An award-winning anchor and reporter for WGN-TV, Dina Bair leads a fulfilling triple life as a cancer crusader and mom of four.
As a little girl growing up in suburban Philadelphia, Dina Bair liked to pretend to be a journalist and narrate accident scenes for imagined TV cameras while riding in her mother’s car.
Her role model was broadcast journalist Diane Sawyer, who inspired her to pursue a journalism degree at Northwestern University and forge an award-winning career at WGN-TV in Chicago.
Bair is an anchor for WGN Midday News and the medical reporter for WGN Evening News, as well as a philanthropist who last year spearheaded the launch of a nonprofit dedicated to comprehensive cancer treatment.
The 55-year-old started at WGN as a general assignment reporter in 1992 and was promoted to anchor a few years later.
“When you are an anchor, you are reporting from the desk,” she says. “It’s absolutely integral to be able to have that time on the street, interviewing people, understanding the stories and understanding the city, and then bring that perspective to the desk.”
Bair credits her mentor, former TV anchor-turned-radio host Joan Esposito, with launching her career. Bair interned for Esposito at ABC7 News, and when Esposito moved to NBC5 News, Bair got the role of field producer there.
Bair’s first on-air job was as a reporter and anchor for WHOI-TV in Peoria, where she covered President Bill Clinton’s election campaign, a valuable experience that allowed her to compare her work to that of seasoned network reporters, she says.
As an anchor, she has relished the chance to interview a multitude of interesting people, including book authors, nonprofit executives, mental health experts and many more. The cooking segment is especially fun, she adds. “Every weekday, I get a cooking lesson, and I take the best recipes home,” she says. “My family has been a beneficiary of that!”
Landing the role of medical reporter at WGN “was a dream come true,” Bair says. The job is about staying abreast of the latest medical research, digesting the information and presenting it to her viewers in an easy-to-comprehend format, she explains.
“For example, you can just say ‘plaque-filled artery.’ You don’t have to say ‘atherosclerosis,’” she says. “You want to explain things like why nutrition is important and why brain health is so critical, and that you can’t wait until it’s too late.”
A survivor of ovarian cancer in college, Bair experienced firsthand the power of advocating for yourself as a patient after doctors initially dismissed her symptoms. As a medical reporter, it’s gratifying to help empower people to do the same, she says.
Covering stories of sick children can be especially heartbreaking, Bair says. For example, she will never forget a mother whose toddler was diagnosed with an incurable brain tumor, only to find out that her other child, a baby, suffered from the same disease.
WGN News Director Dominick Stasi described Bair as “a hard-working and passionate journalist.”
“When COVID took hold in early 2020, Dina stepped up immediately to help create and produce a brand new, daily 30-minute show on the latest news and updates about the pandemic,” Stasi says. “It’s a good example of the kind of dedication Dina has at WGN.”
That meant arriving at work at 8 a.m. and leaving at around 11 p.m. after anchoring at midday and producing the evening medical show, Bair recalls. “All I ate was Dot’s pretzels and pizza,” she says, laughing.
As part of her job, Bair has flown in an F-16 fighter jet with 9 Gs of force — “Thankfully, I didn’t pass out” — and witnessed live surgery — “Looking into someone’s open chest and seeing the heartbeat is astounding” — but the highlight of her career was covering the election of Pope Francis in 2013 in Rome, she says.
“There was a torrential downpour for days. We stood out in the rain (at St. Peter’s Square) and made a tent with poles and plastic that we bought at a hardware store,” she recalls. “It was a miserable couple of days. We waited and waited.”
Then, suddenly, she and her team started hearing the word “white” in multiple languages. White smoke had started billowing out of the Sistine Chapel chimney, indicating a new pope had been chosen.
“People started pouring into the square,” she says. “And then Pope Francis comes out on the balcony, and the rain stops. It was an incredible moment. I just started crying. … As as a Catholic, it was the most amazing place to be.”
