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A Global BC icon: Deb Hope’s ‘heartbreaking journey’ with Alzheimer’s disease

Click to play video 'Deb Hope’s family share her heartbreaking journey with Alzheimer’s disease' Deb Hope’s family share her heartbreaking journey with Alzheimer’s disease
Beloved BCTV/Global BC reporter and anchor Deb Hope has been locked in a devastating battle with early onset dementia. For the first time, her family is opening up about her diagnosis and speaking with with Squire Barnes about what the last few years have been like.

For two generations, Deb Hope was one of the most iconic faces in B.C.

She read the news at noon, five, and, eventually, BCTV’s top-rated flagship 6 p.m. broadcast, usually alongside Tony Parsons.

She also had one of the most famous laughs anywhere.

When weatherman Wayne Cox or sports anchor Squire Barnes would make funny, she would lose it, with a wonderfully loud guffaw.

And the laugh was real. Deb was one of the most genuine people you would ever meet.

Click to play video 'Tony Parsons on Deb Hope’s legacy' Tony Parsons on Deb Hope’s legacy
Tony Parsons on Deb Hope’s legacy

Warm and always interested in everyone and everything, she may have been one of the best-known people in the province.

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But there was never any ego. Self-belief, yes, but no TV princess here.

Deb retired six years ago when she was just 59 years old. But even before then, there were signs of the Alzheimer’s disease that sent her into a terrible decline.

Today, she is a shadow of herself, living in a nursing home and not recognizing even her husband, Roger, daughters Katherine and Roxanne, or stepdaughter Leah. She also now has a one-year-old granddaughter, Veronica.

Deb has lost a significant amount of weight. And rarely laughs.

Deb and Roger with their daughter Roxanne at her graduation. Photo submitted.
Deb and Roger with their daughter Roxanne at her graduation. Photo submitted.

When she was still reading the news, she had begun to stumble over words or names.

She would ask her producers the same questions about a story or the subject she was to interview. She was always a meticulous journalist, always wanted to get it right. But now she was showing some signs of confusion.

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Deb had never missed a beat. But suddenly, not everything seemed to be in sync.

Click to play video 'From the archive: 10 questions with Deb Hope' From the archive: 10 questions with Deb Hope
From the archive: 10 questions with Deb Hope

Ian Haysom, then Global BC’s news director, had noticed some changes too, and some staff in the control room had said they were worried that Deb seemed to be losing the plot.

“I was friends with Deb and Roger, as well as colleagues,” Haysom said. “One day, I called her in and told her I was a little worried she seemed to be making mistakes on air. I wanted to know if there was a problem, anything I could do to help.

“It was very early days and I think we were in denial. I also didn’t want to insult her. She was still young and Alzheimer’s never really entered my mind. I wondered if she needed eyeglasses to see the teleprompter properly.

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“Deb came in a couple of days later and said, ‘Hey boss. Good call. I need new specs. It’ll all be fine now.’ Deb was in denial too. I mean, Deb was in her 50s going on 29. She had one of the sharpest minds anywhere.”

For her BCTV/Global family, Deb was more than what you saw on the screen. Much more. She was in many ways the life of the station. You often heard her before you saw her.

The newsroom lit up every time that laugh of hers floated through the room.

Producer Phairis Sajan recalled airing a clip from I Love Lucy.

“It was that hilarious scene with Lucy and Ethel working in a chocolate factory when they can’t keep up with the conveyor belt and start shoving chocolates in their mouths, hats, and down their shirts. Well, Deb started laughing while the story was on and she could not stop,” Sajan said.

“All of us in the control room caught the giggles — not from watching the clip but from watching Deb lose it. By the end of the story, she was in tears, crying so hard and her head was on the desk, so we went straight to break! She loved to laugh.”

Former news director Steve Wyatt said Deb was a tough and determined journalist and never failed to bring balance, fairness and truth to every story she told.

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“Deb was the best guardian of everything the Global newsroom was built on. An unwavering commitment to good pictures (and) well-edited as the foundation for impactful storytelling,” Wyatt said.

“And in all the years we worked together, Deb was singular in making sure she never became the ‘story’ at the expense of the content and every one of her colleagues who worked so hard alongside her.”

Click to play video 'From the archive: A look back at Deb Hope’s broadcasting career' From the archive: A look back at Deb Hope’s broadcasting career
From the archive: A look back at Deb Hope’s broadcasting career

And she could deliver great moments of joy.

Wyatt said he will always remember the time she followed up with a family who had decided to get their cochlear implants for their baby girl, who was born deaf, that were new and controversial at the time.

Deb and her camera operator captured the second that baby heard her mother’s voice for the first time.

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“Pure magic. Pure Deb,” Wyatt said.

Deb also helped and mentored many of the younger reporters, writers and producers in the BCTV and Global studios. She knew how to tell a story and she showed them how to get their message across effectively and compellingly.

She was also, in many ways, the conscience of the station, with a moral compass that frequently challenged what stories got covered and how.

“She was never shy about marching up to me, or another manager, and ask what the hell we were thinking,” said Haysom. “If stories didn’t meet the Deb test, they usually weren’t worth telling.”

