Bill Bonds: Legendary news anchor dies

Susan Whitall
The Detroit News

Bill Bonds wasn't your typical anchorman.

He didn't study broadcasting in school, instead focusing on liberal arts, which gave him a command of history and English. It was his broad knowledge, and an intensity leavened with humor, that made his reporting so compelling, said co-workers.

He also was cool under pressure, most famously during the Detroit riots in 1967, which helped make his reputation along with that of his station, WXYZ-TV.

Bonds, whose piercing gaze and authoritative baritone ruled the Detroit airwaves for decades, died Saturday after suffering a heart attack at his Bloomfield Hills home. He was 82.

"Nobody could ever look into a camera and command an audience like him," said Matt Friedman, a former news producer for WDIV-TV Channel 4.

Bonds was infamous for mixing news and opinion, as well as antics such as challenging former Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young to a fight. He also publicly endured the death of a daughter, a divorce and several stints in rehab for drinking.

Unlike other Detroit anchors, Bonds almost always telegraphed his feelings about a story, sometimes with a slight intonation or facial expression, but often with very direct, forceful words, said observers.

He famously engaged in a war of words with Young that always seemed ready to spill over into the physical realm, including 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" in 1964 when Bonds was hired as a reporter.

"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."

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 1960s. 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.

'Pretty good work'

Once, while on staff at 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,' " Bonds recalled. "It was pretty good work, I was proud of it."

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

After News sports columnist Shelby Strother died of cancer in 1991 at age 44, 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."

Bonds worked for the ABC affiliate from 1963 to 1968, then returned in 1971. The station terminated his multiyear 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.

'Bill made us better'

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."

In a statement, 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."

Snyder's condolences

Gov. Rick Snyder issued this statement about Bonds:

"For decades, Detroiters tuned in 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 is survived by his wife, Karen; son, John; and two daughters, Mary and Kristine.

Funeral arrangements

Funeral: 11 a.m. Fridayat Holy Name Catholic Church, 630 Harmon, Birmingham.

Visitation: 1-8 p.m. Thursday, Lynch & Sons Funeral Home, 1328 N. Crooks Road, Clawson. A sharing of memories service is set for 7:30 p.m.

Memorial contributions: To Focus Hope Foundation, 1355 Oakman Blvd., Detroit 48238; Michigan Humane Society, Detroit Center for Animal Care, 7401 Chrysler Drive, Detroit 48211; Alzheimer's Association, 25200 Telegraph Road, Suite 100, Southfield 48033