(Photo: WFSB / Dennis House)
Dennis House faced the cameras in front of a skeleton weekend crew at WFSB Channel 3 in Rocky Hill.
It was a little after 8 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019, and the station was about to break into the broadcast of a nationally televised college football game to put Dennis on the air. The veteran anchor wore a black suit complete with dress pants and shoes. He was only being filmed from the shoulder up and could have worn jeans and sneakers, but he dressed to the nines anyhow because that’s how she would have done it.
“Stand by,” the producer said.
Dennis braced himself. He hoped he could hold back the tears long enough to say what had to be said, what he needed to say.
The producer cued him as the red signal-lamp on the camera went on.
“Good evening everyone, I’m Dennis House and we have some heartbreaking news to bring you tonight. It’s extremely difficult to say, but Denise D’Ascenzo died today. It was a sudden and unexpected … ” — his voice broke as tears welled in his eyes — “ … death and the grief we are all feeling is immeasurable. We are devastated for her husband and daughter, who really were her whole life. On a personal note, she was my sister, my TV wife, my best friend and my co-anchor for 25 years.”
Since 1994 Denise and Dennis shared the evening anchor desk at WFSB, becoming the state’s longest-tenured team and most-watched evening broadcast. Together they interpreted world events for a generation of Connecticut viewers.
“We developed a rapport and relationship on the air where we could fill in each others’ sentences,” Dennis tells me. “When we would do things like election night or breaking news where it was all ad-lib, it really just flowed. We knew when the other person should jump in. We knew when the other person had to say something.”
Their on-screen success was matched only by their friendship off-screen. Dennis was the brother Denise never had. Denise was the sister Dennis never had. They shared a first name, a passion for journalism and a zest for life rooted in kindness and compassion.
“Their success was simple but rare. They really, really, really liked each other,” says Kara Sundlun, a WFSB anchor who is married to Dennis and was also close with Denise. “Dennis is a practical joker, he would love to play jokes on her and Denise had the most infectious laugh, so it was hysterical if it worked.”
When Kara started working at WFSB 20 years ago, it was Denise who helped jump-start her relationship with Dennis. “She came over and she said, ‘I just wanted to ask you, do you have a boyfriend?’ I thought it was a little strange that she was asking me that question,” Kara recalls. “But as I would later learn, she was asking for a friend, as they say.”
One marriage and two children later, Dennis and Kara still credit Denise for helping bring them together. Kara and Denise also became like sisters and Denise was like an aunt to the children.
When Denise died suddenly, at 61, from what her family believes was a heart attack, her husband, Wayne Cooke, immediately knew he had to call her best friend and co-anchor. “The second call I made was to Dennis,” he says.
After getting that call, Dennis drove to Wayne and Denise’s home in Branford. Wayne left with other friends to drive to Cornell where Kathryn Cooke, their daughter, was studying. He wanted to deliver the awful news in person. Meanwhile, Dennis stayed with Denise’s body until funeral home employees arrived, and later went to the funeral home to watch over her. “I wanted to be there with her to protect her so she wasn’t alone while Wayne was away,” Dennis says. “She had told me once she didn’t want anyone gawking at her body.”
After Wayne informed Kathryn, he told Dennis he could start telling people. Dennis called his boss at the station. “I told her what happened and I said, I think I should be the one to announce it. I said, ‘that’s what Denise would have wanted.’ ”
Dennis left the funeral home and went home. He took a quick shower and donned his suit. Then he headed to the station.
Be open. Be brave. Be kind.
That was the advice Denise gave to students at Quinnipiac University when she delivered the commencement address in 2013. It was also her personal mantra.
“She would ask herself when she was trying to make a decision: Am I being open? Am I being brave? Am I being kind?” Kara says. “And that’s something we hope to carry on and teach to other people.”
After her death, her friends and family established The Denise D’Ascenzo Foundation “to carry on Denise’s passionate efforts to support advances in medicine and health, women’s and children’s issues, and journalism studies.” This spring, Dennis, who is president of the foundation, presented its first donation, a $5,000 check, to the Hartford HealthCare COVID-19 Fund.