Bair “is always up for an adventure,” says WGN photojournalist/producer Mike D’Angelo, who has worked with her for nearly 20 years and has traveled all over the world with her, including to Rome.
“As a journalist, she never takes no for an answer and has the distinct ability to balance the right amount of toughness with compassion,” D’Angelo says. “This is what has made her such an integral part of WGN’s success.”
Over the years, Bair has earned a multitude of awards, including 14 Chicago/Midwest Emmy awards; a Peter Lisagor award from the Chicago Headline Club, the largest chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists; and multiple Associated Press awards for anchoring and reporting.
Of Italian descent on her mother’s side, Bair has strong ties to the Chicago area’s Italian-American community. She is a former Columbus Day Queen, and has received the Dante Award from the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans and the Impresa Award from the JCCIA Women’s Division.
In a video posted on the JCCIA’s Facebook page, Bair speaks fondly of her grandparents. Teenage sweethearts who emigrated from Sicily, they opened an Italian deli outside of Philadelphia, their three daughters working alongside them.
“They faced lots of prejudice and thought by working hard, they would be accepted,” Bair says in the video. “They lived a great life and passed on so much love to all of us who are so appreciative. When I visit Italy, I think of them and see their faces in so many caring people there.”
Bair has written and produced documentaries on cancer, experimental medicine, nursing shortages and more. She also endeavors to spark concrete action in the medical field.
She is a founding board member of the nonprofit “One in a Million: Dancing with Chicago Celebrities,” which has raised more than $4 million for breast cancer research and mammograms for early detection for women in need.
Last year, she and her family started the volunteer-based nonprofit Day 1 Survivors in honor of her father, John Short, who died of lung cancer. The nonprofit’s mission is to ensure that cancer patients get support not only from oncologists, but also from a multidisciplinary team that includes nutrition, heart and mental health specialists, so patients can stay healthy and tolerate treatment longer.
“We’ve been in this war on cancer since the 1970s. Are we any closer to finding a cure? Will the drug companies let us?” Bair asks. “People need to live longer lives as they fight this.”
Bair likes to stay physically active. She enjoys cycling and competitive ballroom dancing, and has competed in numerous triathlons, even though she only learned to swim as an adult. Her son was taking swim lessons at the YMCA, and she decided to do the same, she explains. “It took me 45 minutes to put my face in the water. Then, I signed up for a triathlon. I thought, ‘If I don’t have something hanging over me, a goal, I won’t practice.’”
Despite her successful career and multiple interests, Bair says, nothing tops her role as a mother to her four children: son Max, 26; twin sons Benjamin and Cameron, 24; and daughter Gianna, 18.
Bair is married to her second husband, John Maher, and also has four stepchildren.
“My favorite career has been being a mother. I really love my kids, but I also really like my kids,” she says. “You do the best you can, but then they become their own person, and that is beautiful to see.”
Her daughter’s name has special significance, she adds. It is an homage to her Italian family, the Giannottas, as well as Gianna Beretta Molla, an Italian pediatrician who refused to terminate her fourth pregnancy after developing a uterine fibroid. She died a week after her child’s birth in 1962 and was canonized a saint in 2004.
Bair says that journalism has changed a lot in the last three decades, and witnessing that has been frustrating.
“When I got into [this] business, you had to have two sources to run with a story, but now it’s about who gets there first. But first doesn’t always mean correct,” she says.
Still, thanks to the 11.5 hours of news broadcast daily by WGN, she continues to do longform journalism that relies on measured reporting. “I have the luxury to do that, even in these times of changing journalism,” she says.
“If you watch cable news, it’s all about left and right. In local news, the goal is to stay in the middle,” she adds. “Our core viewers are people here in Chicagoland. Not the left or the right, but the people, and you want them to watch us and, as best as we can, try to be in the middle. That gives me hope and keeps me going.”
The above appears in the July 2023 issue of the print version of Fra Noi. Our gorgeous, monthly magazine contains a veritable feast of news and views, profiles and features, entertainment and culture. To subscribe, click here.