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December 22, 2010

Louisvillian of the Year

Dawne Gee

When LEO chooses its Louisvillian of the Year, we look for someone who may not have the spotlight shining on them but who should be recognized for their community service, personal perseverance and all around good attitude. This someone has to love Louisville and be a force for positive change. This year, it turns out the person we chose has the spotlight shining on her most nights of the week. As an anchor at WAVE-3, Dawne Gee makes hard news a little easier to handle with her sincerity, compassion and charisma. We chose Gee for a number of reasons — her support of countless local charities, desire to give back to the community in segments like “Pass the Cash,” dedication to helping terminally ill children. It’s a rare and remarkable altruism, which did not waver even as Gee battled her own serious illness, a benign brain tumor that was removed last year.

It’s a bone-chilling December afternoon as I sit at Day’s Espresso & Coffee in the Highlands anticipating my first meeting with WAVE-3 news anchor Dawne Gee. I came armed with questions scribbled on a notepad, a voice recorder and a desire to get to know the real person behind the bubbly onscreen persona. Surely there’s a yin to her always confident, polished yang. My heart races as the minutes count down to our scheduled meeting — like I’m preparing to interview Barbra Streisand … or Oprah. Yes, Oprah. Gee has been called the Oprah of Louisville, and perhaps this is not too far off. Apparently, I’m not the only one taken by her charming personality.

As she stumbles through the front door of Day’s, tucked away in an oversized winter coat, three grown men gasp in delight. “Oh my God,” one of them says. “Dawne Gee is at Day’s!” Before she gets a chance to sit down at my table, the men have Gee surrounded, iPhones pointed, holding her hostage.

“Can we get a picture with you?” they ask.

“Sure, guys, but my hair is in curls, so you can’t show this to anyone,” she replies. “And you have to promise me you’ll watch at least one of my newscasts tonight so you can see how my hair looks when it’s done.”

After observing the encounter, it becomes clear that Dawne Gee is a Louisville celebrity — a talking point buried in my questions — and possesses an affection that transcends the television screen. I decide to lead with that: “Do you consider yourself a celebrity?”

“Oh God no!” she says without hesitation. “It drives me crazy when people say, ‘I’m your biggest fan.’ I nip that in the bud right there. Na-uh, you are not my fan. You can call yourself my friend. But I am so not worthy of fans.” Facebook, however, tells a different story.

Facebook regulations require that after a user has so many “friends,” that person must switch over to a “Fan Page.” Gee has blown past the 5,000-friend limit and is now at a crossroads. “Oh my lord in heaven, you’ve got to be kidding me,” she says. “They said that’s what I have to do. I am uncomfortable with that — I don’t want a Fan Page. So I don’t know what I’m gonna do. I’m sorry, I’m not on a pedestal. I’m not worthy of fans. That doesn’t sit right with me.”

But Gee is a celebrity, worthy of fans, whether she likes it or not. It’s hard to say why viewers take to one person over another; how we choose our idols has something to do with the “It” factor, a term that eludes definition. It is clear Gee is dripping with the “It” factor.

Perhaps Dawne Gee, 47, resonates with so many viewers because she’s out in the community every chance she gets. As a broadcaster, it’s not the seat behind the news desk she is most thankful for, but rather the opportunity to help so many Louisvillians. Gee spoke at more than 200 events last year for various charities in town. “You call, I’ll come,” she says, even if that means giving up her mornings, evenings and even vacations. “There are times when I have six or seven events in a week, and I’ll get to No. 4, and I’ll sit in my car before I go and say, ‘Why did I say I’d do this?’ And then I laugh, because I know when I get there, something’s gonna happen, and I’m gonna be blessed. It never fails. It might be a little old lady who comes over and hugs me. Or it might be something I read when I get there. It could be anything. I’ll be tired, but I know there’s a blessing in there.”

Gee didn’t set out to be a newscaster or community activist. But she knows this is where she’s meant to be. She’s always lived by the motto: “Do what you love, and the rest will come,” which helped her realign her priorities after college when she found herself unhappy in a medical sales job. Born and raised in Louisville’s South End, Gee attended University of Louisville and graduated with two degrees — communications, which she loved, and biology, which she got to appease her mother. “Biology was really easy for me — I didn’t have to think to do that. And that was kinda to keep my parents quiet,” she says. “You know, because in their minds, ‘Communications? What are you going to with that? You’re never going to be able to do anything with that!’”