While she is known for her decades as an anchor, she was a highly successful, award-winning reporter for much of the 1980s.

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Deb grew up in Trail, B.C., and went to the University of British Columbia where she began to immerse herself in journalism at the campus radio station.

Her early plans to become a lawyer were abandoned because she thought journalism would be more fun.

She started out with The Canadian Press in Ottawa and one of her first assignments was to do a puff piece on Prince Charles, who was in town at Rideau Hall.

Now, it must be said, Deb was “knock-’em-dead” gorgeous and in the middle of the interview, she realized that the prince was hitting on her.

When she went out the front door to leave, he followed her outside and accompanied her down the drive. She said that it wasn’t until his handlers came to her rescue that she was able to escape his advances.

In later years, she would twice have dinner with his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, while working for BCTV. One of those dinners was on the Royal Yacht Britannia. Later, she would win an award for her coverage of the Queen’s visit.

While working at the Canadian Press in Vancouver, she started hounding BCTV’s news director at the time, Cameron Bell, for a job. After a year of hounding, he said that she had strong writing skills, and decided to give her a shot. The rest is history.

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Shortly after starting at BCTV, she did one of the first-ever live reports for the 6 p.m. news — from Calgary. Her colleagues were in awe.

She was also the first western journalist (after the revolution) invited to tour the Yangtze River Gorge in China before it was flooded for hydroelectric power.

When Wayne Gretzky was traded from Edmonton to Los Angeles, Deb was sent to L.A. to interview the Great One after his first game. She said he didn’t want to do the interview, but she got her way in the end.

Deb was at Game 7 of the 1994 Stanley Cup Finals in New York with the Vancouver Canucks.

She ended up watching with Canucks owner Emily Griffiths. When the team lost that cliffhanger of a game, Deb started to cry, and Emily turned to her and said, “Don’t worry, dear, there will be other years.“

There hasn’t been one yet.

There were so many stories from crime to politics, hard-nosed breaking stories to features. She had the ability to cover anything and everything.

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One outstanding story that is well remembered was a feature she did on “Mr. Whistle,” as she called him.

Bon Swanson was the man who created many of B.C.’s most famous whistle sounds.

Working on a small organ in his basement, he created the sounds used on the BC Ferries boats, CP Rail, and CN Rail — even the whistle used on the Royal Hudson when it was running.

The story was written in Deb’s elegant style and drew rave reviews.

Deb and her daughter Katherine. Photo submitted.
Deb and her daughter Katherine. Photo submitted.

Her first anchor job was on the Noon News. Soon after that, she made the cover of TV Guide for the first time.

Her husband, Roger, a cameraman with BCTV/Global News, walked into a drugstore shortly after she began anchoring and saw her on the cover beside the cash register.

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He hadn’t known she’d be featured there.

“I thought, OK, one for me, one for her, one for her mother, and one for my mother. So, four TV Guides,” Roger said.

“Now, the girl at the cash register sees me throw down four magazines and says, ‘So, do you watch a lot of TV or what?’ I was totally embarrassed so I said, ‘No, she’s my wife. Then she said, ‘Yeah, you wish!’“

Click to play video '#AskDeb: One-on-one with Deb Hope' #AskDeb: One-on-one with Deb Hope
#AskDeb: One-on-one with Deb Hope

Former Global News assignment editor Clive Jackson and his wife travelled with Deb and Roger on safari to various parts of Africa on three occasions and sadly witnessed her gradual decline.

Africa was in many ways the place she was happiest, and her sheer delight at watching and photographing the animals brought happiness to everyone around her.

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Shortly after Deb retired, an executive from Mining BC sent her the five stories from a mining series that she had done 20 years earlier. He also sent a big thank-you. He said those stories had helped save the mining industry in B.C., and they wanted her to know it.

Her tireless work for charities will also be forever remembered.

Deb served as the face of Variety Club for BCTV for more than 20 years, and worked for the Courage To Come Back group and the Down Syndrome Resource Foundation.

And that’s Deb. Full of joy. Full of fun. Full of generosity. And love.

Deb Hope was born in Trail, B.C., and is a well-known face across the province. Photo submitted.
Deb Hope was born in Trail, B.C., and is a well-known face across the province. Photo submitted. Submitted

Her decline has been rapid over the past few years. She had begun to stumble over names at work, and then she didn’t remember names or faces. First those of colleagues, then friends, then her family.

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She lived at home for many years with Roger and her daughters supporting her, before she went into a care home.

“It’s been a heartbreaking journey,” Roger said. “I mean, she’s still Deb. Still wonderful, loving, gorgeous. But she’s not the real Deb and she’s not with us anymore. And that’s breaking all our hearts.”

And it’s time her own story was told. She may have problems remembering much these days, but many in this province will never forget her.

Donations in Deb’s honour can be made to the Alzheimer Society of B.C.

For information and support, call the First Link Dementia Helpline at 1-800-936-6033.

Watch the News Hour Thursday, Oct. 8, for a story on Deb and her career at Global, as told by Squire Barnes.

Clive Jackson and Ian Haysom were, respectively, managing editor and news director of BCTV and later Global News in British Columbia.