Merri Dee Chicago’s homegrown broadcasting legend has passed at 85

Merri Dee
Merri Dee

American philanthropist and former WGN-TV (Channel 9) television journalist, who survived a kidnapping and murder attempt, Merri Dee passed away at age 85. Her death was confirmed Wednesday by a statement shared by WGN, 

“Chicago’s Very Own, Merri Dee, was a one-of-a-kind legend. From WGN staff announcer to hosting parade telecasts, telethons and even the Illinois Lottery drawings, she was synonymous with WGN-TV. She was groundbreaking in the broadcasting field and an inspiration to several generations of young women. Among her greatest legacies as Director of Community Relations, she spoke at thousands of events and helped raise over $30 million dollars for WGN-TV Children’s Charities, benefitting various organizations throughout Chicagoland. Merri Dee was a pioneer who will be greatly missed.”

The news of her passing was also shared on her official Twitter page:

Her family also updated her website to share the news of her passing,

“With great sadness, our family announces the loss of our beloved matriarch, the brightest light in our lives, Merri Dee, who died peacefully in her sleep at home. 

As you can imagine our family is simply heartbroken and ask for privacy at this time.”

Dee was born in Chicago on Oct. 30, 1936 and had a very difficult childhood after her mother died when she was 2. Dee’s father remarried four years after her mother’s death and her step-mother was abusive and later sent her to an orphanage. By the time Dee was 14, her step-mother changed her name to avoid any financial responsibility for the teen. Dee Graduated from Englewood Technical Prep Academy in 1955. 

By 1968 she was hosting an entertainment program that broadcast on then-fledgling independent station WCIU (channel 26) on Saturday nights. Dee then became the host of The Merri Dee Show, a local talk show on then-independent station WSNS (channel 44) and quickly gained a huge following.

On July 17, 1971, Dee and a guest on her show, amateur psychic Alan Sandler were kidnapped at gunpoint. Upon returning to the WSNS-TV studios after eating dinner, Dee and Sandler were approached by 21-year old Samuel Drew while sitting in Dee’s car. Drew then made Dee drive to a remote area where he shot both Dee and Sandler twice in the back of their heads at point-blank range, then dumped them out of the car and drove away, leaving both for dead. Sandler unfortunately died, but Dee managed to crawl to a highway where she was rescued and taken to a hospital. Doctors did not expect Dee to survive and twice was given her last rites, including one by personal friend Reverend Jesse Jackson.

After a year of recovering from her injuries sustained during the attack, remarkably Dee returned to broadcasting in 1972, becoming an anchor for then-independent station WGN-TV’s 10 p.m. newscast, making her one of the first Black news anchors in a major U.S. city.

Samuel Drew was later convicted for the attack and even though he was sentenced to 120 years in prison for the kidnapping, murder, and attempted murder, he only served 12 years in prison and was released on parole, which gave him the opportunity to continue to victimizing Dee by harassing her over the phone. 

The travesty of justice inspired Dee to rally Illinois politicians to draft the nation’s first Victims’ Bill of Rights in 1992, legislation that other states followed. Dee was on the air until 1983, when she became WGN’s director of community relations, a position she held until retiring in 2008.

In addition to her television and radio work, Dee has also served in various capacities of several charities and organizations. She founded the Chicago-based program Athletes for a Better Education. Dee served as the television host of the United Negro College Fund’s Evening of Stars fundraiser for over two decades, and also hosted telethons benefitting Easter Seals. Dee also developed The Waiting Child, an on-air segment, broadcast on WGN-TV spotlighting children in the child placement system in need of adoptive homes. The initiative earned Dee several awards, including being honored with the Adoption Excellence Award from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 2004.

Then-Illinois Governor Jim Edgar gave Dee and WGN-TV a commendation in 1998, for helping to increase the number of adoptions in the state by more than 50 percent. In 2000, she was honored with an honorary Doctorate of Humanities by Lewis University; the following year, Dee won the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences’ Silver Circle Award. The University of Illinois’ Center on Women and Gender also honored Dee with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003.  In 2004, she was honored with a President’s Award by the United Negro College Fund.

Dee also served as an executive board member for the Ronald McDonald House Charities, Junior Achievement Worldwide and the Associated Colleges of Illinois; board member for The National College Summit and member of the Illinois State Attorney’s Council on Violence. In January 2011, Dee became one of six inductees into the National Association of Black Journalists’ Hall of Fame.

This year, Dee was chosen by the mayor’s office to be profiled for Women’s History Month in March. 

Mayor Lori Lightfoot shared the following statement:

“Amy and I are deeply saddened to learn of Merri Dee’s passing.

Mrs. Dee was a homegrown, broadcasting legend whose time as an anchor and radio and talk show host made her a beloved, local celebrity. In addition to her television and radio work, she also made a huge impact on communities across our city and state through a number of philanthropic pursuits that reflected her passion for protecting vulnerable individuals such as children in need of adoptive homes. Mrs. Dee has truly made a positive and indelible mark on our city and inspired countless others to follow in her footsteps. We offer our deepest condolences to her loved ones during this difficult time.”

Many took to social media to share condolences to her family:

Dee married twice and had two children. Dee was married to her second husband, Nicolas Fulop from 1999 until her death in 2022. In addition to her daughter Toya Monet, Dee also has an adopted son, Attorney Richard H. Wright. She is also survived by her five siblings and three grandchildren.

Merri Dee’s official website will be updated frequently with final arrangements, memorials, and other details. 

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