Wayne says the board of the foundation, which also includes Kara, is made up of people who “loved Denise and want to remember her the way she deserves.”
In the fall of 2019, I was in Litchfield working on a story for this magazine. Denise walked by. We had never met but she was hard to miss. She was impeccably dressed and tall, and even if you didn’t recognize her you could tell she was someone who was regularly on TV. She was in town shooting a segment on conjoined twins Carmen and Lupita Andrade. She had finished shooting, and now she was getting ice cream with the sisters. It struck me as an incredibly nice moment at the time, but the anecdote comes as no surprise to those who knew her.
“That’s Denise,” her husband, Wayne, says. “You could not meet Denise and not love her.”
Born in Washington, D.C., Denise grew up in suburban Rockville, Maryland. One of four sisters, she fell in love with journalism at an early age and started a newspaper at her school at 12. She majored in journalism and political science at Syracuse University and graduated magna cum laude in 1981. After brief stints at stations in Syracuse, St. Louis and Cleveland, she found a permanent home at WFSB in Connecticut in 1986.
During her career she covered local and national tragedies, from the L’Ambiance Plaza collapse in Bridgeport in 1987, an accident that killed 28 construction workers, to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012. Throughout her career, she frequently got up from behind the anchor’s desk to report feature stories that often centered on health.
Denise’s work earned her two Edward R. Murrow Awards, seven Associated Press Awards and 12 Emmy Awards. She shared her most recent Emmy with photojournalist Eric Budney, for the work they had done on the story about Carmen and Lupita. It aired in November 2019, a month before Denise’s death. The Emmy was awarded to Denise posthumously this summer.
“She made you feel the story,” Wayne says about what made his wife such a successful journalist. “She was an enormously talented storyteller.” He adds that she avoided the partisanship that dominates so much of journalism today. “Everybody has their own agenda. Everybody has some point of view, and that was not Denise; she was old-school journalism from the start.”
And then there was her kindness.
“As nice as she was on television — and she was, and I think it came through — she was even nicer in person,” Wayne says. “It was no act. She was the real deal. The No. 1 thing that everyone has said, and everybody did say about Denise before she passed away, was how genuinely kind she was, and she was. She was enormously kind. Our daughter and I, family and friends, we were privileged enough to experience that throughout.”
Those who crossed paths with Denise in the broadcast business agree.
“She was just one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met because of her overall goodness,” says Mika Brzezinski, the co-host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe who first met Denise while working at WFSB as a young reporter in the early 1990s. “People can be great at this or talented at that but it’s really hard to be a fundamentally and consistently good person at life, and she was. Denise was like the sister you always wanted, the mom you always wanted, the aunt you always wanted, the best friend you always wanted. She was knockout gorgeous but never ever carried off an air of being extremely beautiful. I don’t think she thought about it one day of her life.”
Denise’s journalism was rooted in her humanity, Brzezinski adds. “She was extremely aware of the power of the human connection.”
Gayle King, co-host of CBS This Morning, was an anchor at WFSB for most of the 1980s and 1990s, when she got to know Denise. “There wasn’t a story she could not do,” King says. “She excelled, she sailed, she soared in human interest stories, but she could cover anything. She could cover light, she could cover heavy.”
King also knows firsthand what it’s like to share an anchor desk with Dennis. She jokes that Dennis was her “TV husband” before he was Denise’s. “I thought Dennis and I had something special. Dennis is extremely easy to work with. He’s just an absolute doll. He’s the perfect TV partner. It was no surprise to me that he and Denise took it to a whole other level.”
When Dennis first arrived at WFSB in the early ’90s, Denise helped him develop as a journalist. “I learned ways to make a story more compassionate,” he says. “She told me at a very young age that this is someone’s mother, someone’s daughter, someone’s sister. If we’re doing a story about someone who died, we better make sure that we have it right.”
It may be a cliché to say that, as successful as Denise was on-screen, her greatest success was her daughter, Kathryn, born in 1997. But that’s the way it was, say those who know her.
