“I still get excited when I see her.”
That was said about Denise D’Ascenzo, as I stood with a small group of people at a 2010 free dental clinic event in Middletown. But it wasn’t said by one of the hundreds of clinic attendees who were standing in line when Denise arrived; it was said by one of Denise’s colleagues, a WFSB-Channel 3 reporter.
The free dental clinic was and still is a huge annual event; this one held at the massive former Aetna campus in Middletown. Each year this clinic draws upwards of 2,000 people over the span of one weekend, some of whom come from literally hundreds of miles away for free dental care. For many years Sullivan & LeShane Public Relations, Inc. coordinated the media relations for the clinic, and Channel 3 was the clinic’s media partner in those days. This meant in addition to PSAs and interviews and traditional coverage, Channel 3 would send on-air talent to volunteer at the clinic, and that’s what was happening that day when two Channel 3 reporters and I watched Denise approach.
As Denise walked up she stopped frequently to shake the hands of the people who were waiting in the long lines to get in for the free dental care, smiling and talking with them as if she’d known them for years. And for many of them, I’m sure they felt they had in fact known her for years.
“I still get excited when I see her.”
That struck me then, that one of her colleagues held Denise as such a figure of awe and respect that she chose to utter these words out loud. I understood it completely, because I think so many looked at her that way. Someone whose very presence excited us, lifted us and elevated any room she was in.
And those words strike even more strongly today, as so many of us are reeling from the shocking news of Denise’s sudden and unexpected passing this past Saturday at the age of 61. Connecticut has lost a media icon to be sure, the very best at what she did during the 33 years she did it here. And we’ve lost so much more.
By now I have seen dozens of spectacular tributes to Denise written and aired by friends, colleagues and admirers, many of whom knew her far better than I did. And those tributes talk about her unbending class and effortless grace she brought onto the air and into people’s homes every night. They talk of her beautiful family and how they always came first to her. They talk about her kindness, her commitment to doing her job the right way, her mentorship of so many of her colleagues and of her delightful sense of humor. I saw most of those traits firsthand in the years I knew her, including the humor. One night a few years ago after a formal gala which Denise emceed, she and my wife—both graduates of Syracuse University’s Newhouse School—serenaded me with their school’s alma mater. It was silly and lovely.
There’s one more part of who Denise was that was truly a gift to everyone in Connecticut, something I saw on display that day in Middletown as she worked the line of patients as they waited their turn.
She listened. Denise D’Ascenzo listened to what people said, and it mattered to her.
You could tell it when you watched her interview people. You could tell it when you spoke to her individually, when she would make it clear there was nothing in that moment more important to her than what you were saying. Despite all of the personal accolades and acclaim she had rightly earned in her career, what people had to say to Denise D’Ascenzo seemed to matter as much to her as what she had to say to them. What a gift.
Listening, after all, is one of the most basic and essential tools in journalism and, really, all forms of communications. Communications at its core doesn’t exist without one person saying something and another person hearing what is said; if that second component isn’t there, it’s all just noise. I recall very early in my career as a newspaper reporter—probably in my first week—getting this advice from a co-worker as I somewhat nervously prepared to go cover to one of my first stories:
“Remember to listen carefully and write down what you hear. The first responsibility of a good reporter is to be a good listener—everything else comes from there.”
Denise D’Ascenzo, a journalist without peer in Connecticut, understood that as well as anyone. And she seemed to understand that it didn’t just apply to her time on the air, but to her time with everyone she encountered. When you watched her on TV you felt she was talking directly to you. And when you talked with her one-on-one she made you feel like the most important person in the world. It’s something special for a journalist to possess that ability. It’s even more of a gift for that person to apply it to every other facet of her life.
The state mourns the loss of a friend today, but we also say thank you to Denise D’Ascenzo. Thank you for sharing so much of yourself with us for the past 33 years, for telling Connecticut’s stories as few ever have. And just as much, Denise, we thank you for listening. To all of us.