Chicago still holds charm for Deborah Norville

It’s been more than 25 years, but Deborah Norville still has the proclamation from Mayor Harold Washington framed on a wall at home. For seven days in November 1986, it was Deborah Norville Week in Chicago — the culmination of a semi-serious sendoff I orchestrated in my Sun-Times column to salute the ascending star as she left to anchor NBC News at Sunrise in New York.

“Deborah Norville has always been one of the top two or three reasons to turn on the TV set,” the late mayor told me at the time, with the hearty approval of his press secretary, Alton Miller. “Her new assignment is going to completely rearrange my mornings.”

Such was the affection Chicagoans shared for the 28-year-old blonde-haired, blue-eyed beauty from Dalton, Georgia, who spent only five years as a local news anchor and reporter at NBC 5 here, but made a lasting impression and some lifelong friends.

“I grew up in Georgia, but I became a grown-up in Chicago,” Norville reflected after a round of radio interviews and an appearance on ABC 7’s Windy City Live the other day. “I became a confident woman and a relentless journalist in this town. I became the person who had the capacity to do a lot of different things because of the grounding and growth that Chicago provided. I really blossomed in this environment, and I will always be grateful.”

Now in her 17th year as host of the syndicated magazine show Inside Edition, Norville, 53, has a lot going for her: A 24-year marriage and three children, six books to her credit (including the best-seller Thank You Power: Making the Science of Gratitude Work For You), and The Deborah Norville Collection, her signature line of yarn for knitting and crocheting.

But it didn’t come without a few bumps in the road. The most humbling was her ill-fated 15-month stint as co-host of Today, when NBC bosses thoroughly bungled her transition from news anchor to Jane Pauley’s replacement. Unfairly portrayed as a scheming villainess, Norville was dumped from the show while on maternity leave with her first child in 1991.

To her credit, Norville showed up last month when Today reunited all of its living hosts past and present to mark the show’s 60th anniversary. “Even though my chapter on the Today show was an abbreviated one — and, I would say, through no fault of my own — it was still a chapter in the show’s history, and I was very grateful that they invited me,” she said. “I thought it was a very classy thing on the part of [executive producer] Jim Bell. I loved it.” (Remarkably, more than 20 years later, Norville was still the youngest woman on the set. Take that, Ann, Meredith, Katie, Jane and Barbara!)

Between television jobs, Norville discovered a talent for radio when she hosted a nightly talk show that aired for about a year on more than 200 ABC Radio stations, including WLS-AM (890) here. “It was the only job I’ve ever had in my career that I could legitimately say I didn’t get because I’m blue-eyed and blonde,” she said. “I love radio. It so resonated with me that I have always kept that possibility contractually open to me. That’s how much I expect that at some point I will do radio again.”

Inside Edition, with its tried-and-true formula of peripheral news, celebrity fluff and human-interest “feel good” stories, has been Norville’s showcase since she replaced Bill O’Reilly as host in 1995. But she’s still young enough and ambitious enough to look ahead: “I always want to be ready for an opportunity that may come my way. My goal is to continue growing as a broadcaster,” she said.

“You know, I’ll leave this business at some point. I’ll leave on my terms. I got shown out the door with the bottom of somebody’s foot. When I go out the next time, I would like someone to hold the door open and say: ‘Thank you so much. Have a nice life.’ I love what I do — and I hope that that day doesn’t come for a very long time.”

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)