Detroit News' leader remembered as a journalist's journalist

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News
Jon Wolman's daughter, Emma Wolman, looks at family members as she shares fond memories and stories about her dad.

Bloomfield Hills — Jon Wolman would have been embarrassed by the fuss. A journalist’s journalist, he would have argued he wasn’t the story.

Sorry, boss, but today you are. That’s what happens when a respected newsman dies.

Several hundred journalists, politicians, scholars, longtime friends and family bid farewell Wednesday to Wolman, editor and publisher of The Detroit News. He died Monday from pancreatic cancer at age 68.

Among the dignitaries were Norman Ornstein, an author and political scientist, former Chief Federal Judge Gerald Rosen, Congresswoman Debbie Dingell, CNN political analyst John King and David Shribman, retired Pittsburgh Post-Gazette executive editor and syndicated columnist.

Friends and family told the mourners just how much Wolman loved newspapers.

His daughter, Emma, said Wolman cared about two things: his work and his family.

“I don’t know which he loved more,” she said at Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Hills. “I suspect it was about even.”

She said her dad could be tough, as anyone who worked for him could attest to. And woe to the person who gave him a bad restaurant table, poor theater seat or bad hotel room.

Pallbearers carry Jon Wolman's casket to the hearse as they pass by family members and friends inside Temple Beth El.

But there was a reason why he was demanding, she said.

“If he was hard on you, it was probably because he knew you weren’t doing your best,” she said.

Sandy Johnson knew what Emma was talking about. When Wolman was the chief of the Washington bureau of the Associated Press, Johnson served as his deputy.

Wolman expected the best from his charges and allowed them to achieve it, she said.

“He didn’t care where you went to school,” she said. “He really didn’t care if you had a journalism degree.”

In journalism, some bosses meddle with the jobs they once held.

But after Wolman became executive editor of AP and Johnson replaced him as Washington bureau chief, Johnson was facing the decision of her career.

Detroit News Managing Editor Gary Miles, left, and his wife, Dorothy, right, console Debbie Lamm, widow of the late Detroit News Editor and Publisher Jon Wolman after the funeral service.

It was the night of the 2000 presidential election, and other news outlets had called the election for George Bush. Johnson was under heavy pressure to do the same, she said.

Other bosses would have pulled rank, but Wolman allowed Johnson to do her job. She refused to call the election, which turned out to be the right move.

“He was my mentor. He was my biggest cheerleader and my biggest friend,” she said.

Besides the news business, Wolman also loved politics, specifically arguing about politics, said the speakers.

When he came to The News in 2007, the editorial page was captained by Nolan Finley, who also wasn’t shy about debating the finer points of our republic.

Wolman was liberal and Finley a conservative. Let the fireworks commence.

After briefly worrying that Wolman’s arrival would mean his exit, the two gentlemen began a conversation — or argument — that would last the next dozen years.

But then a funny thing happened, Finley told the mourners.

“We grew to respect each other,” he said. “We built a mutual trust. We got comfortable in our battles and, as unlikely as it seems, we became friends.”

Pallbearers carry the casket of Detroit News Editor and Publisher Jon Wolman to a waiting hearse outside Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Hills, Wednesday, April 17, 2019. More than 180 family members and friends attended the memorial service at Temple Beth El. Wolman died Monday of complications from pancreatic cancer. He was 68.

Finley discovered an additional benefit to the frequent jousting with his boss.

“I became better at what I did because Jon made me fight for what I wanted to say,” he said.

To the surprise of no one, Wolman came from a newspaper family. His father, Martin, worked his entire career at the Wisconsin State Journal, rising from newsboy to publisher.

When the newly graduated Wolman called his dad in 1973 to say he got a job with the AP in Madison, Wisconsin, Martin beamed with pride, said relatives.

“That was news that made my dad more visibly happy than I can remember,” said Jon’s brother, Lewis.

Like other journalists, Wolman wasn’t the nattiest of dressers, said Lewis. He liked his shirts rumpled and his boat shoes scuffed.

Also, like the reporters of yore, Wolman would type with two fingers, he said.

But beneath the quirky mannerisms and easy silences was a heart that beat with the cadences of a profession he loved.

“Jon was a creator and a teacher, and he had meaningful relationships,” Lewis said.

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Twitter: @francisXdonnell