The life and legacy of Denise D’Ascenzo was celebrated Wednesday at a tribute that brought back many of her former co-workers, including Gayle King, and included performances by West Hartford musicians.
By Ronni Newton
Dennis House fought hard to keep the emotion out of his voice as he stood on the stage welcoming the crowd to the memorial service for Denise D’Ascenzo – the woman he shared the anchor desk with at WFSB for 25 years, who was also his best friend, someone he considered his sister, his children’s “Auntie Denise.”
WFSB estimated that more than 2,000 people gathered at the Connecticut Convention Center Wednesday afternoon to say farewell to D’Ascenzo in a tribute that touched the hearts and souls of those in attendance, bringing tears to their eyes as well as smiles to their lips as current and former co-workers also shared stories of D’Ascenzo’s kindness and humorous anecdotes, including videos of outtakes and images from her childhood.
The audience included former colleagues and dignitaries, but also fans who knew her from her daily broadcasts, and those whose stories she shared on the air. Countless more watched the live-streamed version of the service.
“We’re having the memorial today because tomorrow might be too difficult,” House said as he welcomed the crowd Wednesday afternoon. Thursday, Jan. 30, would have been D’Ascenzo’s 62nd birthday.
She died at home in her sleep on Dec. 7 of a suspected heart attack.
Wednesday’s memorial began with the solemn entrance of a police honor guard, followed by a touching rendition of “Hallelujah” performed by West Hartford’s Hall High School Choraliers. Although not mentioned in the program, Javier Colon, winner of the first season of NBC’s “The Voice” and also a West Hartford resident, joined the choir for “Hallelujah.” The Choraliers later sang the hymn “Be Not Afraid.”
WFSB General Manager Dana Neves, who said she first met D’Ascenzo when she was an undergraduate intern working at the station, announced that the station will officially have a new address as of this spring: 3 Denise D’Ascenzo Way, Rocky Hill, CT.
“Not a road or a street, it’s a way. That’s the way she was,” Neves said.
D’Ascenzo lived her life according to three tenets, Neves said: Be open. Be brave. Be kind.
D’Ascenzo outlined them as as lessons in her 2013 commencement address at Quinnipiac University, and they were printed on the back page of the program. West Hartford Police Chief Vernon Riddick, who attended Wednesday’s ceremony, reprised D’Ascenzo’s words in the message he shared as he presided over a promotion and swearing-in ceremony later that day, noting that they are particularly important and appropriate for law enforcement.
“Lesson No. 1: Be open to new ideas and possibilities. The universe may be leading you down a path you never imagined. It could be immeasurably better … So I say to you, be open and you will never stop learning. Lesson No. 2: Be brave and face your fears. Never give anyone the power to make you doubt yourself! And, never forget, you have a mighty weapon against self doubt … your gut. Learn to trust it and it will never fail you. … Be brave and you will achieve more than you ever dreamed. Lesson No. 3: Be kind in your words and actions. Wherever you go from here, set an example by doing your job and living your life with kindness.”
D’Ascenzo, Neves said, was “the nicest woman I’ll ever know.”
WFSB’s Kara Sundlun and Scot Haney – both longtime colleagues – shared highlights of D’Ascenzo’s career.
Sundlun said D’Ascenzo, who was the initial matchmaker between her and House and has been like a family member to them and their children, was a classically-trained journalist. “Being a journalist for Denise was more than just a job, it was a calling.”
She loved words, Sundlun said, and was someone who made people feel safe, that she could be trusted. She reported on many tragedies and difficult stories, and gave other journalists the advice: “Never give anyone the power to make you doubt yourself.”
Gayle King, who worked alongside D’Ascenzo for more than a decade, made a surprise appearance at the memorial ceremony. She described her former colleague as always “a class act with a capital C,” and added that the way she lived her life can be a lesson in humanity for all.
In all more than a dozen current WFSB employees and alumni who once shared the anchor desk with D’Ascenzo shared a few words about her – including Don Lark and Pat Sheehan, who were with her on her first day of work in 1986.
“We all regret that we never had a chance to say goodbye,” Lark said.
House, who spoke previously at D’Ascenzo’s private funeral, was visibly emotional but kept his composure as he gave the eulogy, noting that she had been given many gifts, but not the gift of a long life. The day she died was the worst day of his life, House said, but she believed in signs, and he shared several he has experienced in the past 53 days.
Their names – Dennis and Denise – sounded silly together, House said. But when the two became co-anchors in 1994, “we had chemistry … we became brother and sister.” She had three sisters, all of whom had names beginning with “D” (Donna, Diane, and Debbie), and often joked that if she had a real brother his name would be Dennis.
Through the years they shared the highs and lows of their work and personal lives. The most joyous day of D’Ascenzo’s life was when her daughter, Kathryn, was born on April 13, 1997 – but that was also “the day the Whalers left the world,” House said.
She wanted to one day write a book about her triumphs and losses, House said, called “Good Grief.”
House and D’Ascenzo often spoke among themselves about what they would do if they suddenly came into a sum of money, and she said she would give much of it to causes that were important to her. House announced that D’Ascenzo’s husband and daughter have launched the “Denise D’Ascenzo Foundation,” which can be found online at thedenisefoundation.com. Its stated mission: “to carry on Denise’s passionate efforts to support advances in medicine and health, women’s and children’s issues, and journalism studies,” causes close to her heart.
House said he last saw D’Ascenzo about 36 hours before she died. They parted with a hug as always, but there was so much more he would have said to her had he known it was their last time together.
“I am so grateful for the time we had. … Some people never have a friend they can call sister,” he said.
Gov. Ned Lamont also spoke at the memorial, noting that D’Ascenzo was a trailblazer among journalists. She could have gone anywhere, he said, but loved Connecticut, a place she said was “small enough to be family but big enough to be interesting.”
Lamont also issued a proclamation, announcing Jan. 30, 2020 as “Denise D’Ascenzo Day,” or “Double D Day” as her former co-anchor Gerry Brooks used to call her, he said.
D’Ascenzo’s father was a U.S. Marine, and U.S. Marine Corps League Commandant Adele Hodges presented a “Distinguished Citizens Award.”
D’Ascenzo always loved marching bands, House said. He invited one of the state’s top marching bands, the New Britain High School Golden Hurricanes, and they played the Marine Corps Hymn while several Marines in the audience stood at attention.
In her more than 30-year career, D’Ascenzo was the recipient of nearly a dozen Emmys, a pair of Edward R. Murrow Awards, and numerous other honors. She received an honorary doctorate from Quinnipiac University and was the first woman inducted into the Connecticut Broadcasters Association Hall of Fame.
D’Ascenzo was a magna cum laude graduate of Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications with a degree in broadcast journalism and political science. Chris Velardi, director of digital engagement and communications for Syracuse University, and a longtime friend of D’Ascenzo, said at the memorial service that the school is exploring plans for a permanent tribute.
The full video of the memorial service can be viewed on WFSB here.
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