When Wendy Chioji died on October 7th, my Facebook feed was literally taken over by people who knew her and wanted to share their pictures and stories about her. Wendy was the news anchor and reporter at WESH, the Hearst NBC affiliate in Orlando, and that’s where our paths crossed. Family, friends, co-workers, other cancer survivors, people who climbed mountains with her and others who were inspired by her strength, her spirit and her composure, share their thoughts here about how Wendy made their lives brighter.
When Wendy Chioji died on Oct. 7, my Facebook feed was literally taken over by people who knew her and wanted to share their pictures and stories about her. Family, friends, co-workers, other cancer survivors, people who climbed mountains with her and others who were inspired by her strength, her spirit and her composure, took to Facebook to share their thoughts.
Wendy was 57. She was a news anchor and reporter at WESH, the Hearst NBC affiliate in Orlando, Fla., from 1988 until 2008, according to an article about her on WESH.com. I was the creative services director at WESH and that’s where my path crossed with Wendy’s.
I was so moved by the volume of their messages and the intensity of their messages that I offered to share their stories with the local TV community here on Market Share.
Wendy left WESH in 2008 to pursue her passion for physical fitness, skiing, biking, mountain climbing, and doing what she could to raise awareness and funds for cancer survivors. Those activities took her all over the world, and I was following her journeys on Facebook.
NOTE: I originally put this last interview with Wendy at the end of this post. Wendy is interviewed by Marc Middleton, former sports director and acnchor at WESH and founder of Growing Bolder. However, after watching it, I was afraid that many readers might not make it to the end of this column and would miss what Wendy had to say. Which would be a shame. So here it is:
A few years ago, my wife and I were sitting outside a small café in the little town of Wayne, a suburb of Philadelphia, having dinner. I heard a familiar voice and looked up and there was Wendy, in town for some cancer-related event. From the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro to a little street in Wayne, Pa., that was Wendy. It was the last time I would see her.
Here’s a story about Wendy deciding to go public with her cancer from the general manager of WESH at the time, Bill Bauman. Bauman is now retired and living in Orlando.
The day Wendy came to my office and closed the door will stay with me forever. She often came up to talk about news coverage, and what was, and wasn’t important. I thought this was going to be another content conversation, but instead, she sat down, looked me right in the eye and said, “I have cancer, and I want to break the story.” She had just received the diagnosis and she wanted to talk about how to handle it publicly.
She said: “It’s going to come out. I’m going to miss some days because of treatment, my hair is probably going to fall out. People will know something’s not right. I want to be the one to tell our audience that I have breast cancer.”
We talked about what to say, how to deal with it on the air. We even talked about what section of the newscast she should do this. It was her idea to bring our medical reporter, Dr. Todd Husty onto the set with her to discuss breast cancer, how to detect it, current treatments, and long term prognosis. There were no tears, but we hugged, she went downstairs to the newsroom and was a complete pro that night.
Next to my mother, Wendy is the bravest person I’ve ever met.
John Wilson, news director at KYW-TV, Philadelphia: “You only meet someone like Wendy Chioji once in a lifetime — and that’s if you’re lucky. In fact, I still remember the day I met Wendy more than 20 years ago. I was interviewing for the 11 p.m. producer job at WESH in Orlando. It was a pretty active newsroom with a lot of people, but I remember the moment she came in. She wasn’t the biggest person there, but you knew right away she was in the room because you could feel an actual rush of energy.
“Wendy and I would end up sitting next to each other in the newsroom for the next six years. You get to know someone pretty well when you’re right beside them five days a week. She was a great journalist, focused most on the people whose stories were being told, then the viewers, then the staff, but never herself. My only complaint is that she was a little too vocal watching Orlando Magic games while at work — an on-going source of amusement for us.
“She was a truly great person. We shared highs and lows sitting next to each other every night, but mostly we shared a lot of laughs. A lot! Wendy adopted my wife’s and my daughters like they were part of her family. She talked me into training for a marathon, which got me hooked on running to this day. She was always a great role model for a healthy, active and engaging lifestyle.