After observing an autopsy on a 10-year-old boy, Gee quickly learned biology was not for her. “I said, ‘Done with this. Finished.’ I’d be one of those doctors who ended up writing prescriptions for Valium for himself. What made me think in my mind and my heart that I could handle sick babies?”

So it was on to medical sales and a substantial salary, which she needed to raise two children as a single mom. But Gee wasn’t happy, and she often ended the day sitting on her bed and crying, knowing this wasn’t that path for her.

In a chance encounter that involved a little bit of right-time-right-place luck — she won free albums from a local radio station — Gee walked into the station to pick up her prize, and the program director was so taken by her voice, he offered her a job. She came in that weekend to watch the other DJs before doing her first show on WJYL. “I bet I used the bathroom at least twice every 30 minutes,” she says. “I was so nervous, I didn’t know what to do. But I had a ball. I rocked it. It was great.” Gee was eventually offered a full-time position, which meant doing what she loved but taking a $50,000 pay cut. “I knew the good lord gave me talent for some reason, so I did it. I called my mother afterward, and she screamed for about 20 or 30 minutes. She didn’t like it, but there it was.”

While Gee bounced around radio stations, she also took a second job as a bouncer at Comedy Caravan to help with the bills. During any given night, she’d have to toss one or two heckling drunks from the room, often relying on her wit to handle unruly patrons. “I’d shut them down really quick. And they’d either be really embarrassed or just laugh.”

Owner Tom Sobel soon took notice and asked Gee to get up on stage. “I didn’t have a routine — I was just off-the-cuff saying things to people,” she says. “Now I had to write three minutes, so I just started thinking about my kids, men — I could write a two-hour show on men — and that three minutes seemed like a second.”

Gee was hooked on audience approval and made a good run as a stand-up comedian. “That laughter is like … I don’t know how to describe it … it’s like being lifted when you’re 8 years old in a Little League game because you made the home run that saved the game. That was all it took.” She toured as a comic and even opened for Steve Harvey, Cedric the Entertainer, Monique and Sinbad to name a few. “I see them and where they are now, and I think, ‘Hmm, I wonder if I would have stayed in that circle, you know, what would I have done?’ But I see some of the other comedians, too, and they’re still doing that same old grind — same clubs, same hotels. It’s a hard life. But I loved it.”

“Dawne has not figured out that even Dawne Gee has a gas tank — it can be full or it can be empty,” says Steve Langford, vice president and general manager of WAVE-3. “Some of us, myself included, will say, ‘Dawne, take vacation. Slow down. You don’t have to go MC that.’ And she just can’t say no. She literally turned in for 225 speaking engagements last year. I’ve never heard of anyone who has worked that hard.”

When you hear Gee talk about the lives she touches, it is obvious why she never says no. Gee met 4-year-old Sammy Pardue when she hosted the first-ever Louisville St. Baldrick’s in 2003. The charity event raises money for childhood cancer research by encouraging people to shave their heads — one, as a way to show support for kids going through chemotherapy, and two, to collect money from sponsors. During the event held at the Irish Rover, Sammy was thought to be in remission from rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare form of cancer. Gee fell in love with the shy child and was determined to send him to Camp Indian Summer, a local getaway for children with terminal illnesses. Gee was hosting “WAVE Listens” at the time and made a call for soda-can tops, which the camp recycles and uses to help children in need to attend. “On ‘Listens,’ whenever I said, ‘We need,’ it happened,” Gee says, looking away as she begins to cry. “I got ready to go on the air with Sammy’s picture and have people collect for him, but I got a call saying, ‘Maybe you don’t want to do that.’ He passed away that morning.”

“We lost him May 7, two months after St. Baldrick’s,” says Brooke Pardue, Sammy’s mother.

The family has since started Team Sammy and continues to raise money — more than $300,000 to date — for St. Baldrick’s. Gee has hosted the event every year since.

“Dawne, God love her, has been with us from the beginning,” Pardue says. “She does the event every year — come rain or snow. We literally had one year where it snowed on people’s bare heads. Dawne bundles up and is up there for hours every year MC-ing this event.”

For Gee, this is the only event you’ll catch her out in the elements. “I can’t stand the cold, but during St. Baldrick’s, that is the only time I will stand outside for eight hours. It snows on us, it rains on us. But for Sammy, I’ll stand out there. Sammy’s picture is in my living room along with a few other of my babies who have their angel’s wings. It’s funny, I haven’t asked for tabs in years, yet people are still kind enough to bring them to me.”

