Deloris MeBain, who was WMAQ-TV’s station relations chief, has died at 74; memorial Saturday
Dr. Ian Smith: ‘It was very inspiring to see an African American woman in the position she was in at the station.’
Deloris MeBain helped countless broadcasting interns get their first break, created goodwill in communities throughout the city and handled crises at WMAQ-TV with the skill of a diplomat.
Dr. Ian Smith was among those to benefit from her career guidance. While a medical student at the University of Chicago, he also was a “lowly intern” at the NBC Chicago affiliate, working on stories alongside reporter-anchors Art Norman and Warner Saunders.
Mrs. MeBain, former NBC 5 director of station relations, “really took me under her wing and helped me and counseled me,” Smith said. “She was basically saying, ‘You can do whatever you want to. If you want to do television, you have what it takes to do it.’ She was very encouraging.”
Smith went on to be a medical correspondent for NBC News and appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “The View,” the “Rachael Ray Show” and on CNN, as well as writing bestselling books.
“I really credit her,” he said, “with an unbelievable experience at WMAQ.”
Mrs. MeBain died Jan. 23 at a hospital in Tennessee, where she had been living. She was 74 and had Alzheimer’s disease and COVID-19, according to her sister Annette Brown.
Jason McCoy said he was about 20 years old when he approached Mrs. MeBain at their church, South Park Baptist, to tell her he was a photographer.
By that time, she’d moved on from NBC 5. Mrs. MeBain founded the MeBain Media Group and worked as executive director of Pioneer Gardens, a supportive living facility in Bronzeville operated by the church. She hired McCoy to photograph senior gatherings and political events.
After years of shooting for her, he said, he had an “I made it” moment.
“I remember being at a gala at the Hyatt Regency,” McCoy said. “It was full of notable Chicago people — politicians and pastors and musicians. And all of these people know me by name. I moved here at 18 from Peoria not knowing anyone. I knew all of these people because of Deloris MeBain.”
Larry Wert, a former president of Tribune Broadcasting and general manager of NBC 5, said he remembers how she smoothed internal and external turmoil at the station after Jerry Springer, the contentious talk-show host, was tapped to do news commentaries. Anchors Carol Marin and Ron Magers resigned in protest, and Wert was brought in to help restore trust.
“We actually did fix it, and we became No. 1,” Wert said. “She was just instrumental.
“I met her under duress. She gave me a more than fair, open-armed chance, and we earned friendship and credibility together.”
Wert relied on her counsel at sales meetings and with employee concerns.
“There weren’t many people that I hired that I didn’t run by her,” he said.
Mrs. MeBain helped organize campaigns for organ donation, voter registration and adult literacy.
She arranged for on-air talent to appear at events “from Bud Billiken to the Italian American parades,” Norman said. “She used to do PSAs. She was wonderful about having luncheons for senior citizens sponsored by NBC. When we did the coat drive, she made sure there was a coat box to drop off coats in the Lithuanian community or the Hispanic community for the winter. She would do campaigns for smoke detectors in homes. She would also give out NBC scholarships to children for parochial schools or college. And she wrote a lot of press releases.”
“She never brought any problems in to the office. She brought joy,” said Mary Laney, a former anchor, commentator and editorial director for the station, who said she encouraged Mrs. MeBain to apply for the station relations job.
Mrs. MeBain frequently hired gospel legend Albertina Walker and blues belter Koko Taylor to perform at events, according to Dionne Williams, who credits her with giving her a formative job as an NBC 5 intern.
“She talked to everyone from the custodian to the security guards to interns,” said Williams, who now operates D. Williams Public Relations Group. “That always taught me: No matter what position, everyone is equal.”
Smith said her presence alone made a difference: “It was very inspiring to see an African American woman in the position she was in at the station.”
Mrs. MeBain was born in Canton, Mississippi. Her parents Rushell and James Brown settled in Chicago, where her father worked for Mercury Screw Co. She grew up in the Ida B. Wells Homes and graduated from Wendell Phillips High School. She also attended Columbia College and DePaul University.
“My mother pushed us to be the best that we could,” her sister said. And young Deloris “was driven.”
Mrs. MeBain once told the Sun-Times she showed up at the Merchandise Mart one day to find employment. “I was determined that I wasn’t going to leave until I found a job,” she said. “So I started on the 24th floor and worked my way down” until she got to NBC. “I knew no one. But I got hired.”
She worked for the station from 1970 to 2000.
She was inducted into the Wendell Phillips High School Hall of Fame and the Silver Circle of the Chicago/Midwest Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.
One of the things she liked doing for fun was playing the card game bid whist.
Mrs. MeBain’s husband Floyd died before her. She is survived by her twin daughters Tracey Zachary and Tonya MeBain, son Shawn and two grandchildren, her sister said.
Friends and relatives will gather at 10 a.m. Saturday at South Park Baptist Church, 3722 S. Dr. Martin Luther King Dr., where a video about her life will feature the music of Luther Vandross, a performer whose work she loved. A memorial will follow at the church at 11 a.m. Saturday.
Because she enjoyed dressing up, her family is encouraging everyone who comes to wear touches of gold, silver or sequins.