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Mika: Remembering news legend, mentor and friend Denise D'Ascenzo

The Connecticut, WFSB-TV anchor passed away unexpectedly in her sleep on Saturday. She was 61.
News anchor Denise D'Ascenzo died suddenly and unexpectedly Saturday at her home in Connecticut at the age of 61.
News anchor Denise D'Ascenzo died suddenly and unexpectedly Saturday at her home in Connecticut at the age of 61.Brian Ambrose

When "Morning Joe" co-host Mika Brzezinski was a cub reporter, she learned the ropes from her friend and mentor Denise D’Ascenzo, the longtime anchor of Channel 3 Eyewitness News in Hartford, Connecticut. Over the course of a decade at WFSB-TV, D’Ascenzo taught Brzezinski more than the art of storytelling, voicing scripts and on-air presence.

As Brzezinski ascended in the field and became a mom of two daughters, D’Ascenzo shared her own life-lessons on work, family and advocating for yourself. Brezezinski shared the devastating news of her mentor’s sudden passing with the Know Your Value community on Tuesday, and joined her former WFSB-TV colleague Dennis House and his wife and WFSB-TV anchor Kara Sundlun to talk about D’Ascenzo’s legacy.

“Denise was really the north star of channel 3,” Brzezinski said, remembering D’Ascenzo’s kind words, beautiful voice and passion for telling stories that showed the resilience of the human spirit. D’Ascenzo died in her sleep Saturday of a suspected heart attack. She was 61, and spent more than 30 years of her life behind the anchor chair at Channel 3.

“There are countless stories around here from the interns, to someone working in the mailroom, to an elected official that remembers when Denise pulled them aside and they felt like they were the only person in the room,” Sundlun remembered. “And she would, with her calm, amazing, reassuring voice, give them words of wisdom. And they always revolved around kindness.” Sundlun said that D’Ascenzo was able to establish that same one-on-one connection with her audience and brought that genuine warmth to her work.

“She wanted people to know that kindness was not weakness,” Sundlun said. “And sometimes I think as women, you feel like if you're being too nice, that's one way, or then you’ve got to carry a big torch, and that's too far the other way. Denise embodied strength but she also embodied kindness and she let us know that power doesn't always mean force.”

“Kindness really was a superpower and she could use that in many ways either to help people or even to advance your career,” Sundlund said. D’Ascenzo used that superpower to rise to the top of her field during an era when men dominated the news. She began her career at WFSB-TV in 1986 and co-anchored alongside Dennis House for 25 years.

“She was my sister,” House remembered. “And if you go back to when she started in this business in the 1980s, there weren't as many women on television as there are today and there certainly were very few in management. She even, when she first started here, had to defer to the male anchor. That's just the way it was back in the day, the man spoke first… that changed over the years while she was here.”

He remembered attending the retirement luncheon for legendary broadcaster Barbara Walters with D’Ascenzo, who wanted to meet the celebrated ‘trailblazer.”

“I used to say to Denise, that you're a bit of a trailblazer,” House said, remembering how D’Ascenzo pulled Brzezinski and other young reporters aside to share advice and nurture their talents.

Over the course of her career, D’Ascenzo received numerous honors, including two Edward R. Murrow Awards, 11 Emmy Awards, seven Associated Press Awards, and a national Gabriel Award. In 2013, she was elected by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences to the prestigious Silver Circle, and two years later, became the first woman inducted into the Connecticut Broadcasters Association Hall of Fame.

“She was our foundation, our leader and I don't even think she necessarily always thought of herself that way,” Sundlund said. “She was not someone who wanted a lot of attention. She didn't want all the attention on her, but as soon as she was given an award… she would hold it up and then she would talk about what it meant on a larger scale… that there's a greater purpose and we act in accordance to that.”

Beyond her work on-camera, D’Ascenzo worked with a number of charities including the Muscular Dystrophy Association, Mary’s Place, and the Channel 3 Kids Camp. She is survived by her husband Wayne and their daughter Kathryn, a senior at Cornell University.