break in 1977 at WBBM-TV. The station told her to come back in six months because they didn’t need her as a researcher, but “I just showed up anyway,” she told the Tribune.
In addition to her daughter and husband, Ms. Brackett is survived by her son Jon Brackett; stepchildren Lisa Nuzzo, Stephanie Martinez, Jonathan Martinez and Matthew Martinez, sisters Ellen Rieger and Jill Swisher and 10 grandchildren.
A funeral is planned for 1 p.m. Wednesday at Kenilworth Union Church in Kenilworth.