Pardue says she is thankful for Gee’s time and help in bringing attention to the charity. “We laugh, we cry, we get through the day, we do good work, and we pray to God every year that this is the year we don’t have to lose another child. Unfortunately, every year we lose more and more, but you know, we keep fighting the good fight. I think the reason Dawne is so successful in what she does is that she only does things that she truly believes in, and she puts her heart and soul into it — and that comes across … in everything she does. Under the definition of empathy should be her name.”

Gee applied to Wave-3 nine times, wanting to make the leap from radio to television after a stint as news director for WRKA-FM. “I was bound and determined to be there simply because they had a community aspect,” she says. “I am all about community — I am out there, I am in there. I started a community talk show at almost every radio station I worked at. So the ninth time, they hired me, although they didn’t hire me to be on air.”

When asked why WAVE eventually hired Gee, Steve Langford, who had a different position back then, jokes, “No one else applied — you can quote me on that.”

Gee was hired as a writer and producer for the promotions department, and she remembers always hanging around the studio long enough to catch a break. First it was a 6 a.m. Sunday morning talk show no one wanted to do. And then she filled in for a vacationing Jane Norris on the talk show “WAVE Listens.”

“Jane Norris was doing ‘Listens’ at the time,” Langford remembers. “She was very conservative and kind of a radio head. And she could not relate to any of the daytime audience. So one day she went on vacation, and we slapped Dawne in there, and it was over. I think Jane was let go pretty quickly after that.”

“It was like settling into a comfy chair — I loved every minute of it,” Gee says. “I knew it was where I was supposed to be. And I think a lot of people were shocked.”

From there, Gee was offered an anchor position on WAVE’s morning show with co-host Chris Parente. It was a match made in television heaven, and soon WAVE took the top slot in morning ratings.

“We thought the morning time period was perfect for her,” Langford says. “She could just be herself, and she had a wonderfully crazy co-host, Parente — he was a great talent. They were just like brother and sister on there. And people loved them.”

“We tore it up in the morning,” Gee remembers. “We had a ball. If you were going to get up with Chris and I, you were gonna get your news, because you needed that. But you were gonna get a jolt bigger than any coffee drink, because we were gonna have some fun. He and I were the best of friends. He was like my fourth child.”

Chris Parente, who now works as an anchor and entertainment reporter in Denver, remembers those morning shifts fondly. “I’ve been in the business nearly 20 years, and in that time, only once have I truly felt magic,” he says. “Those were the mornings I sat next to my best friend, my partner in crime, and my co-anchor Dawne Gee. Half of Louisville thought we were married, the other half thought we were divorced. Both halves thought we were sleeping together. It was a chemistry you simply can’t fake. I’ve often said we were the ‘Regis and Kelly’ of Kentucky ... only the gay and black version — I’ll let you decide which of us was which.”

Some of the things Parente misses most are Gee’s infectious laugh and the team’s nonstop cutting-up during breaks. “As intelligent and well informed as she is, Dawne isn’t afraid to have fun,” he says. “Every year at the Derby, she’d remind me to bet on the horse that shit last — adding she felt the same way about boyfriends.”

Gee now anchors the 5, 5:30 and 11 p.m. weekday news slots and hosts the popular segment “Pass The Cash,” which gives money to somebody in the community in need, as nominated by viewers. Gee loves brightening people’s day with a little money, but admits she’s fearful it won’t always go smoothly. “When I get in the car, I make a prayer, and that prayer is, ‘God, please let me give it to somebody who is really in need. Don’t let somebody dupe me.’ And the second prayer is, ‘Don’t let anybody rob us … because I’ve got $300 in my pocket, and they know it!’”

Although Gee is thankful to hold a primetime anchor spot at WAVE, she misses the talk-show format she had while hosting “Listens.” It was her chance to channel her inner Oprah and affect change. “I throw it out at Langford all the time,” she admits. “He says we need to get out and touch the public, and I’m like, dude, I touch the public almost 200 times a year. Don’t forget … I can do that, too! Put me back in there. I can do news and that. This is what I think, and not what they’ve said — they want to protect my integrity as a newsperson. And sometimes I don’t think they see me as a hard newsperson, which hurts my feelings. I can do news and have feelings. I can be a hard news person.”

WAVE’s Langford says they have plans for Gee, but no changes are in place for the immediate future. “Our thought process has always been, you play to one’s talents. We’ve got lots of people who can get into the details of breaking news. Dawne is the one that gets them in the door and makes them feel good about things,” he says. “I don’t think there’s any reason to change that.”

