Once a month for the past six months, KDKA-TV consumer reporter Yvonne Zanos had a pajama party with friends, an escape from the ovarian cancer diagnosis she received in fall 2007.
The night of Jan. 1, Ms. Zanos and three KDKA colleagues -- reporter Mary Robb Jackson, "Pittsburgh Today Live" producer Jill Neely and videographer Lori Sperling -- gathered to tell stories, play Wii bowling, watch a movie and laugh.
"The movie always had to be a comedy because the whole purpose was just to have a good time. That's who Yvonne was. She loved to have fun," Ms. Jackson said. "Laughter is a healing thing. I think we needed it as much as Yvonne."
Ms. Zanos, whose joyful personality burst through TV screens during her popular product test reports, died yesterday at the Family Hospice and Palliative Care Center for Compassionate Care in Mt. Lebanon from complications related to ovarian cancer. She turned 60 on Wednesday.
In early December, while receiving the Award in Excellence in Media from Achieva, a nonprofit she volunteered with that provides support for individuals with disabilities and their families, Ms. Zanos told those in attendance that doctors had advised her she had two to six months to live. Last week she said she had already beaten their expectations.
Former WPXI anchor Newlin Archinal, who emceed the Achieva event, said Ms. Zanos used her prognosis to tell a story from her life and to give the message that if you feel the calling to make a change in the world, act on it.
Friends and colleagues described Ms. Zanos as a complex woman who could have her head in the clouds one minute and then snap to attention when work needed to be done. Ms. Jackson said her daughter and Ms. Zanos shared an interest in quantum physics. Beth Dolinar, a former reporter/anchor at WTAE, remembered Ms. Zanos as guileless.
"She did not have that wall that adults have, that space between her and the people around her," Ms. Dolinar said. "You would go into a party and she would be the one over talking to the waitress or the janitor. There was no ego that elevated her above anybody else."
Last week, Ms. Zanos said she was looking forward to returning to work at KDKA on Monday. "I used to say to her, I knew she was seriously ill but we're going to treat her like she's not," said KDKA General Manager Chris Pike. "And we said if she decides she can't do it or wants to take time off or needs to alter her schedule, we would do whatever she needed."
What she needed was to continue her routine. Ms. Zanos appeared live on KDKA the week before Christmas and in taped reports that aired last week.
Born Yvonne Marquer, Ms. Zanos graduated from Bethel Park High School and Bethany College in West Virginia. She was a model -- including first runner-up in 1971's Miss Pennsylvania USA pageant -- and began reporting for KDKA-TV in the 1970s on "Evening Magazine." That was followed by a brief stint working on a similar program in Kansas City, Mo., before Ms. Zanos joined WTAE as a general assignment reporter in 1984. She began working on the consumer beat in 1987.
In 1994, she briefly flirted with leaving Pittsburgh for a job in Dallas but changed her mind, saying at the time that her roots in Pittsburgh were too deep to make the leap to another market.
Ms. Zanos re-joined KDKA in 1997, sitting out on-air appearances for a year due to a noncompete clause in her contract at WTAE. She also wrote a consumer column for the Post-Gazette from 2000 to 2007.
In 2005, Ms. Zanos began her popular "Does It Really Do That?" consumer product test segments that rated everything from a can opener to a robotic vacuum. Ms. Zanos told the story of the product and its testers' experiences along the way, often getting moms, dads, children and sometimes even pets involved in her reports.
"She really did take to heart that local news is supposed to be a public service to the people watching it," said Joe Rovitto, who hired Ms. Zanos while he was news director at WTAE. "She never got caught up in the show business and glamour. She was glamorous but she never got caught up in it. To her it was all about doing the good work."
Ms. Jackson said Ms. Zanos maintained that attitude throughout her battle with cancer.
"She never gave in to it, not even until the end," she said. "Some people don't really believe that people who work in television really care about what's going on. But she would come in after being in the hospital and go through every single call. I sat right next to her and I'd hear her talking to these people and she was never anything but patient and kind and ready to do whatever she could to make their lives easier."
Ms. Zanos' reports routinely improved the station's average ratings and out-rated competitors, and Mr. Pike said Ms. Zanos appreciated winning.
"While we'll miss her smile and her laugh probably most of all, there was a lot of substance behind that laugh and smile," he said. "She cared about what she did and was a very competitive person."
That extended to her role as the station's face for the annual KD Turkey Fund, which benefits the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.
"Television gives you the opportunity to bring useful community causes to a broader audience," Mr. Pike noted. "Some people care about it ,but are more superficially involved. Yvonne was much more invested and much more passionate about it. She was involved in food bank distribution days and things that went beyond just being the spokesperson."
Recognizing that it might be her last opportunity, Ms. Zanos was particularly concerned about exceeding past years' totals during the 2009 holiday season, even in a down economy, Mr. Pike said. And she did, helping to raise $545,000 last year -- and $3.4 million in the past seven years -- according to food bank director of communications Iris Valanti.
On Monday, Ms. Zanos' family invited friends and colleagues to her Upper St. Clair home to spend time with her and reminisce. Those in attendance included Ms. Jackson, Ms. Dolinar, Mr. Rovitto, WTAE anchor/reporter Sally Wiggin, talk show host Lynn Cullen, former WTAE/KDKA producer Stu Samuels, and former "Evening Magazine" host Liz Miles, who flew in from her home in Arizona on Monday expressly to see Ms. Zanos.
"There was such an open, happy warmth in that house when the door opened," Ms. Dolinar said.
Friends and family flipped through a box of photos and Ms. Dolinar said Ms. Zanos' husband, James, told the story of seeing Ms. Zanos modeling in a magazine and deciding he would marry her.
"She was in very good spirits and she knew she was surrounded by all these people she worked with as recently as three weeks ago. How could you not be buoyed a little by the rally?"
In addition to her husband, Ms. Zanos is survived by two daughters, Adona Kane and Nicole Conaway, both of Mt. Lebanon; her mother, Edith Shadler of Canonsburg; two sisters, Nancy Mele of Eighty Four and Carol Rumberger of Cambridge, Wis.; and five grandchildren.
Visitors will be received 2 to 4 and 6 to 9 p.m. tomorrow and from 5 to 9 p.m. Monday at Beinhauer Mortuary, Peters. The funeral will be held at 10 a.m. Tuesday at Christ United Methodist Church, 44 Highland Road, Bethel Park.
The family requests donations be made to the KD Turkey Fund at the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, 1 N. Linden St., Duquesne, PA 15110 or online at pittsburghfoodbank.org.
Cards for the family can be sent to KDKA-TV, One Gateway Center, Pittsburgh 15222.
Contact TV editor Rob Owen at email@example.com or 412-263-1112. First Published January 9, 2010 5:15 AM