“When I started having babies, she was always there to advise me, because Denise loved, loved, loved being a mom,” Kara says.
Denise enjoyed talking about the science of health off camera as much as on camera.
“Because she knew so much about health, people would come up and ask her questions,” Dennis says. “Nothing embarrassed her and she would be like, ‘Make sure you get your prostate checked. Make sure you get your pap smear. Make sure you get your mammogram.’ She was very frank with people because it was important, and she said, ‘Never be embarrassed about getting a health problem checked out.’ ”
That’s why her sudden death is all the more ironic. She was in great health and practiced what she preached.
“She did have heart disease in her family and she had talked about that,” Dennis says. “So she was good at keeping on top of it, but I guess when it’s your time, it’s your time.”
Kara says, “Denise believed in holistic care of yourself. She would often say, ‘You deserve it. Be kind to yourself.’ She really believed that kindness was as important as going to those doctor’s appointments and taking your vitamins and she did all that. As sad as this is for her to die so young, it’s one of those things where we’re not going to understand why. I personally believe she has a special purpose. She has such a special soul that for reasons we don’t understand, maybe she had to leave us earlier than seems fair.”
Her death sent shock waves through Connecticut. The governor as well as the state’s two U.S. senators immediately offered public condolences. As did print and broadcast journalists in the state and beyond. “Not since Gov. Ella Grasso’s death in 1981 has there been such a broad sense of loss for one of our own who lived her life in public,” columnist Kevin Rennie wrote in the Hartford Courant.
Outside of her family, no one took the loss of Denise harder than Dennis.
“I think this is the hardest thing that’s ever, ever happened to Dennis. He is so optimistic and lighthearted but nobody prepares you for the sudden death of a best friend,” Kara says. Going on the air that night and in the days afterward was incredibly difficult for him, she says, but he felt it was important for him to be there to carry on Denise’s legacy.
For the first few days, he read the news next to an empty chair, Denise’s absence filling the studio. Then they took the chair away and Dennis continued on, alone.
Denise’s death at the end of 2019 was the harbinger of a difficult 2020 for the station. Revenue was down this year, as, like other industries, the news world has been ravaged by the coronavirus. On Aug. 29, Dennis worked his last day at WFSB. A few weeks later a large round of layoffs was announced at the station.
Brzezinski says the station’s decision to let Dennis go was a shock to her. “I don’t get it,” she says. “He’s one of the biggest talents in the state, probably the biggest talent in the state.”
She adds that the obvious choice to replace Denise and join Dennis as the anchor of WFSB would have been Kara. “I would think you would want to build a station with a family feel to it. That’s what Denise’s legacy is — goodness, kindness. They have such gold there in Dennis and Kara.”
WFSB declined to discuss the decision. “We do not comment on personnel decisions,” Greg Thomas, WFSB-TV creative services director, said by email. But he forwarded a statement from WFSB-TV Vice President and General Manager Dana Neves: “Denise was one of a kind and a huge part of our WFSB family. She was arguably the best-known face of the station and just as remarkable behind the scenes.”
Dennis doesn’t want to talk about his departure from the station either. He believes things happen for a reason and says he has many exciting prospects.
A year after Denise’s death, neither longtime anchor is on the station they both loved, and Dennis finds it hard to believe his friend and colleague is gone. He still holds back tears at times when talking about her and is reminded constantly of her and her presence.
The night of Aug. 31, after his last day at the station, he dreamed he was driving on what looked like the Merritt Parkway with his kids and Kara when they came across a herd of baby elephants, he wrote on his blog. They got out of the car and touched the beautiful, young animals. “We looked for their mother and there she was, at a distance in the woods, giving a look that all was okay. Her face looked like Denise.”
Dennis doesn’t know what the dream meant. Wayne told him he believes it was Denise visiting him. Dennis isn’t sure but he’d like to believe it was a sign to cap off his last day at the job Denise and he both did so well for so long together. “Maybe it’s that she was telling me that everything was going to be OK,” he says.
One more broadcast from an old friend.