On this edition of In Black America, producer/host John L. Hanson Jr. speaks with Merri Dee, legendary television and radio personality, and author of Life Lessons on Faith, Forgiveness & Grace.
As a trailblazer in both radio and television, Dee has served as a newscaster, talk-show host and staff announcer. Later she served as director of community relations at WGN-TV and as adviser to other Tribune-owned TV stations.
Born Mary Francine Dorham in Chicago on Oct. 30, 1936, Dee was raised in New Orleans. Her mother went into labor during a trip to Chicago with her husband as they went back and forth between Chicago and New Orleans due to work; she died when Dee was only 2. After her father John Blouin remarried four years later, her stepmother abused her and sent her to an orphanage.
A 1954 graduate of Englewood Technical Prep Academy, Dee moved to New Orleans to attend Xavier University, where she was a business administration major; she eventually dropped out to take a job as a salesperson with IBM to support her siblings. Dee enrolled at Midwestern Broadcasting in Chicago to study broadcasting and journalism in the early 1960s and landed her first hosting job in 1966 at radio station WBEE. During the two years that followed, she quickly became a local celebrity in Chicago radio. In 1968, she began hosting an entertainment program on then-fledgling independent station WCIU on Saturday nights. In 1971, she became the host of The Merri Dee Show on WSNS.
Having hosted countless parades, telethons and television specials, she is considered an acclaimed interviewer and television host. Dee has shared the stage with well-known entertainers such as Lou Rawls, Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones, Oprah Winfrey, Nancy Wilson, Bernie Mack, Frank Sinatra and hundreds of other celebrities. Her success as a telethon host and fundraiser has helped nonprofits achieve their financial goals.
For more than 30 years, Dee served as the co-host and presenter of the nationally syndicated “UNCF Annual Evening of Stars,” raising tens of millions of dollars for college scholarships. And she leveraged her relationship with the McCormick Foundation to raise more than $31 million for Chicago Children’s Charities. However, her support extends beyond raising funds. She advocates for organizations that address critical social needs including issues surrounding adoption and foster care, violence prevention, education, and women’s issues.
Notwithstanding Dee’s efforts and successes in the public arena, many lifelong Chicagoans, still remember her heart-wrenching story of being kidnapped at gunpoint, shot, and almost killed by an assailant. Given last rites twice, overcoming paralysis and blindness, she not only lived, but survived to become an inspiration to others overcoming various traumas. The account of her ordeal was the subject of several network programs, including 60 Minutes, the Phil Donahue Show and Oprah. This life-changing experience led her to being the force behind the Illinois General Assembly’s passage of the first Victim’s Bill of Rights. Illinois’ law has become the model for similar legislation in every state in the United States.