Abused, almost murdered, yet WGN’s Merri Dee made choice to live her best life
By MAUDLYNE IHEJIRIKA Staff Reporter firstname.lastname@example.org June 23, 2013 5:04PM
Former television journalist Merri Dee speaks during an event celebrating her many years of service and philanthropy, at the Museum of Broadcast Communication in Chicago, on Wednesday, June 5, 2013. | Chandler West~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: July 25, 2013 6:02AM
“The morning of July 17, 1971, started early, even for me. Something disturbed my sleep; something woke me up. The feeling of dread was so powerful, so overwhelming ...”
What has always stood out since that day in 1971 is the light behind Merri Dee’s eyes. Sure, her trademark is that million-dollar smile. But even more striking, the face of the longtime broadcaster, a civic leader, practically radiates light.
It could be from surviving being kidnapped, shot twice in the head and left in the woods to die, a life miracle she recounts in vivid detail in her memoir released this month, Merri Dee, Life Lessons on Faith, Forgiveness & Grace.
Or it could be defying the odds as a child, beaten mercilessly with a broomstick, razor strop, fists, etc., by a stepmother declaring she’d never amount to anything.
But when you consider her life’s abundance — after teen marriage and divorce, struggling as a single mother, and weathering domestic violence — there are many depths from which the light must emanate.
“I believe in God. I’m a big proponent,” says the 76-year-old diva, a fixture in local broadcasting for 42 years, 37 with WGN-Channel 9.
“Tumultuous. Miraculous. Blessing,” is how she describes her life.
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“The dread hung over my head all day long even at work at WBEE Radio in Harvey. It stalked me through my night gig back in Chicago at WSNS-TV. As the guest and I watched his assistant get into her car, I saw a man walking toward us. ...”
Born Mary Blouin in Chicago on Oct. 30, 1936, Dee is the youngest of six children of Agnes and John Blouin of New Orleans, her parents among the Great Migration.
Her mother died when she was 2. Her father remarried when she was 7, bringing into the home his two youngest children. He became sickly; her stepmother, abusive.
“She loved my brother. She said girls were no good,” Dee says.
“I remember getting my first report card with straight A’s. I was so excited. I ran in the door 10 minutes late from school. She took me into the room and beat me into that mattress; tied my feet with a rope, the other end to the bed and hung me outside the third-floor window, saying, ‘This will teach you to disobey me.’ ”
At age 12, Dee was sent to an orphanage school in New Orleans. By the time she was 14, her stepmother told her she could not return home. Dee was suddenly on her own.
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“Following the gunman’s instructions, I turned left, turned right. ...We entered the expressway and arrived at Beaubien Woods ... He ordered both of us to get down on the ground ...”
A friend thought she’d be good at broadcasting, advised her to go back to school. She graduated from Midwestern Broadcasting School (now Columbia College) in the early 1960s, landing her first radio job in 1966, at WBEE in Harvey.
“I always knew I would make something of myself, but I never knew what,” she says.
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“I heard the first gunshot ... I felt the second shot hit me in the back of my head ... A third shot rang out ... The gunman then pressed the .38-caliber revolver to the base of my neck and pulled the trigger. The fourth shot lit up my spine ...”
Her TV guest, Alan Sandler, was killed. Her book’s description of the crime that became a national story — airing on “60 Minutes,” the “Donahue” show and “Oprah” — is recounted matter-of-factly. A reader encounters no emotion.
“I’m a realist. It’s something that happened, something I never wanted, never expected, and I live my life grateful,” she says.
From that first radio gig — she was known as “Merri Dee, the honey bee,” the woman with the syrupy sweet voice and kilowatt smile rose quickly, breaking barriers for black journalists.
She moved to TV as host of an entertainment program on then-fledgling WCIU-Channel 26 in 1968; left there in 1971 to host “The Merri Dee Show” on WSNS Channel 44.
It was leaving the Channel 44 station one night that she was abducted by a stranger who had been stalking her and cheated death.
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“In the heavy moments that followed, I realized that I’m not dead ... I fervently prayed, ‘Dear God, help me’ ... Instead of a great white light, I heard the roar of the ocean ... saw a vision ... The man ... said, ‘It’s OK. It’s OK. You can go back ...’ “I crawled on my hands and knees ... I crawled and crawled. I made it to the side of the road ...”
“I crawled on my hands and knees ... I crawled and crawled. I made it to the side of the road ...”
“Oh my God, I have to crawl back to where he shot me so he won’t know I’m alive. I crawled back ... holding my breath and praying ... The car stopped ... for what seemed like an eternity. Then it finally drove off ... I struggled to my knees and crawled back to the road ...”
Cars passed by. Just when it seemed no one would spot her, a car rear-ended an ambulance in front of her. ◆ ◆
It took a year for Dee to fight her way to recovery, paralysis and blindness among her challenges.
But by 1972, she was back on television, hired by WGN as one of the first black news anchors in a major city.
Her assailant, Samuel Drew of Chicago, was convicted and sentenced to 25 to 40 years in prison, paroled in 12, after which he harassed Dee by phone.
She became a fierce advocate for victims, rallying state politicians to draft the nation’s first Victims’ Bill of Rights in 1992. Illinois’ was modeled by other states.
Drew went back to prison after he was arrested in a stolen car in 1986.
“A life-changing moment takes practically all of your emotional, spiritual and sometimes physical reserves to survive. It is a moment that forces you to determine what you will or will not accept, and makes you choose how you will respond ...”
So ends the book’s chapters on the experience that changed Dee’s life.
Dee left the air in 1983 when she was named WGN’s director of community development. She became a savvy philanthropist, retiring in 2008 to join AARP, where she is state president.
Dee has been a staunch education advocate, hosting the United Negro College Fund’s star-studded TV telethon for more than 30 years. Her heart also lies with abused and neglected children. The State of Illinois and the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services have honored her for her longtime work helping find adoptive homes for foster children. She has served on former Mayor Daley- and Gov. Quinn- appointed commissions, continues to serve on the boards of myriad corporations and nonprofits.
Dee also advocates on women’s issues, particularly domestic violence, suffered by Dee at the hands of a well-known, R&B star she dated. He is left unidentified in her chapter, “If He Hits You Once.” But it’s the one part of her life divulged for the first time.
“I don’t know how to even talk about it. It’s hard to even believe I was in it, like I’m talking about someone else,” says Dee, now remarried, and journeyed past forgiving him, her stepmother, and her would-be killer.
“Resiliency. We are all resilient, blessed in so many ways. We are just little miracles,” she says of her book’s message. “If you’re going to live, you have to be determined to live, and a best life, not just a life. If you have any kind of trauma, you have to tell yourself you don’t deserve worse, you deserve better. I hold a desire, a deeply seeded desire, to be the best that I can be.”
Edited by former Jet Magazine senior editor Clarence Waldron, Dee’s book is available at MerriDee.com, or on Amazon.