God’s Journalistic Angel: Merri Dee
Strong, surviving, and sensitive to others are three words that best describe the dynamo named Merri Dee. Born in Chicago, and raised in New Orleans, Merri Dee is now celebrating over twenty years as the Director of Community Relations at WGN. She serves as liaison between WGN-TV and community organizations in Chicago, ensuring the station serves the needs of the diverse Chicagoland area. Her on-air career began in 1966 as a radio personality, after having worked for IBM, jet setting in sales for six and a half years before moving to WGN in 1972, where she handled the jobs of talk show hostess, on-air camera newscaster, staff announcer and editorial spokesperson.
Where It All Began
Her mother died when she was two years old, leaving her father to raise a family of three girls and two boys. She remembered how rough it was for the family to survive, but it was her father who nurtured hope and the need to look ahead that caused Merri’s early years to be filled with happiness. “We were poor as anybody else, we just didn’t have that poor attitude,” Merri recalled. But it was between the ages of five and seven when this outgoing, happy little girl became withdrawn, because her father married a stepmother that Merri still calls to this day, “The wicked witch of the west. She was wicked by design.”
The family began to breakup after her stepmother came into her life, which caused Merri to leave home at an early age. “I’ve been out on my own since I was fourteen,” Merri says. She was physically and mentally abused by her stepmother for more than seven years. “She was such a strict disciplinarian,” explained Merri. “I learned the word discipline. I learned the negative side, and something in me never allowed her negativity to enter me — it went somewhere else, I didn’t want it. So every time she told me ‘You’re a dummy, you’re never going to be anything,’ I always said to myself, ‘she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”
Making It Through The Pain
Child abuse, both verbal and mental, is spoken about more openly in today’s society, however, during Merri’s childhood it was kept quiet. “Verbal abuse cuts you to the bone, and I had to be strong when I wanted to be a kid,” Merri admitted, but she didn’t let her abuser squelch her sense of self-worth and reality. “I had a secret genie,” she explained. “My genie was God. And I use to talk to God like it was magic. He was my invisible friend, I always felt that He was mine. I would just say anything. I was like that poem in the sand. ‘Where were you when I needed you, I was carrying you all the time.'”
Merri says, “As I got older, I considered her [stepmother] as a support system. She was somebody who kept me guided in the right direction, by trying to guide me wrong.” Merri says the key to happiness is practicing the law of forgiveness. “I was always forgiving people, and I was ridiculed for forgiving. I’m ridiculed even today for forgiving. A lot people tell me today, ‘you’re always so nice to people, you know they don’t like you.’ But forgiveness is very powerful. If I forgive you, you don’t have to be bothered with them. My dad use to say, ‘don’t go to bed angry with anybody without forgiving them, because if you don’t forgive them, and you go to sleep, they sleep with you.’ So I was always busy forgiving.”
The Law Of Giving And Receiving
Involved in many charities, Merri has hosted the United Negro College Fund Telethon for over 14 years, and the Easter Seals Telethon. She is also one of the founders of the Chicago-based organization Athletes For A Better Education, where she gives inspiration to children of less fortune. “I tell children today that you’re not a failure until you accept failure. Failure is not final, and if failure is not final, then you always have another opportunity for another shot at the game that’s being played. So you may not be doing well in class, but that does not mean you are a failure even though someone is telling you that.”
It was through her involvement with Athletes For A Better Education, and working with high school athletes and their parents, coaches, educators, and other sports representatives that many of these young athletes have now turned professional in football and basketball. Merri has been the host of the Bud Biliken Parade for over 20 years and has received numerous honors and awards such as the Spirit Of Love Award for Little City Foundation; Outstanding Media Person from AT&T; Outstanding Community Role Model from the Chicago Board Of Education; National Association Of Media Women Award, and the Communicator Of The Year Award from the American Cancer Society.
An Almost Fatal Shooting
Merri was married at 19 and in 1956 gave birth to her daughter, Toya when she was 21. During her tenure at IBM, Merri’s marriage began showing signs of despair. After seven years, she divorced her husband, and the wheel of change began its spin on Merri’s life once again. At the age of 35, Merri survived two gun shot wounds to the head at WSNS Channel 44, before landing her position at WGN, when she and her television quest were kidnapped from the TV station. She was sitting in her car talking to her guest after her show, when a man with a 38 caliber gun appeared, forcing her to drive to a forest preserve with her TV guest.
Immediately after the shooting, Merri described a memory that even as she spoke, made it difficult for her to do so. “I remember losing my life, but I didn’t know it. I remember hearing the ocean, like an oceans roar.” She recalled seeing a long corridor of whiteness, as the oceans roared with unfolding white caps. “Out of this long white corridor came this tall, most beautiful man. This man I say was my father, or it could have been Jesus.” As a child, Merri and her brothers would often refer to their father as Jesus in jest, because of his striking resemblance to the Son of God. Merri continued, “He said, ‘you can go back, don’t worry, you’ll be alright. And [he] started to disappear, and those whitecaps started to uncoil and the white got farther, and farther away, and the roar of the sound of the ocean began to go away until there was dead silence and darkness, and I realized I was awake…I was alive.”
“I stuck my right hand out, and I remember saying, ‘I’m alive, I’m alive, I’m going to get help. I remember moving to my left and trying to get, but I couldn’t get up. So I crawled out and got to the highway and saw the lights of the automobiles.” In addition to her gun shot wounds, she suffered temporary blindness and other complications. Her television guest was not as fortunate, passing on from his fatal wounds. “How you survive something of that nature is just a simplistic deal for me now that I know, you don’t survive unless it was your time to survive. Survival to me has become very simplistic in my head, if I’m suppose to, I will, and if I’m not, I won’t, I’ve accepted that. I do believe in destiny, I always did. I always thought I was destined for greatness. I always knew that I was not going to be the average kid.”
Today, Merri travels nationwide sharing her experiences as a speaker and lecturer on how “A Victim Becomes A Survivor.” “I survived because I was suppose to. I survived because God has never, ever set me in a seat that I was not already prepared to sit in. I survived because, I had the desire and the will to live. I’m still here doing the same stuff in different ways, with new and different people…and people still want me — that amazes me. I think about how blessed I am!”
Merri Dee’s latest book, Merri Dee, Life Lessons on Faith, Forgiveness & Grace, shares lessons she has learned throughout her life in this empowering memoir. Her story has long been a work in progress and only now is she finally ready to share it with the world. Merri says, “This is a story of grace, elegance, courage and survival. This is a story that has been waiting for the right time to be told. That time is now.”
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