“I’ll always remember the night she and I were at the vending machine and she told me the shocking news that she had cancer. I don’t think she had any idea then that her story would become so inspirational to so many. The last time I saw Wendy was in December 2018. Wendy stayed at our house and we had her trademark meal, pie for breakfast. She left my college-aged daughter a beautiful thank you note for letting her stay in her room. We all knew the situation Wendy was facing, but I didn’t say a final goodbye — knowing that Wendy was far from ready to be on that path. Looking back, the days at WESH with Wendy were magical. I think you’ll find thousands of people who feel the same way.”
Shane McEachern: “It was around 1995, and I just moved to Florida. I was trying to break into the market as a full time photographer, as I had some part time experience as a shooter. Wendy found out, and came into my edit bay and asked me if I’d like to shoot her sweeps pieces for that ratings period. I was like, ‘Uuhhhh, will they let me?’ and she said, ‘So that’s a yes, right?!’ We laughed and I agreed, and the next thing I knew we were working on her stories that week. It was a series on Central Florida animal rescue facilities. We had a blast! Within a few months it led to me getting out of the edit bay and onto the street. Wendy opened the door, and helped me get my first photojournalist job. ‘Always say yes,’ that was her motto.”
Valerie Boey, reporter for Fox35 in Orlando: “Even before meeting her, I felt her presence in the community. For example: The first time I went out at a crime scene in Orlando, a gunman was on the loose, it was so tense. Officers had guns drawn and everything. Kinda scary. But then I turned around and a bunch of people hiding behind the corner of a Pine Hills house were smiling and waving at me saying ‘Hi Wendy!’ Suddenly, that tense feeling turned into a funny one. I greeted them and had to tell them ‘My name’s not Wendy. It’s Valerie. But I hope to meet her one day because she does a great job!’ Situations like that continue to occur. I consider it a compliment. I am grateful that Wendy brought so much joy to viewers.
“When I finally got to meet her in 2012 when I emceed the Asian American Chamber of Commerce of Central Florida’s Golden Dragon awards, I was both nervous and excited. I told her how the community embraced her. She was inspiring, outgoing and truly a role model. Her memory will live on.”
Ken Shuba, TV news videojournalist @ WESH: “My little history story of when we first met, was back when she first started in this Orlando market, late ’80s. I was out covering a helicopter crash on newly formed I-Drive, that originated at the Helicopter Tours place, and this smart, aggressive, reporter with a lot of ‘spunk’ (aka Mary Tyler Moore Show) kept asking questions that none of the other reporters thought of, and I quickly introduced myself to her, and said ‘you’re kinda spunky in your approach and it’s refreshing!’… she stepped back a step … said ‘Thank you for that compliment, I guess?’ … we laughed … and I finished by welcoming her to Orlando.
“When I finally ended up working for WESH myself, as soon as we became colleagues under one roof … she saw me and said … ‘I guess all my “spunk” has paid off, huh, Kenny?’ … and so we laughed and laughed.
“She was a great lady, and truly missed by all that she had crossed the roads with, in life. My condolences to her family.
“She fought hard. R.I.P. Wendy.”
Jamie Pschorr, producer at WPVI in Philadelphia: “I first met Wendy as a baby producer walking into the WESH newsroom in Orlando. It was my second TV gig after a short starting stint in Fayetteville, Ark. It was big time for me. Wendy was big time, but I quickly learned she didn’t take herself too seriously. I’m thankful for that lesson, and for her model of professionalism, storytelling and community service.
“But what I’m most grateful for is her friendship. Wendy has said that friendship is an investment, and I’m sure glad she invested in me. I can’t quite remember if it was running, food or our mutual love of Sister Hazel’s music that solidified our bond outside of work.
“I’ll always smile remembering our trail runs at Wekiwa Springs State Park. It wasn’t a solid run if one of us didn’t end up tripping and covered in dirt. 98.99% of the time it was Wendy. She also, ‘graciously,’ usually let me lead, so I was the one clearing (getting caught up in) all those early morning cobwebs. And then there was those mid-run, stop in your tracks, spontaneous dance parties in the woods. Those were fun. Of course, our “triathlons” ended with a dip in the springs and pancakes at First Watch.