While Gee spends most of her free time mothering the community, she was forced to slow down and devote time to herself after she was diagnosed with pituitary adenoma, a benign brain tumor, five years ago. Doctors initially believed the tumor was inoperable, and Gee endured years of headaches, hormone spikes, weight gain, tests and useless medication. “There was this constant fear that whenever I felt bad, I thought, ‘Is it the tumor?’ I always wondered if it was growing,” she says.

Finally, in 2009, one of her doctors devised a plan to remove the tumor, and Gee signed on without hesitation, even though the risk was high. On the day of the operation, so many of her family, friends and fellow church members showed up at the hospital, she remembers it being like a party. “Whatever was going to happen on that day, I knew it was going to be OK, because I had already been blessed enough for 20 lifetimes,” Gee says. “I wasn’t ready to go anywhere, but I had already been given so much in life ... I could only leave it all to the good Lord and Dr. (Jonathan) Hodes and lay back for the ride.”

Gee is now tumor free. She gets regular checkups every year and deals with a few side effects from the surgery. “I have crazy memory issues — not sure what that’s about. But I go to rehab for it on Mondays,” she says. “Everything is good — I can’t complain. I am just so truly blessed that sometimes I just sit back and laugh. Even the bad things — those are just little things that are supposed to wake you up.”

Among those blessings are Gee’s three children — Brittney Dawne, 27, Eric Cavel, 26, and Alexander Thomas, 14 — who grew up being as much a part of the community as their mother. She remembers carting them along with her any chance she got. “When my kids were little, if I was going to Wayside to feed the hungry, they were feeding the hungry. On Thanksgiving, you don’t eat until you feed the hungry. That was the family tradition — you feed someone … guess what … you get to eat.” Proof the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, Gee’s oldest, Brittney, is leaving soon for the Dominican Republic to teach underprivileged children.

Gee raised her family in the South End, where she currently resides, and says there’s nowhere else she’d rather be — even if she were to nab, say, Oprah’s job. “I would love to do what Oprah does on a national scale,” she says. “But they’d have to do it here in Louisville, because I’m not going anywhere. If she can do it in Chicago, we can do it here in Louisville. Man, I’d try to change the world if I had that format.”

Chalk up Oprah, family, giving back and Louisville to Gee’s many loves. But it wasn’t until the end of our conversation when she revealed a deep, dark secret only a few are privy to: Gee loves horror films. If she doesn’t find one on TV before going to bed, she can’t sleep. She’s got the Chiller Channel and Showtime Beyond just for this reason. “Anything where somebody gets chopped up and pinned on a wall — slice ’em, dice ’em, put ’em in a baggie,” she says. “I’ve gotta have horror on, or my brain won’t shut down and go to sleep.”

It seems Gee possesses all the qualities coveted by politicians — charisma, community admiration, honesty, the ability to get things done. If she truly loves this city, what’s to stop her from running for mayor? “Definitely not!” she quickly says. “I may seem a bit crazy, and I may say silly things, but no, I am not stupid. Do you see the way they jab at each other? Sometimes they get so bad, they might as well talk about each other’s mama. My feelings get hurt. When I got the LEO Readers’ Choice award (third place behind Terry Meiners and Karen Sypher in the Best Local Media Celebrity You Love to Hate category), I was crushed. And then Terry Meiners calls me, and he is laughing and hooting it up. He said, ‘We made a sandwich with Karen Sypher!’ And I was like, ‘That was not her first sandwich I’m sure.’” (Gee also won first place in the Best Local TV News Anchor category that same year.)

Others think Gee would make a great mayor.

“Dawne Gee would be good at any leadership position,” Langford says. “Dawne would have to learn how to say no to people — that would be the only downside. Dawne just makes people of different lifestyles look at each other in the eye and say, ‘OK, we’re more similar than dissimilar.’ She’s a rare talent.”

“I look forward to a reunion with Dawne when we run for governor and lieutenant governor of the commonwealth,” says Chris Parente. “Truth is, it was easy to shine next to Dawne. Her spirit is so pure, so compassionate, so full of life that it literally reaches out from the TV and grabs whomever happens to be on the other end. There’s no resisting Dawne.”

Whatever lies ahead for Gee, there’s no doubt she’ll always be a part of Louisville, working to help those less fortunate in the town she loves.

“I’m what you see is what you get,” she says. “I’m a South End girl, I like to have fun, I believe in a higher power, I cry — if something hits me hard and I can’t hold back, you’re gonna see my tears. I am who I am, and I’m hoping that gets me through to my retirement.”