Dawson’s career began right in the heart of Cleveland. He spent his first dozen years in the Glenville neighborhood, moved to East Cleveland in the seventh grade and graduated from Shaw High School.
“I was pretty much voted least likely to succeed,” he says laughing. “I got involved with the wrong crowd, was a teenage parent and definitely experimented with alcohol and other drugs.”
Foreseeing an unwanted future of washing dishes in front of him, he decided to attend college, but his grades were not good enough for a four-year school. He enrolled at Cuyahoga Community College and focused on print media. With solid marks in his first year at Tri-C, he transferred to Kent State University to concentrate on journalism and eventually broadcasting.
“I wanted to be a sports reporter,” recalls Dawson. “I couldn’t play sports, but I figured I could cover them pretty well on the air.”
He graduated from Kent State in December 1979 and accepted a spot in a minority training program at WJKW-TV, the station that would later become Fox 8 WJW Cleveland. He shadowed reporters in the field producing weekday stories and filed his own reports on the weekends.
“I learned everything I possibly could from those reporters,” says Dawson. “I couldn’t believe I had just graduated from Kent and was already on the air.”
What followed has become the stuff of local legend: 38 years at the station (including 19 co-anchoring Fox 8 News in the Morning) 11 Emmy Awards and a spot in the Broadcasters Hall of Fame.
On a Friday morning in late September, Dawson perches behind the Fox 8 news desk. He’s clad in a brown suit accented with a bright orange tie that he has coordinated with the outfit of Kristi Capel, his morning co-host since 2012.
“We get messages all the time from fans who are excited to see what our outfits will be each morning,” says Capel.
The news today is especially heartbreaking: A house fire erupted overnight in East Cleveland, claiming the life of an elderly woman. With dozens of studio lights trained on his face, Dawson soberly delivers the story, turning first to the camera in front of him and then to a camera to his right, never missing a beat on the teleprompter.
“A really sad story,” he remarks to Capel on-air, his voice full of sadness.
After a quick commercial break, Dawson follows Capel to a second set, where they sit more casually on a red couch. Following a quick intro, the two wander over to a table covered with candy apples, gummy bears, popcorn balls and cakes that will be available at the Woollybear Festival, the annual celebration created by Fox 8’s legendary weather forecaster Dick Goddard.
A jar filled with woolly bear caterpillars sits on the table before the duo, while a man in a 7-foot woolly bear costume stands behind them. Two festival representatives put woolly bears on the anchors’ hands. Capel holds her fuzzy creature up to her face, and the caterpillar arches toward her, appearing to give her a peck on the cheek.
“Don’t get any ideas,” Dawson quickly quips to the person in the woolly bear costume as the studio breaks out in laughter.
“Wayne has taught me not take things so seriously and to just have fun,” Capel says later.
An ardent champion of the city, Dawson is just as likely to be celebrating Cleveland sports teams as expressing unbridled excitement at local events such as the Woollybear Festival or the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony.
“People see that he’s a snazzy dresser or they experience his humor, but they don’t always get to see how he brings out the humanity of every story he covers,” says Margaret Daykin, the morning show’s planning producer. “He is a blessing.”
• • •
Dawson will be the first to tell you that he never intended to become a pastor. After that, he’ll tell you at least five more times.
His was an unexpected and protracted journey to the pulpit with many stops along the way.
Church was a central part of his childhood, with Sundays spent faithfully at Bethany Baptist Church on East 105th Street. His father split when Dawson was in the 10th grade. At the time, his mother, Annie, was pregnant with his brother William, who would later grow up to be an East Cleveland Municipal Court judge.
“My mother was all about education,” recalls Dawson. “You did your work, you went to church, and she would let you know if you fell out of line.”
He admits that his churchgoing “fell away” in college. But his visibility on Fox 8 also brought with it a multitude of requests to appear at a variety of functions, including many at houses of worship.
