Bill Bonds, iconic Channel 7 news anchor, dies

Susan Whitall
The Detroit News

Bill Bonds, whose piercing gaze and authoritative baritone ruled the Detroit airwaves for decades, died Saturday, according to his longtime station, WXYZ-TV.

The veteran 7 Action News anchor died Saturday after suffering a heart attack in the afternoon, the station said. He was 82.

In a statement released on Saturday night, Bonds' family said he was "so much more than the face on TV, the talented anchorman."

"He was a wonderful husband and father who cared deeply about his children and his family. We will miss him greatly," the statement said. "Bill had a great passion for the news business. More than anything, he loved bringing the news to the people of Detroit. He believed we were a better community, if we were a well-informed community. We thank everyone for their thoughts and prayers during this difficult time."

Matt Friedman, a former WDIV-TV Channel 4 news producer, said of Bonds: "Nobody could ever look into a camera and command an audience like him. Detroit really became the competitive TV market it is today after he left Channel 7."

Diana Lewis, Bonds' longtime co-anchor, phoned in to the station to say that he helped form her career. "We know that Billy hasn't been well," she said, adding that his death was still a shock. "But I am at peace knowing that (his wife) Karen was there with him...and that he did not suffer. He was a master news anchor...He was intelligent, challenging, he was exciting."

Former Channel 7 reporter Cheryl Chodun, who knew Bonds for more than 30 years, said she was both "heartbroken and grateful.

"I am so grateful that I was able to work with and know Bill and learn from him," Chodun said. "There is no question that Bill made us better at telling stories. Bill changed the face of TV News in Detroit, and he'd be the first to tell you, in his own commanding style, that the face he loved to see on Channel 7 News was his own. He had a great sense of humor. Bill will be greatly missed, but remembered always."

Governor Rick Snyder issued this statement about Bonds:

"For decades, Detroiters tuned it to the evening news to watch WXYZ-TV anchor Bill Bonds. Always colorful and never dull, Bonds had a passion for Detroit and Michigan – and the big story. People watched not just to hear the news, but to see how Bonds would deliver it. The governor extends condolences to his family and friends and all who can fondly remember a newsman with a personality as big as his heart."

Bonds, who admitted to a drinking problem, was infamous for mixing news and opinion, and antics like challenging former Detroit mayor Coleman A. Young to a fight. He also endured the death of a daughter, and a divorce.

He worked for the ABC affiliate from 1963 to 1968, then returned in 1971. The station terminated Bonds' multi-year contract in 1995 following a drunken driving arrest.

Born in 1932, the Detroit native was inducted in 2010 into the Michigan Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame. Last year, the Michigan chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences presented Bonds with an award in recognition of his long WXYZ career.

Bonds in 2010 with former WXYZ colleagues anchor Diana Lewis, former meteorologist Jerry Hodak, and Robbie Timmons at the Michigan Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame.

He never studied broadcasting during his stint at the University of Detroit, but Bonds was well-read, and it was his literate intensity, leavened by humor, that made his reporting so compelling. He showed a coolness in the stressful days of the Detroit riots in July 1967 that served the station well and helped make his reputation.

Unlike previous Detroit anchors such as TV2's Jac Le Goff, Bonds almost always telegraphed his feelings about a story, sometimes with a slight intonation or facial expression, but often with very direct, forceful words.

He famously engaged in a war of words with Young that always seemed ready to spill over into the physical realm, such as the time he challenged the mayor to a fistfight.

But while it was a combative relationship, the Detroit loyalty ran deep. In 1990, after Young felt ambushed by an ABC network news program, Bonds and WXYZ aired a rebuttal to the show. "Being rescued by Billy Bonds is an experience quite new to me," Young quipped. "I never know whether he's the light at the end of the tunnel, or the headlight of the locomotive."

WXYZ radio personality Lee Alan was co-hosting the popular Channel 7 dance show "Club 1270" when Bonds was hired by the station to do news.

"He loved being on television, he loved the limelight," Alan recalled. "Like a lot of the great personalities, Bill was able to operate within the rules and yet still reach out and grab you by the throat. He was brilliant. He could read three or four pages, throw them away and have them memorized."

Bill Bonds with Al Upchurch, the 11 p.m. producer for WXYZ-TV Action News, in 1990.

After working his way through the University of Detroit, Bonds broke into broadcast news at an outstate Michigan radio station before moving to Detroit's WKNR-AM in the early 1960's. At that time even AM pop radio stations had news departments, and Bonds helped make Keener 13's a good one with his dramatic delivery.

Once, while reporting for WKNR, Bonds was in the Anchor Bay area covering a tornado in 1964 and couldn't find a working telephone to call in his report. So he climbed a telephone pole, to make the call the hard way.

As Bonds described it to The Detroit News in 2009: "An intrepid, young, incredibly attractive, humble guy, remembering his days in combat in Korea fighting off Chinese troops, climbed up a telephone pole and used his plugs to plug into the wire. I dialed the station using a phone I borrowed from some construction guys, and I went on the air live."

Word of Bonds' spunk got back to WXYZ station manager John Pival, who had rejected Bonds seven times.

"John Pival heard about it and said, 'Hire that crazy son of a gun,'" remembered Bonds. "It was pretty good work, I was proud of it."

For all his swagger and onscreen bravado, Bonds was also known in the community for quiet kindnesses and charity.

After Detroit News sports columnist Shelby Strother died in 1991, only 44, of cancer, there was an auction of Pistons memorabilia to raise money for his two young sons.

"I think Bill must have bought up most of the items," recalled Kim Strother, Shelby's widow. "Then he gave it all right back to us. After that, he would call and check up on us. I will never forget what a generous spirit there was underneath the hair and the bluster, he had a heart of gold."