PHOENIX — A celebration of life is being held for Kent Dana, the face of the evening news in the Valley for three decades, on Wednesday at 10 a.m.
Dana died on April 19 after he suffered complications from a January hip surgery and passed away – surrounded by his family.
The local TV news icon leaves behind his wife Janet of 42 years, their two children, and four children from his first marriage. He had 13 grandchildren.
Mr. Little Arizona
A 1954 Arizona Republic newspaper clipping contains a review of the Phoenix Little Theatre’s rendition of the play, “Happy Time.”
“Young Kent Dana stole the show,” the article states. “After the first awkward moments, he warmed to his role like a veteran and turned in a capital performance. In his hands, the questionings and yearnings of a boy of twelve seem altogether natural. He has a very lovable personality.”
That 12-year-old boy would grow up to be the most recognizable face in Phoenix television news history.
Throughout his career, Dana covered stories on Phoenix airwaves from Oklahoma City’s terror explosion site, the Los Angeles riots, and Barry Goldwater’s living room. But he will likely best be known as a fixture on the anchor desk during an era that local television news dominated ratings.
Kent grew up the third of seven children in a modest house near Central Avenue and Thomas Road, now the site of the historic Willo District.
During the 1940s and ‘50s, Phoenix was still developing an identity. And so was Kent.
As a youth, he sold donuts door-to-door, was a paperboy for The Arizona Republic, and spent summers as a construction worker on homes in the Arcadia neighborhood and Christown Mall.
When he was 5 years old, Kent won the “Mr. Little Arizona Pageant” at the historic Orpheum Theatre.
Around 10 years old he found his niche as an actor at the Phoenix Little Theatre in downtown Phoenix, now called the Phoenix Theatre Company.
Kent played a role in “The Remarkable Mr. PennyPacker” and was awarded “Best Child Actor” for the year.
Growing up in Phoenix
Kent wasn’t particularly athletic and used to tell the story of the year he tried playing little league baseball.
“One game I finally got a hit. I was so ecstatic I promptly ran to third base,” Kent used to say when retelling the story.
As an elementary student, he recalled walking to school with his brothers and sisters through a dairy field where Park Central mall now sits.
“We rode our bikes everywhere, up and down Central Avenue all hours of the day in the summers,” said Kent’s younger brother, Reed.
At 14 years old, Kent took his father’s car for a joy ride and crashed it.
“That was Kent. He was just a little more willing to gamble in life,” Reed said.
As an adult, Kent frequently told the story as a lesson in parenting.
“I waited at home expecting to get in big trouble from my dad,” Kent would say. “But he calmly sat me down and asked me, ‘Did you learn your lesson?’ I said yes. That’s all that needed to be said.”
Later Kent’s father bought him a ’36 Plymouth for $75 dollars. On weekends, Kent and his friends participated in a rite of passage for Phoenix-area teens that lasted decades: cruising Central Avenue and hanging out at the Bob’s Big Boy.
“Kent had so many friends he would bring home. Everyone liked him. For me I was so proud to have my brother in my own high school,” Reed said.
College and a career in broadcasting
After graduating from West High School in 1960, Kent attended ASU for a year and went on a two-year mission to Uruguay for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. After returning home he eventually transferred to Brigham Young University where he studied broadcast journalism and worked at a Provo radio station.
Kent’s Father, Joe Dana, laid the groundwork for Kent’s interest in broadcasting. He was a butane dealer and radio announcer for KOY Radio. He launched a weekly variety show on Channel 5, “Arizona Caravan,” where he delivered news bulletins, sang songs, and hosted musical guests.
“When he started his variety show on Channel 5, we didn’t have any money so our family had to go out and buy a TV so we could watch dad on Wednesday nights,” Kent told an audience in 2018.
After college, Kent worked stints managing gas stations, filling in as a radio announcer, and working for KOOL-TV as a weekend anchor. His big break came in 1979 when he joined 12 News as the male evening anchor. He began an impressive streak of anchoring the evening news from 1979-to 2004. In 2005, he anchored for CBS 5 for another five years before retiring.
