Legacy of broadcast pioneer Merri Dee honored at memorial service

For decades, streaming pioneer Merri Dee used her platform as one of Chicago’s beloved news hosts to share compelling stories, host charity telethons and advocate for victims of violent crime.

On Tuesday, about 200 people gathered to honor that legacy during a memorial service at the Universal Temple of Christ, 11901 S. Ashland Ave.

Dee died on March 16 at the age of 85. She had spent 43 years of her career at WGN and she was one of the country’s first black news anchors in a major US city.

After a choir sang the Black National Anthem, “Raise every voice and sing,” WGN host Micah Materre reminded mourners that 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 knew her feel that they, too, have lost someone close to them. She came to our houses almost every day. She was the very essence of compassion, duty, style and beauty. Across this city, she is loved: a symbol of selfless humanity, a champion for the rights of the truly downtrodden, a Chicago girl who transcended nationality.”

Merri Dee was remembered Tuesday as a friend, mentor, mother and streaming pioneer. The longtime WGN host died in March at the age of 85.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Materre also highlighted Dee’s resilience, calling her “a woman who had been through a lot in her life and came out stronger than ever.”

Growing up, Dee was abused by her stepmother, an experience documented in her memoir, “Life Lessons on Faith, Forgiveness, and Grace.” In 1971, the man who kidnapped her kidnapped Dee and shot her twice in the head. Dee would pressure Illinois politicians to pass the country’s first Victims’ Bill of Rights, in 1992.

“The thing I’m going to miss most about my friend is not the impeccable way she dressed or the polished way she carried herself or how she personified class,” Materre said. “What will be is that she always listened to me and she always gave me wise advice.”

Dee’s ability to listen and encourage those around her was shared over and over again at Tuesday’s ceremony.

Marty Wilke, former General Manager of WGN, recounted how she and Dee met and how Dee believed in her.

“She always told 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 she was always looking at 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, walked into my office and gave me the biggest hug. She said, ‘Martha Mary, I’ve been waiting for you my entire career.’

A memorial service was held on Tuesday, May 3, 2022, for WGN host and broadcasting pioneer Merri Dee, who died in March.

A memorial service was held on Tuesday, May 3, 2022, for WGN host and broadcasting pioneer Merri Dee, who died in March.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Radio host Richard Steele said it’s also “important to note the enormous impact (Dee) had on women of color on broadcast television, both in front of and behind the camera.”

Governor JB Pritzker proclaimed Tuesday as “Merri Dee Memorial Day.”

Secretary of State Jesse White called Dee a “long time friend.”

“He 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.”

In addition to “icon,” Dee was called “trailblazer,” “vivacious” and “in a league of her own” in a tribute video shown Tuesday and also shown at the Illinois Broadcast Association’s awards ceremony in last fall.

But it was a letter from Dee’s daughter, Toya Campbell, read by her old friend Andrew Hayes, that had perhaps the biggest 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 Spinners); she spoke of thanking God for saving her mother after the 1971 shooting; and how it was her mother who taught her to be a good wife and mother.

“I picked up the phone this morning to give you my morning call and then I remembered that your body is no longer here with me,” Campbell wrote.

“Sometimes I cry when I remember that fact because I miss you so much and sometimes I smile because I feel your presence and I know that 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 that pain is only love,” the letter continued. “All the unspent love collects in the corners of my eyes and eventually I have to let it out. … If there is a heaven above, I know you are teaching the angels to love, mom. Your love is like the tears of the stars and I just want you to know that loving you is food for my soul.

Merri Dee speaking at a reception at the Chicago Hilton &  Towers in 2008.

Merri Dee speaking at a reception at the Chicago Hilton & Towers in 2008.

Scott Stewart Archive/Sun-Times

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