As someone who grew up in Connecticut and watched Channel 3 news religiously (at least before the internet), Denise D’Ascenzo, the local news anchor who passed away suddenly on Saturday, was one of a kind. She was professional, authoritative, knowledgeable, and humble.
I loved watching her both on the news and during the yearly Muscular Dystrophy telethons that she and weatherman Hilton Kaderli used to host every Labor Day.
I didn’t know her other than meeting briefly at a local event or two, but like many viewers, she became one of those people who could you rely upon in times of need. It’s hard for me to imagine local Hartford news without her steadying presence.
It is a testament to her amazing career that her connection to one of the most famous employment discrimination cases in the state is now merely a footnote.
Back in 1999, former Channel 3 news anchor Janet Peckinpaugh prevailed in an $8.3 million jury verdict contending that her replacement as the prime-time news anchor for the station violated a variety of employment laws. A federal court later reduced the verdict and the parties reached a confidential settlement later that year that vacated the verdict too.
Her replacement? A younger Denise D’Ascenzo.
The station’s manager testified at the time that market research convinced management that D’Ascenzo would team better with Al Terzi over Peckinpaugh.
D’Ascenzo’s longevity in the Hartford market — exclusively with Channel 3 it should be noted — showed how prescient that research would be.
At the time, the case had it all. A sexual harassment allegation years earlier against another popular television anchor Al Terzi. Testimony from Connecticut Supreme Court Justice Richard Palmer who was romantically linked to Peckinpaugh years earlier. Gayle King — yes, Oprah’s best friend and CBS This Morning anchor — was subpoenaed to appear too.
And the jury’s verdict remains one of the highest ever awarded for an employment law case in this state.
Years later, a Fox 61 news anchor would also bring suit alleging discrimination and it was the Peckinpaugh case that was brought up as the precursor to the suit.
20 years after the Peckinpaugh verdict, what people will thankfully remember about D’Ascenzo is a wonderful career rather than this employment law footnote. This moving report by her long-time fellow anchor Dennis House will stay with me for a long time.
I often tell people involved with lawsuits that while their case seems important, it will be relegated to history in time. Denise D’Ascenzo’s staying power and the fact that few remember the Peckinpaugh lawsuit today are another example about how lawsuits aren’t what truly defines us.
Farewell Denise D’Ascenzo and my sincere condolences to all my news friends who knew her and worked with her.
(Note: I was an associate at the firm that represented Channel 3 during Peckinpaugh’s lawsuit though I was not involved in the case at the time. All references to the case are based off public reports at time.)