Kent’s son, Joe Dana, followed his footsteps in broadcast journalism and has worked for 12 News as an anchor and reporter for 20 years.
“He always felt like local TV news provided a connection to the community that was unlike anything else,” said Joe Dana. “And I think the fact that he was doing this job in the community where he grew up made it that much more meaningful to him.”
Kent also believed local TV news was vital to creating a sense of community.
“To the younger generation of the broadcast community, I want to tell you this. We all know that TV newsrooms are changing,” he said to an audience in 2018. “Despite the changes, some things have never, ever changed. The ability to find a good story and to tell a good story. And that hasn’t changed at all.”
Remembering Kent Dana, the face of Valley news for three decades
It was never about awards
Throughout his career, Dana won several Emmy awards, was inducted into the Arizona Broadcasters Hall of Fame, and received the Rocky Mountain Emmy Governor’s Award in 2018. He was quick to credit the producers and photographers who work alongside him. During a 2018 Emmy Awards speech, he attributed his success to his co-anchors and a longtime producer, Julie Frisoni Shumway.
“She kept my life in order,” Kent said at the time.
Shumway credits Kent for identifying her talent while she was an intern at 12 News and ensuring management hired her after college.
“I consider Kent like a second dad,” Shumway said, whose father died while she was in high school.
“I think a lot of people view Kent as a figure kind of larger than life. But when you knew Kent Dana he was absolutely the opposite of that. He was hilarious, he was warm and would give you the shirt off his back,” Shumway said.
Shumway and Dana worked together for several years creating the two signature projects Kent was most proud of in his career: Wednesday’s Child and Silent Witness.
The Wednesday’s Child series was a partnership with Aid to Adoption of Special Kids (AASK). Kent profiled children in the foster system and the stories drew attention to adoption efforts in general. The stories brought out Kent’s inner child as he would banter and laugh with kids. They also helped viewers see the humanity of foster children.
“Hundreds or even thousands of kids found a permanent home because of Kent Dana,” Shumway said. “AASK would tell us they would get hundreds of phone calls after a story aired and maybe it wouldn’t work for that child, but it would develop a relationship for parents to adopt someone else.”
He loved to laugh
Everyone who knew Kent recalls his loud, cackling laugh that could light up the newsroom.
“He was the best audience in the world. I could make a joke about anything and Kent thought it was hysterical. And I’m not that funny,” said Jineane L’Ecuyer, who worked with Kent from 1986-to 1999.
Kent’s motto was, “Take your work seriously but don’t take yourself too seriously.” That ideal was reflected in his annual Christmas tradition of wearing a bright red plaid jacket on-air. He purchased the jacket from Sears in 1979 and over the years, it quickly went out of style. But wearing the jacket became a tradition that viewers looked forward to every holiday season.
“It got to the point where viewers would call us and ask, ‘When is he going to wear the jacket?’” Kent said.
Putting his family first
Kent’s easy-going, resilient attitude set the tone at home as well.
“When he dealt with the six of us, if we ever disappointed him or did something to stress him out, he was always calm, cool, and collected,” said Susan Allen, one of Kent’s daughters.
Despite his public persona, Kent was his children’s biggest fan. He often slipped away from the newsroom between evening newscasts to catch his children in ball games, dance recitals and school performances, even if he could only stay for a few minutes. Showing up for them and ensuring their well-being was his priority. It’s a belief he says he learned from his father.
“My father once turned down a very lucrative contract to move to Los Angeles because he thought that wasn’t the best environment. We always came first in his life and that made a difference,” he said.
Kent also acknowledged his wife Janet’s sacrifice, being married to someone with such a unique job for three decades.
“It’s not easy being the spouse of an evening anchor and leaving the house at one in the afternoon or so every day and being gone all evening,” Kent said in 2018. “She was in charge of the household and kept the family in line and I’m very, very proud of her.”
So it's fitting that she has the last word.
"Kent remained humble in spite of being put on a pedestal by so many," she said. "His infectious laugh, his ability to put everyone he met at ease, and his sincere interest in others made him special and irresistible."
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