“It was early on in our friendship that we discovered we were both fans of Sister Hazel. Wendy invited me to a concert at House of Blues in Disney Springs. She knew lead singer Ken Block and the band. We went backstage. I thought that, and she, were the coolest.
“And that’s the thing about Wendy. She has a bazillion friends. But, whether you knew her since childhood or just met in recent years, Wendy always made you feel like you were the most special.”
David Bulitt: “Wendy and I called each other our ‘oldest friends’ having known each other since elementary school, when we spent countless days riding our Schwinn banana seat bikes around the Stonegate neighborhood in Silver Spring, Md. Mine was yellow, hers was purple.
This is a photo of the two of us at dinner earlier this year.
Although we went to HS together and stayed in touch over the years, I will always think of her on her purple bike.”
Christine Rector: “We were high school cheerleaders together and very good friends. We lived in Orlando at the same time and I was in her wedding. I am also a cancer survivor and Wendy supported me through many treatments. Most recently, she was my only friend that visited me at the Moffitt Cancer Center hospital in Tampa when I was there for a month getting a bone marrow transplant. I am out of town now but have pictures at home that I can share with you. I won’t be able to get them to you until this weekend I hope that’s not too late. Thanks for doing this.
“I’m attaching one picture I have from Sept. 21, 2019, when I went with two other friends to visit her at her brother’s house in Maryland the weekend of our 40th high school reunion. She wasn’t feeling well enough to go, so of course we went to see her. I will never forget that hug and seeing her that day. (I am the one in the black top next to Wendy, above.)
Christine Botthof, former assignment editor and field producer at WESH: “I met Wendy when I was a rookie journalist in the late ’90s and I was scared to death of her. She was a fierce presence in a giant newsroom, to be exact, an absolute powerhouse.
“Three months into my time at WESH I was assigned to be Wendy’s field producer in Cuba! Our bond was instant, not because I was any less scared of her, but because she encouraged me like no one I’d ever known. We were an unstoppable team in Cuba and because of Wendy, the minute I got back to Orlando, job offers to bigger stations for better gigs and more money started pouring in. I took none of them because I knew she and I would continue to do great things. And we did. She poured her heart into you if she believed in you. She loved this quote: ‘She was a little all over the place, but if she loved you, she loved you big, you were never left to wonder.’ ”
Michael Nanus, Growing Bolder production manager: “There are just so many ways one can take the direction of a story when it comes to Wendy Chioji. Most of these stories however, seem to end in laughter. I would have to say the same holds true for me with regards to a Wendy story, but this story is absolutely endearing and it was something I’ll never forget.
“Those who knew Wendy knew of her love of music … lots of music … a very wide range of music, in fact. We were shooting some anchor intros and outros with her a few years ago for Growing Bolder at our former home, the WESH-TV studios, and during a break I noticed that she started bobbing her head around. There was no music. She was just bouncing her head to a beat she had latched onto. It wasn’t random either. There was definitely something there and I thought if I watched her long enough, I could guess what it was. I was trying to figure it out, hoping she might mouth a few of the lyrics to help me along.
“She and I eventually locked in a gaze and she could tell that I was trying to guess the tune in her head. Through a half-cocked smile, she did mouth a few of those lyrics. And in a minute, I knew what the song was. I just thought that coming from her, it was everything I needed to hear to know that no matter what trouble any of us face in life, seeing her bring these famous lyrics to a life of its own, with no musical accompaniment, well I just knew at that moment that every little thing was gonna be alright.
“Since then, every single time I’ve heard that song, I always thought of her. And now, I know when I hear it again, I always will. Wendy Chioji was a source of tremendous strength, and though she may be gone for now, you don’t have to look too far to find her in your heart and know that she’ll ALWAYS be right there and that “every little thing gonna be alright.”
“Here’s to you my friend … my superhero.”
Rise up this mornin’
Smiled with the risin’ sun
Three little birds
Pitch by my doorstep
Singin’ sweet songs
Of melodies pure and true
Saying’, (this is my message to you)
Singing’ don’t worry ’bout a thing
‘Cause every little thing gonna be alright
Singing’ don’t worry (don’t worry) ’bout a thing
‘Cause every little thing gonna be alright