Merri Dee's 30-year career in Chicago broadcasting is admirable in itself. One of the first African-American women to anchor the news in the Windy City, Dee has parlayed her celebrity into charitable work. She has raised millions of dollars for children's charities, spearheaded victims' rights legislation, and helped increase adoption rates in Illinois. Dee's professional successes become even more admirable in light of her personal circumstances. She endured horrific abuse as a child, struggled for years as a single mother, and nearly died after being kidnapped and shot. In each case, Dee's positive spirit helped her not only overcome but thrive. In doing so, she learned the power that lies within each of us. "One person can make a difference," she told Contemporary Black Biography (CBB). "One person can be the catalyst for change."
Found Calling in Broadcasting
Dee's family has roots in New Orleans, but as she explained to CBB, "because of work, my family began moving back and forth to Chicago." Dee's mother went into labor during one of those northern trips, and Dee was born in Chicago on October 30, 1936. The youngest of six children, Dee was just two when her mother died. Her father, John Blouin, a postal worker, remarried four years later, ushering Dee into the darkest days of her young life. "My father became sick and my stepmother became the Wicked Witch of the West. I was terrifically abused by her," she recalled to CBB. After Dee's father died, her life became worse. "[My stepmother] actually adopted me and changed my name so that my family couldn't help me. It was horrible," she said. Fortunately Dee found a confidante in her fifth grade teacher. "Mrs. Robinson was the person who most inspired me," Dee told CBB. "She listened to me and talked to me. She told me I would be great when I grew up, and I believed her."
After graduating from Chicago's Englewood High School, Dee moved back to New Orleans to attend Xavier University, where she studied business administration. "I eventually dropped out to take a job to help out my brothers and sisters," she told CBB. She began working with IBM. "I was traveling around the country exhibiting computers. It was a novelty then, and I was showing people how computers were going to streamline business," Dee recalled to CBB. Meanwhile, Dee married, gave birth to a daughter named Toya, and divorced in short order. Though she enjoyed her job, she missed her daughter when she traveled. "When she turned six I decided to leave IBM so that I could spend more time with her," Dee told CBB. It was the beginning of her career.
"I needed a job and someone told me I had the gift of gab, so I decided to study broadcasting and journalism," Dee told CBB. She enrolled in Chicago's Midwestern Broadcasting (now Columbia College) and in 1966 landed her first radio job with WBEE in Harvey, Illinois. "I was excited, scared, nervous, all together at one time," Dee told CBB. "It was a four-hour stint, live, in a showroom window. People were passing by on the street and tooting their horns." Dee added, "Looking back, I think that it was possibly my best day ever in radio. That is how I felt." Over the next two years, Dee developed a following in Chicago radio, becoming a local celebrity. In 1968 she made the leap to television with WCIU 26 Chicago as host of a Saturday primetime entertainment show. Her first guest was famed jazz saxophonist Cannonball Adderley. One of the few African-American women in broadcasting at the time, Dee was becoming one of the most successful. "My early career just flew," she told CBB. "It worked out because I think I was just made for broadcasting."
Overcame Attack to Help Others
By 1971 Dee hosted her own talk show, The Merri Dee Show, on WSNS Channel 44. One evening after a broadcast, tragedy struck. Dee and one of her guests were kidnapped by gunpoint while leaving the station. They were driven to a wooded area where they were both shot and left for dead. Despite having two gunshot wounds to the head, Dee crawled to a highway where she was rescued and taken to a hospital. Doctors did not think she would make it and she was given her last rites twice, one time by Reverend Jesse Jackson, a personal friend of Dee's. She later told Ebony magazine that while she was out of consciousness she saw her father who told her, "Don't worry; you'll be okay; you can go back." It took a year of recovery, but Dee did make it back and in 1972 was hired as an evening anchor for Chicago's WGN-TV.
Despite severe headaches caused by bullet fragments in her head, Dee found renewed vigor after the attack. "When I wake up in the morning, I know I am being given the gift of life," she told Ebony. In return she devoted her life and career to giving back to others. She began with victim's rights. "After the shooting incident, I had no where to go, no organization to help me, nothing for my family. I was re-victimized," she told CBB. Working with community groups and government agencies, Dee helped draft the country's first ever Victims' Bill of Rights. It was adopted by the state of Illinois and later served as the model for the rest of the country. Next she turned her formidable talents to a slate of children's and education issues. She founded the Chicago-based program Athletes for a Better Education. She also supported the United Negro College Fund by hosting its "Evening of Stars" televised fundraiser for over two decades.
After 11 years in various on-air positions with WGNTV, Dee moved into administration and became the station's director of community relations and manager of its Children's Charities. In that role, she has raised over $31 million dollars for various children's agencies. Dee has also spearheaded an adoption initiative called The Waiting Child, an on-air segment featuring children in need of adoptive homes. The show earned Dee several accolades including the Adoption Excellence Award from the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services. Dee expressed gratitude for the recognition, but told CBB that it is not her motivation. "I was inspired to work on behalf of adopted children because of my experiences with my stepmother," she said. "I made up my mind to get involved so that no other child would go through that." Her incredible journey from abused child to broadcasting icon to social catalyst has proven the philosophy she holds dear: "If it is to be, it is up to me," she told CBB. "Those ten two-letter words can really make a difference in this world."
At a Glance …
Born October 30, 1936, in Chicago, IL; married Nicolas Fulop, 1999 (second marriage); children: Toya (from first marriage). Education: Attended Xavier University, 1950s; attended Midwestern Broadcasting (now Columbia College), Chicago, IL, 1960s.
Career: WBEE Radio, Harvey, IL, radio host, 1966–68; WCIU TV, Channel 26, Chicago, IL, television show host, 1968; WSDM-FM, Chicago, IL, host, The Merri Dee Show, 1968–69; WSNS, Channel 44, Chicago, IL, host, The Merri Dee Show, 1969–71; WGN-TV, Chicago, IL, on-air personality, anchor, 1972–84, director of community relations, manager of Children's Charities, 1984–.
Selected memberships: Ronald McDonald Charities, executive board member; Junior Achievement Worldwide, executive board member; Associated Colleges of Illinois, board member; The National College Summit, board member; State's Attorney's Council on Violence, member.
Selected awards: Lewis University, Honorary Doctorate of Humanities, 2000; Academy of TV Arts and Sciences, Silver Circle Award, 2001; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Adoption Excellence Award, 2004; University of Illinois, Center on Women and Gender, Lifetime Achievement Award, 2003; United Negro College Fund, President's Award, 2004.
Addresses: Office—c/o WGN Television, 2501 W. Bradley Pl., Chicago, IL 60618-4718.
Ebony, May 1989.
Essence, May 2000.
"Merri Dee," The History Makers, http://www.thehistorymakers.com/biography/biography.asp?bioindex=11&category=mediaMakers (September 3, 2005).
"Merri Dee," WGN-TV, http://wgntv.trb.com/about/station/wgntv-station-dee-merribio,0,6029803.story?coll=wgntv-about-station-2 (September 3, 2005).
Additional information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Merri Dee on September 12, 2005.
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