Finley: George Bullard was a newsroom giant
George Bullard has been gone from The Detroit News for a decade, but hardly a day goes by when his name doesn’t come up in the newsroom. Someone remembers a funny story, or comes up with a Bullard quote that precisely sums up some absurd situation or another.
He had that kind of impact in his more than three decades at the newspaper.
Bullard died of cancer Friday at his home in Texas. He was 74.
Bullard was not physically imposing. He was a soft talker, a mumbler actually. One of his reporters got his hearing tested after joining George’s team because he was convinced his ears had gone bad.
He was always a few weeks late on haircuts and chronically disheveled — when I teased him about his shirttail hanging out, he responded: “I’ve got enough trouble with women looking like this, if I spruced up I'm not sure I could handle it.”
But he was a giant of a newspaperman.
When Bullard was onto a big story his whole demeanor changed. A nervous energy took over, and he’d pace the room snapping his fingers. He could’t rest until he could sit down at the keyboard and get it out of him.
Bullard started his career covering the Downriver communities where he grew up. He was a textbook beat reporter. He knew everybody down there, all their connections, and when they might be useful for filling in the blanks of a story. And everybody knew him.
So it was no surprise when the newsroom got a call from the Wyandotte police explaining that they had a hostage situation in a local bar, and the guy with the gun was insisting he wasn’t coming out until he talked to George Bullard.
Off Bullard went, walking carefree past the police barricades and into the front door. He spent the next couple of hours talking with the man, who ordered the bartender to keep serving drinks to the dozen or so customers inside.
By the time the hostage taker agreed to come out with George, nearly all of the hostages were drunk. One couple, who were on an illicit date, refused to leave until the TV cameras shut off.
Those kind of stories happened to Bullard. He was not one of those journalists who were out to save the world, or change it. He just wanted to tell its story.
He burned with a need to break news, to bust a bad guys chop’s with his reporting, and more than anything he was driven to beat the Free Press, every day. That was all that mattered then, and Bullard did it with gusto. Even when he came upstairs to the editorial page in his last years in the business, his work reflected that same addiction to getting something first, and getting it right.
As an editor, Bullard ran the newsroom the same way he worked a beat. He wanted to know everything his reporters knew, and he pushed them to dig deeper, to get that last piece that would zoom their work to the top of page one. Most of the time he was at their side digging with them.
He was fortunate that most of his career spanned the golden era of newspapers, before corporate media corralled the newsroom cowboys, and a lot of things became more important than getting hardball news in the paper.
Yet he wasn’t hidebound. An early adapter of technology, Bullard was first to master the Commodore 80s — Trash 80s they were affectionately called in the newsroom — the first generation of portable computers. We all lined up at his desk holding those miserable machines and asking for his help.
And he was among the first to incorporate database searches into his reporting. He was a gadget lover, and the computer was just another mechanical fascination that stretched from airplanes to short wave radios to drum sets.
George had a genuine passion for the newspaper business. He could never have done anything else. He even married a woman, former News Managing Editor Sue Burzynski, who was made the same way.
When he left the paper, his absence in the newsroom was felt more than most people’s presence. I feel fortunate to have had the good luck of sharing that room with him.