“It appealed to me greatly,” says Dawson. “I knew there was something greater than me going on, but I didn’t always know what I was talking about. One day I just decided, Hey, I should probably learn more about all of this church stuff.”
So Dawson turned back to the church of his youth. He’d known Bethany Baptist Church’s senior pastor, the Rev. Stephen Rowan, for decades.
In 2004, Dawson began to explore his faith more actively by participating in worship services and having conversations with those in the congregation.
“Being called doesn’t just mean a call to the ministry,” says Rowan. “It also is a call to preparation for the ministry. That means reading the Word of God and spending time around God’s people, both inside and outside of church.”
A year later, Dawson became a licensed minister, which enabled him to perform marriage ceremonies, preside over funerals and assist with Sunday services. He worked extensively with the sick and elderly on behalf of the church.
“He has such a positive outlook and a high level of energy,” says Rowan. “He clearly has a heart for the people, and you could see that with each minute he spent lifting up people who were facing hardship.”
Dawson enrolled in online classes through Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary in Indiana. He began to see himself more fully in the church and it in him.
“My eyes were suddenly wide open,” remembers Dawson. “I read a story in the Bible about how God made use of a donkey, and I immediately realized that if he could make use of a donkey, he could definitely make use of me.”
After nine years of classes, sermons and serving his community, Dawson was ordained as a reverend Sept. 14, 2014. While the ordination process naturally occurs when the individual is “ready to make that next step of their journey,” says Rowan, it’s also a rigorous process that includes a formal examination in front of seven to nine pastors.
“He did real well,” says Rowan. “He prepared himself accordingly.”
Dawson saw the ordination as the capstone of his ministerial journey: He’d serve on the staff at Bethany, assist Rowan and the congregation and continue his life as a newscaster.
“But God had other plans for me,” says Dawson.
At Grace Tabernacle Baptist Church, less than 7 miles east, the Rev. Jeremiah Pryce had taken ill. After serving in various churches in his homeland of Jamaica, Pryce came to the United States in 1976 and eventually landed in Cleveland three years later.
But with his health deteriorating in 2016, Pryce realized he needed to step away from his duties. He reached out to Rowan to see if Dawson had ever considered pastoring. While he thought it unlikely that Dawson had ever contemplated it, Rowan encouraged Pryce to ask.
“I had always been very happy and encouraged when Wayne wanted to learn more about the Word of God,” says Dawson’s wife, LaVerne. “Since accepting his call, he has certainly been busier, but also more focused and showing greater concern about the needs of people, especially the least among us. It was only a question of whether he would have time to take on more.”
When Pryce passed away in January 2017, Dawson helped the church mourn.
“I have fallen in love with these people,” says Dawson, who assumed the role of interim pastor in July 2017. “This is a Baptist church steeped in tradition. I always want to honor that spirit and the people who worship here. They, in turn, honored me.”
Dawson immersed himself in the community at Grace Tabernacle. He increased his hours in the church and presided over nighttime Bible study, men’s ministry gatherings and fiscal management meetings. He even made time to visit congregants in their homes.
Roughly a year later, Dawson became the church’s full-time pastor. “They knew I wasn’t Rev. Pryce,” says Dawson. “They didn’t want me to be. They just wanted me to be my authentic self.”
On Sept. 16, he was installed as pastor in a ceremony filled with joy and reverence, celebration and solemnity.
“It was like a wedding with lots of invited friends and family,” says LaVerne. “At the center, for everyone to see, was a vow renewal reminding Wayne of why he accepted this call to ministry.”
The packed house included ministers from throughout Cleveland, three church choirs, a full congregation and many members of Dawson’s Fox 8 family. Rowan provided the sermon. His theme: Do it until God is satisfied.
“If you are going to do this work, you need to love the people, lead the people, lift the people,” says Rowan. “You have to learn the people. I wanted to be instructive, encouraging and supportive of Wayne’s calling.”