Family, friends of Bill Bonds reflect on his life

Susan Whitall
The Detroit News

Bill Bonds' son, John,, holds back tears as he begins to tell stories about his dad, including when Bill picked him up early at Catholic school one day. The elder Bonds told John to tell the school nuns that he needed to leave early to help his grandmother move. Confused, John did what he was told then asked his dad why he was asked to lie to the nuns. Bill said we're going to Opening Day at Tiger Stadium and sometimes you just have to lie to the nuns. Then entire sanctuary erupted in laughter.

There were no lack of Bill Bonds stories at the Detroit TV legend's funeral Friday at Birmingham's Holy Name Catholic Church. For the friends speaking about him at the end of the service, it was a question of using words appropriate for church.

As longtime friend and former WXYZ news director Al Upchurch quipped, unlike the stories swapped at the "Table of Wisdom" Bonds presided over at Oakland Hills Country Club, there would be "No off-color remarks, jokes about sex, religion, race or politics — and certainly no jokes about the pope," Upchurch said, glancing over at the priests with a smile.

And yet the fullness of Bonds' life was expressed with little restraint, from his days as a smart but mischievous Catholic schoolboy at Blessed Sacrament, to his long tenure as the king of the Detroit airwaves. Bonds had "friends in every part of the city," marveled Gerald Dietz, his boyhood friend, "but even people who didn't know him considered him a friend."

The longtime WXYZ news anchor died Saturday of a heart attack. He was 82.

Bonds, who lived in Bloomfield Hills with wife Karen, also was remembered as a husband and father. There were photos in the funeral program of his three surviving children: Mary Hancock, John Bonds and Kristine Bonds, as well as his late daughter Joanie Bonds.

His son John told a story about his father springing him from Our Lady of Refuge elementary school one chilly spring day with a story that he needed to help his grandmother move. The plan was actually to go to the Detroit Tigers' Opening Day.

"I said, 'Dad, I didn't know grandma was moving today,' " John said. His father replied, "Johnny, sometimes you've gotta lie to the nuns." He blustered into the ballpark with nothing but his press pass, and father and son had a fun day of athletics, interactions with celebrities and food — no waiting in line at Lafayette Coney Island, or anywhere, for Bill Bonds and his son.

The funeral mass began with a bagpiper leading the processional piping "Amazing Grace." The ceremony featured prayers and communion familiar to Bonds, who grew up going to Catholic school in Detroit, which culminated in Catholic Central High School before he shipped off to Korea with the Air Force. He returned after his service to major in political science at the University of Detroit, and started the Detroit part of his broadcasting career as a WKNR Keener 13 newscaster, where he made his bones climbing a telephone poll to phone in an important story.

Bonds had unsuccessful auditions at Channel 4 and Channel 2 — "What were they thinking?" joked Upchurch — before landing a job at Channel 7 in 1963 and working his way up to the anchor desk.

"Bill just connected," Upchurch said. "They couldn't reproduce it, although they tried. Viewers knew he cared about the news of the day. How lucky were we, to work with him? We got to see him every day. Of course, the caution lights would be flashing when he walked into the newsroom some days, saying 'Who wrote THIS?' But he asked the questions no one else thought of, much less asked."

The pews at Holy Name were full of past and present Detroit news personalities; many WXYZ retirees, including his former co-anchor Diana Lewis, former boss general manager Jeanne Findlater, sports editor Don Shane and former weathercaster Jerry Hodak; reporter/anchor Glenda Lewis and anchor Stephen Clark. A contingent from WDIV-TV Channel 4 included Carmen Harlan, Kevin Dietz, Devin Scillian, Guy Gordon, former weathercaster Chuck Gaidica and former Channel 4/NBC reporter Chris Hansen. Also in attendance: Fox 2's Huel Perkins and former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer.

Bonds' brother Robert Bonds, the youngest and only surviving sibling out of six, proved to be almost as outspoken as his famed brother.

He spoke about his first memory of his older brother: in the basement, playing the drums in his underwear, with father Dick Bonds. Bill encouraged his brother to join in. "Later on, I remember him in his underwear dancing and singing at parties. Bigger than life," he noted.

The point was made both at the visitation Thursday and at the funeral Friday that Bonds was always for "the common man." At Oakland Hills, where he loved taking part in the convivial discussions at the "Table of Wisdom," he was usually the sole liberal in a sea of conservatives.

"He was willing to take on any lion," said Msgr. Zenz in his homily. "He believed in upholding the rights and the dignity of every person."

"He made the news better," said his former boss Findlater, tearfully, before the funeral.

"It's no surprise that his heart gave out last Saturday because to the end, he gave his heart to all of us," Upchurch said.