Ex-News editor Donald Pilette, 'master of the journalistic fundamentals,' dies
Throughout his years working with Detroit News staffers and teaching young journalists in the classroom, Donald Pilette was devoted to upholding the ideals of the profession.
“He was such a master of the journalistic fundamentals,” said Tim Kiska, a former colleague and associate journalism professor at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. “Getting it right mattered. Spelling the word right mattered. Getting the grammar and syntax mattered.”
Mr. Pilette, a 32-year veteran of The Detroit News, died Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018. He was 91.
Among only six staffers brought over when The Detroit News bought the Detroit Times in 1960, the journalist served in several capacities at The News over the next four decades, including national editor, associates said.
He eventually became a systems editor, training staffers as the newsroom moved toward the digital age, said brother-in-law Bill McMillan, a retired Detroit News editor. "He was able to have that ability to mentor people. When they had problems, they would go to him."
Mr. Pilette also was an adjunct instructor at Wayne State University for many years, teaching news editing and reporting, according to his family. The college honored him in 2011 by giving his name to the journalism lab, relatives said.
"He was much loved as a colleague and teacher. Don taught the news writing courses and was the perfect balance of language and grammar enforcer and supportive, helpful grandfather," said Matthew Seeger, dean at the Wayne State College of Fine, Performing and Communication Arts. "He was always warm and supportive with students, even when he needed to show tough love. Occasionally, he would help students to the realization that a career in journalism was not for them, while helping take their writing to a different level. For others, he helped push them toward productive careers in the field that he so loved."
Mr. Pilette also taught at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.
“Don was a dedicated, tough journalist who was saddened that today’s reporters are being attacked for doing their job,” McMillan said. “He would tell students to get it right, give the facts and give the truth.”
Having amassed enough copyediting skills to fill a self-published tome, Mr. Pilette enjoyed imparting his wisdom to the next generation, Kiska said. “The students liked him. I was glad students had a chance to learn from a guy like that.”
His dedication reflected an unwavering commitment, colleagues recall.
“Don loved the newspaper business. Loved working in it and teaching it,” Detroit News Editorial Page Editor Nolan Finley said. “He gave me my first break at The News, hiring me as a copy boy. I knew him as both an editor and a professor. He was excellent at both. Smart, witty and kind.”
Born April 6, 1927, the native Detroiter served in the Navy during World War II at age 17, before graduating from Cass Technical High School, relatives said.
After the war he returned to Cass and then graduated from Wayne State in 1950.
Mr. Pilette honed his journalism skills while working at the Durand Express, Marquette Mining Journal and Gary Post Tribune.
Retiring from The News in 1992, Mr. Pilette continued teaching through 2011, relatives and colleagues said.
He also was a licensed pilot who flew widely. "He loved traveling all over the state," McMillan said.
Other survivors include his wife, Cassandra Kanady; daughters Jennifer Pilette and Susan Lawlis; stepdaughters Barbara Kanady and Kelly Heier; nine grandchildren; and 14 great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by his first wife, Patricia Stedman Pilette.
Memorials may be made to the United Community Housing Coalition, 2727 Second Ave., Detroit, MI 48201.