Jerry Springer in 2011 (David Shankbone, CC BY 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons)

Anyone who has watched television the past 30 years probably associates the name Jerry Springer with the chair-tossing, epithet-hurling, TV-trashy “Jerry Springer” show.

Even Springer himself, the former Cincinnati-mayor-turned talk-show ringmaster, who passed away last month at age 79, admitted his program was several notches beneath lowbrow.

But to Brenda Hadden, Jerry Springer “was nothing like his show.”

To Hadden, Springer was a friend and even an inspiration because of his passionate commitment to helping special needs children in Evanston.

That commitment saw Springer and his wife Micki donate more than $230,000 in 2007 to buy equipment for Park School, a District 65 therapeutic facility for children with various physical and cognitive challenges.

Park School.

The Springers’ daughter Katie was born with multiple disabilities.

And it was through her college friendship with Katie Springer that Hadden, who later became a special education teacher at Park, met Jerry.

“He treated everyone with kindness,” Hadden told Evanston Now.

“I always waited to hear some kind of trash,” similar to what aired on the Chicago-based Springer show between 1991 and 2018, “but it never came out.”

Katie Springer (now Katie Springer Yenkin), is legally blind, hearing-impaired, and also has some learning disabilities. But she was still able to graduate from Barat College, in Lake Forest.

That’s where Hadden, who was a senior, became Katie’s “big sis,” a school practice of pairing upperclass students with freshmen, to ease the transition to college.

Hadden said that at the time, she had seen the “Jerry Springer” show maybe once or twice, and “didn’t know anything” about Springer himself.

However, Hadden and Katie bonded, to the point that the older student became almost a “big sister” and not just a school “big sis.”

Springer was a frequent visitor to the college.

“One of the things I loved about Jerry,” Hadden recalled, “was his relationship with Katie. He’d come every single week and take her out to dinner. Even if he was out of the country, he’d fly in.”

Hadden, an ETHS grad, would go out to dinner with the Springers, and often saw autograph seekers come up to Jerry while he was dining.

“Right now is my time with my daughter,” Hadden reacalled Springer saying to the autograph hounds. “But I’ll try to find you on the way out.”

Following Hadden’s college graduation in 1997, she got her job at Park School. Good friend Katie then became a volunteer there, for about 20 years, Hadden said. (Katie had not been a Park student).

Springer, a Northwestern University law school graduate, maintained a residence in Evanston for some of the years when his show was being taped in Chicago.

“Jerry would come to pick up Katie” at the school, and would go into the classrooms to meet the kids, Hadden said.

“I think he just fell in love with Park because Katie loved it.”

He even brought his Chicago-based TV crew to Park, to shoot a promotional video for the school. No charge.

Springer’s concerns for special needs kids, however, extended beyond Park School.

Noah’s Playground.

When two-year-old Noah Cutter, a child with severe neurological issues, passed away in 2005, his parents Julie and David raised the money for an Evanston park, Noah’s Playground for Everyone, which has gym equipment for both able-bodied and physically challenged children.

Springer helped there as well, serving as an auctioneer for a fund-raising benefit for the playground, which brought in around $40,000.

“I would say my family got to see a side of Jerry Springer that most did not,” Julie Cutter told Evanston Now.

“He talked about life’s trials and tribulations,” Cutter said, “and deeply touched the guests.”

Springer also gave thousands of dollars to social service agencies in Cincinnati, including Tender Mercies, which helps those who are simultaneously experiencing homelessness and mental illness.

The child of refugees from Nazi Germany who fled to escape the Holocaust, Springer was active in Jewish causes as well.

Certainly the “Jerry Springer” show became a lightning rod for cultural criticism, with Springer catching a share of the blame for the dumbing down of society.

When Chicago’s WMAQ-TV hired Springer as a commentator in 1997, anchor Carol Marin quit in protest. Marin won that fight. Springer’s tenure at WMAQ was short, although the Springer show itself would run for two more decades.

Springer made lots of other TV appearances, including “Dancing With the Stars” in 2006.

Hadden said that a big reason was that Springer “wanted to learn the waltz for Katie’s wedding.”

Hadden was at that wedding (Katie and her parents were at hers too), and saw Jerry waltz with his daughter.

Hadden said seeing Springer on “DWTS” may have given those who only knew “Jeh-Ree, Jeh-Ree” from the talk show “the first glimpse of his more real side.”

At the end of his program, Springer always said “Take care of yourself, and each other.” (Yes, he said that long before NBC anchor Lester Holt began using it).

So you could say that Jerry Springer is still helping to take care of children right here in Evanston.

At Park School, where Brenda Hadden still teaches, there’s a room where special needs youngsters learn a variety of life skills with interactive equipment. Thanks to a certain TV host’s love for his daughter and his donations to Park, that room was christened “Katie’s Corner.”

(Author’s note: Before moving to Evanston, I was a TV news reporter in Cincinnati. I covered Jerry Springer when he was on City Council, and then worked with him as a colleague for a decade when he was a Cincinnati TV anchor and commentator. He was a friend.)

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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  1. Thanks for that article. NPR played an old episode of This American Life this weekend about Springer. Far more to the guy than just being a shock talk show host.

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