Longtime Baton Rouge television personality Donna Britt, a constant and beloved presence on WAFB-TV for nearly four decades, died Thursday. She was 62.
Britt's husband, The Advocate’s Capitol News Bureau Chief Mark Ballard, said she died at home surrounded by her family.
Britt was an on-air personality at WAFB-TV from 1981 until retiring in 2018, 11 months into a battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis that stole her ability to deliver the news.
A neurological disease, ALS affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord, eventually causing the loss of muscle control, paralysis and, eventually, death.
Like Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, every election day, my wife and I made a point of walking to our precinct. Ardoin gets misty-ey…
Britt kept viewers informed about the disease with the same clarity with which she delivered the rest of the day’s news.
“The best anchorwoman I ever worked with was Donna Britt,” said George Sells, her co-anchor from 1988 to 2012. “I’m talking about aggressiveness, ability to dig out a story on the telephone when nobody wanted to give it to us. … She could write.”
Britt, who grew up in Biloxi, Mississippi, majored in band directing, specializing in oboe, piano and violin, at the University of Southern Mississippi and LSU, and she composed music in her spare time. She became a disc jockey for WYNK-AM, and her voice intrigued WAFB’s management enough to call and ask her to do a camera test.
They liked what they saw, and Britt worked as a reporter and anchorwoman with a variety of co-anchors. Her partnership with Sells coincided with WAFB rising to the top of local viewer ratings at the 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. newscasts.
Despite the esteem for her, Britt was the opposite of a prima donna, her colleagues say.
“She’s someone who had no ego to speak of for a television person, so it made it really easy to get along with her,” said Andre Moreau, who also shared the anchor desk with Britt until leaving WAFB in 2016. “She was a nice person. … It was so effortless to work with her. She was a good friend. Just kind of a rare breed, not typical of what you would run across, especially in an anchorwoman.”
Longtime Baton Rouge anchorwoman Donna Britt died Thursday morning at the age of 62 after a long battle with ALS.
Britt was also very involved in the community. Britt composed music for the Louisiana Public Broadcasting instructional series “Gumbo Island” and “Enviro-Tacklebox,” for which she also wrote the scripts, said LPB President Beth Courtney.
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Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome said in a statement she was deeply saddened at Britt's passing.
"To know Donna was to love her, and thousands of our community members undoubtedly did," Broome said. "Not only was her talent as an anchor a part of the fabric of our community, but her heart for the people of Baton Rouge was evident in her endless service and the generosity of her daily actions. She poured her life into this community, and we are all richer for it.
"On behalf of the Baton Rouge community, my thoughts and prayers go out to her husband Mark, her children, and all of those who cherished her during her lifetime. Donna will live on in the hearts of many for years to come," the mayor said.
Among the charities to which Britt lent her time and talent were Susan G. Komen Baton Rouge, the Salvation Army, Volunteers in Public Schools and Grandparents Raising Grandchildren. Britt served on the Salvation Army executive board for 17 years, would ring bells in front of stores soliciting donations from passers-by, and organized and helped emcee an annual talent show at Perkins Rowe, said Capt. Brett Meredith, commander of the Baton Rouge Salvation Army from 2014-18.
“She was one of those … unique individuals who didn’t just show up but showed up and gave everything she had everywhere she went,” Meredith said. “It was never a matter of checking the box for her. She just wanted to make sure that everyone felt valued in what they did, who they were, and she wanted to make sure she could add value to their lives and make them feel special. That’s amazing.”
Longtime television personality Donna Britt has announced her retirement from WAFB, Wednesday, June 6, 2018, at their studio in Baton Rouge, La.
Britt served as emcee for the Volunteers in Public Schools Apple Award events when her on-air responsibilities allowed, said Judy Bethly, VIPS executive director, and handcrafted decorations when she couldn’t. Britt blew up balloons, served jambalaya to guests and helped clean up after the ceremony.
“She is definitely not a news diva,” Bethly said. “Donna never notified VIPS when she visited a school to read or helped in the library. She never wanted a big deal made out of her service. She would just quietly show up to lend a hand.”
That personal touch extended to her neighborhood, said Carol Anne Blitzer, who lives across the street. Neighbors could expect handmade gifts around Christmas, and the family decorated for Halloween and stayed out in the yard handing out candy to the many who came into the Garden District for the occasion.
“We’d get thousands of kids from other neighborhoods, and she always made the kids, no matter where they were from, feel so welcome at her house,” Blitzer said.
It was only three months before that Halloween 2017 that Britt, having survived breast cancer in 2008, received her ALS diagnosis.
She remained on the 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. newscasts for three months before dropping the later slot. Britt retired on June 13, 2018, when ALS began interfering with her voice.
“There are few people who could have handled this type of a deal as well as she has,” said Moreau. “It takes a real special person to be able to handle that anyway, but (to) do it completely in the eyes of the public, not have self-pity … that speaks to her authenticity and grace and faith.”
Britt is survived by her husband, son Louis Ballard and daughter and son-in-law Anne and Alec Yonika.