Metro Detroit journalist Bob Pisor dies
Pisor, a former Detroit News and Channel 4 (WDIV) journalist, passed away July 7 at his Leland Township farm.
An encounter with a newsroom recruiter in New York City brought Bob Pisor back to Michigan, where he was a print and broadcast journalist, served in the administration of Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young and, when the pace of news grew faster and less reflective, he became an artisan bread baker.
“Since he had grown up in Michigan in Ferndale and Pleasant Ridge, he thought this would be a good place to come back to, and The Detroit News was, at the time, the largest afternoon daily paper,” said his wife, Ellen Pisor. “And he felt it was a wonderful place to be. He loved working for The News, being a reporter, writing. He was a very good writer.”
Mr. Pisor died Friday, July 7, 2017, on his 80-acre farm in Leland Township after a months-long fight with kidney cancer, his wife said. He was 77.
Mr. Pisor met his wife at the College of Wooster in Ohio in 1958. They were married 55 years.
He graduated from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism just as The News was recruiting on campus, she said.
He was a “very enthusiastic journalist,” said Ellen Pisor.
Mr. Pisor worked at The News from 1963-74. There, he went overseas for a year and a half to cover the Vietnam War. His wife recalled that he thought he would be there for three months.
“He was there for a week and he called The News and said, ‘I can’t cover the war in three months. This is ridiculous. I need at least a year,’ ” Ellen Pisor said. “He convinced The News to send me and my then-2-year-old son to Saigon to join him because he was going to be there for much longer.”
The Pisors returned to the United States in 1968 after a Detroit News strike.
“He decided around June of ’68 that he did not want to be killed for a newspaper that wasn’t publishing,” Pisor said.
Eventually, Mr. Pisor was sent to cover the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August. Ellen Pisor noted the irony of covering what was a tumultuous convention whose delegates were split over the Vietnam War and which drew thousands of anti-war protesters.
“He had been in Vietnam for a year and a half, and for the first time in his life, he was tear-gassed in Chicago,” she said.
Mr. Pisor left newspapers in 1974 to join the administration of Detroit’s first African-American mayor.
Bob Berg, a Young press secretary after Mr. Pisor, had met Mr. Pisor in the ’60s when Berg was UPI’s Lansing bureau chief and Mr. Pisor was a Detroit News political reporter. The two bonded while covering stories.
When Mr. Pisor became press secretary, Berg remembers one decision that had a big impact.
“The mayor didn’t have a whole lot of trust in the media,” Berg said, “and one of the things Bob was able to do was start a weekly schedule to give people an idea what the mayor was doing. It hadn’t been done until he got there.”
Berg of Detroit said Mr. Pisor paid “very meticulous attention to detail — no matter what he was doing.”
“And he just had a great, booming laugh,” he added.
Charlie Beckham, group executive for Detroit neighborhoods for the Duggan administration, remembers serving in Young’s administration with Mr. Pisor, who was Young’s second press secretary.
“He turned out to be really a prince of a guy, probably one of the best press secretaries Coleman had,” said Beckham, who has served under every mayor since Young. “He really became the first real voice of Coleman Young in his early years.”
Beckham recalls touch football games they organized, with Mr. Pisor as quarterback.
“He could really throw the ball,” he said, laughing. “He was slow and wasn’t very fast. It was the same way he talked. But we won a lot of games behind him.”
In the early ’80s, the press secretary position opened again. Berg was interested.
“He loved Coleman Young, and he strongly urged me to take the job,” Berg said. “It was good advice.”
Ellen Pisor said her husband found his stint as press secretary to be challenging but rewarding.
“Detroit was in dire straits then, as it’s been for many years, and ... they didn’t have the money to pay people and the unions were striking and the mayor was always under fire,” she said. “... He really respected Mayor Young and felt that working for him was an honor.”
Mr. Pisor left the position to write his book on Vietnam, “The End of the Line: The Siege of Khe Sanh.” The publisher, W. W. Norton & Co., plans to reissue it on the 50th anniversary of the battle of Khe Sanh next year.
Mr. Pisor returned to daily journalism and worked 11 years as a reporter and anchor at WDIV-TV (Channel 4), where among the stories he covered was Dr. Jack Kevorkian, a euthanasia advocate.
Retired WDIV newscaster Roger Weber said Mr. Pisor was “fearless about new challenges” and one of Channel 4’s “best” reporters.
“I was there 37 years, so I saw a lot of talented people, but he ranks right up there,” he said.
Weber covered the 1980 Republican National Convention in Detroit with Pisor. “He was a guy who just not only knew politics and the politicians, he could write brilliantly,” Weber said.
Yet one story, unrelated to politics, in the early '80s, stuck out in his mind.
A disgruntled law firm employee came into the Buhl Building in Detroit and shot an employee, Weber said. The incident triggered a fire, and people started jumping out of windows.
“We didn’t know whether we were just dealing with a fire or with something else that happened, and (Bob) was the guy who found out there was a gunman,” Weber said. “He was just so good at breaking news.”
Mr. Pisor took a leave of absence from Channel 4 in 1991 for a University of Chicago Benton Fellowship, awarded to broadcast journalists. According to Detroit News archives, he didn’t want to return to journalism after the fellowship.
“I gave up television because I just couldn’t do what I wanted to anymore, “ he told The News in 1996. “... Fifteen minutes to prepare a story and then go on the air is simply insufficient time. I didn’t even know people’s names. ... I loved the people I worked with, but the demands of television were such that you didn’t have any time for reflection. That’s the way television is now, and you either live the life or you change. I decided to change.”
That change led to baking bread at 3 a.m. each morning. In 1995, Mr. Pisor opened Stone House Bread Co. in Leland. The artisan bread company’s website says that Mr. Pisor “for years had sought the perfect loaf of sourdough bread.”
His sourdough pursuit started after tasting a loaf his sister-in-law, the famed restaurateur Alice Waters, served in her restaurant, Chez Panisse, in California.
For months, he made sourdoughs in his home and an old stone house on his property, after which the bakery is named.
“One of my great irritations,” Mr. Pisor told The News in 1996, “is when someone comes in and says, ‘Oh, Bob, so this is where you retired,’ and I’m thinking, ‘I tell you what, you do my hours for one week (3 a.m. to 3 p.m. six days a week) and then come talk to me about retirement.’”
Dennis Redmont, a Columbia classmate and former Associated Press correspondent, said in a call from Rome where he resides, that Mr. Pisor had many interests, including gastronomy.
“He would study for a tourist trip for months beforehand as if he were going off to a combat correspondent experience, and he would know exactly where he was going to eat,” said Redmont. “When he came to Rome he said, ‘I’m going to take you to a Sicilian restaurant, which I had never been to and I had been in Rome for 30 years. It was a very good place and he knew exactly what he was going to order.”
Pisor sold his beloved bread company at age 67 and spent the next decade in retirement. He did “all the things he didn’t have time to do when he was working,” Ellen Pisor said.
“He reveled in retirement even though he was a type-A person who was pretty much go-go all the time,” she said. “He loved the fact he had time to visit his sons and six grandchildren and travel the world, and to hike and hunt with his two English setters.”
In addition to his wife, Mr. Pisor is survived by two sons, David Pisor, a real estate developer in Chicago, and Karl Pisor, a management consultant in Tokyo; and six grandchildren.
Ellen Pisor will host a celebration honoring her husband’s life at their farm at 4 p.m. Aug. 13. All are welcome. Call (231) 256-7420 for directions.