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Obituary of Sharon McGhee: St. Louis radio personality and acclaimed playwright

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 18, 2012 - Sharon McGhee, a former St. Louis and Chicago radio personality and an acclaimed playwright who sometimes performed roles from her drama about AIDS and African-American women, The PocketBook Monologues, died of ovarian cancer Tuesday (September 11, 2012). She was 55.

Ms. McGhee was diagnosed with cancer in 2009. She died at the home of her brother, Ivan McGhee, in Columbia, Mo., where she had been staying for several months.

Services for Ms. McGhee will be Saturday, Sept. 22, at the William C. Harris funeral chapel in St. Louis.

During the early to mid-‘90s, Ms. McGhee shared the microphone with longtime St. Louis talk-radio host Hank Thompson. The two did Good Morning St. Louis on KXOK-AM and, subsequently, on KATZ-AM.

“Sharon always worked hard,” Thompson said. “Nobody ever took more pride in their on-air presentation than she did.”

The big story

Thompson invited Ms. McGhee, who had no radio experience, to join him at KATZ “on a whim.”

“I liked her voice,” Thompson said.

As it turned out, so did a lot of other people. For several years, they anchored one of the most popular talk shows among African Americans in the St. Louis area.

Educators, clergy members, community activists, politicians and community leaders of all stripes faced their questions.

Sometimes, Ms. McGhee took part in covering the really big story, like the 1995 O.J. Simpson trial. The day after the Oct. 3, verdict, Ms. McGhee declared herself in a St. Louis Post-Dispatch story, “totally exhausted,” having single handedly fielded more than 300 – not always civil – calls, twice the usual number.

Three weeks later, she was rested enough to cover the Million Man March in Washington, D.C.

“It was her idea,” Thompson said. “She said ‘I think this is going to be big.’”

They broadcast the march live from then-U.S. Rep. William L. Clay’s office.

Ms. McGhee’s St. Louis work earned her a “Best Talk Show” award from the Greater St. Louis Association of Black Journalists for an interview with a death row inmate and an Achievement in Radio (AIR) award for a series on Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African-American from Chicago who was murdered in 1955 in Money, Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman.

Major market

She would pick up another AIRs award during her time at WVON-AM in Chicago; that one for a five-part series on breast cancer.

When KATZ returned to an urban music format in 1997, Ms. McGhee headed for the Windy City, the nation’s third largest radio market.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported that she drove to Chicago and stopped by WVON, the oldest black-oriented radio station in Chicago.

Determined to meet with WVON’s president, Melody Spann-Cooper, she staked out a place in the station’s lobby – for four days.

“She sat in the lobby until I would see her,” Spann-Cooper told the Sun-Times. “I almost hired her on the spot when I sat down and listened to her tape.”

Ms. McGhee went on to become a WVON talk show host and news director, establishing the station’s first book club, Between the Covers, along the way.

After reporting statistics from the Centers for Disease Control showing that Black women had the highest new cases of HIV/AIDS, Ms. McGhee blogged that her “purpose in life changed.”

On stage

Ms. McGhee decided to try a creative approach to reducing HIV/AIDS in black women and The PocketBook Monologues was born. “Pocketbook” was the euphemism used by many older African-American women for ‘vagina.’

She deliberately and liberally sprinkled humor throughout a very serious stage play “that gives women of color a chance to tell their stories.”

The play debuted to a sold-out audience at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre in 2009, and was later performed in Chicago at DuSable Museum and Malcolm X College. The six-woman cast included Kim Coles and Ella Joyce. It has since been mounted in in New York, Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Louis.

Former United States Surgeon General Dr. Joycelyn Elders, said of the production: “Sharon McGhee is stepping up and embracing a concept that I have been advocating throughout my career: the truth!”

Ms. McGhee was particularly proud that The PocketBook Monologues was performed on a reality TV show.

She blogged: “I am so excited The Pocketbook Monologues will be featured on The Real Housewives of Atlanta. . . What many don’t know is that I was battling ovarian cancer during this time. I didn’t even tell the talented cast that I had to rush back to Chicago for my 5th chemotherapy treatment!”

A real pistol

Sharon Kay McGhee was born June 19, 1957, in St. Louis, the only daughter among Madge Baskina McGhee and J.W. McGhee’s four children. She graduated from University City High School in 1975, and enrolled in St. Louis Community College at Forest Park. She later joined the U.S. Army and served in Germany, inspecting missiles.

Her theatric success did not surprise her brother.

“Sharon was a pistol of a child,” Ivan laughingly recalled. “She always looked forward to getting up in public.

“She lived her life out like a play,” he added. “Later in life, she understood what gifts she had and she started using them.”

Ms. McGhee was preceded in death by her mother.

In addition to her brother Ivan (Dawn) McGhee of Columbia, Mo., she is survived by her father, of St. Louis, and two other brothers, Don (Dorothy) McGhee of Shreveport, La., and Joseph McGhee of Columbia.

Visitation will be 11 a.m. to noon on Saturday, Sept. 22, at the William C. Harris Funeral Directors and Cremation Service chapel, 9825 Halls Ferry Road, St. Louis, Mo. 63136.

Her service immediately follows visitation and will feature a 21-gun salute. She will be buried at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery on Monday, September 24.

Memorials to any organization fighting ovarian cancer would be appreciated.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.