WJR's Marie Osborne mourns son -- but finds hope in 'Plaid Pig'

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

It was what the police wouldn't say that told Marie Osborne what she didn't want to know.

She's been a reporter and an anchor for more than a quarter-century, on WJR-AM (760), WWJ-AM (950) and WJR again.

WJR-AM newscaster Marie Osborne, who lost her 28 year old son John to a heart issue, works in the WJR studio at the station in Detroit, Michigan on September 13, 2018.

She has spoken to command officers and knows when they're being strategically evasive. She has knocked on the doors of weeping families and commiserated and managed to do her job, fortunate to be on radio where no one can see you wipe away a tear.

Now she and her husband were racing to St. Joseph Mercy Oakland.

"They told me to come quick," her husband had told her before he picked her up at work, and oh, God, they don't say that if someone is going to be OK. They say "drive carefully" because there's time, or at least hope.

John Osborne wore a plaid shirt, as was his standard, on a family vacation in Luxembourg.

She called from the car and heard the same ominous instruction. Then they sprinted through the door and were taken to a side room where their older son was already waiting, and no, no, no.

Not John. Not her baby, all 6-foot-7 and 300 pounds of him. But if he was alive they'd have taken her to his bedside, and instead here came a doctor with two other people, hospital staffers maybe. The doctor was saying she'd done everything she could, and it was real.

That was 14 months ago. John was 28. "You couldn't miss him," she says, now that she does. He had all that size, and a big 'fro, and a smile that wouldn't go away even when he was at the restaurant and the heat was on.

"He was kind to his cat," his mother says, one of those odd things you offer up when you're doing a mental Google search and sifting through thousands of hits.

John Taylor Osborne’s grave marker at a small cemetery in Birmingham is inscribed with a lyric from Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around.”

He was steady. He knew the names of all the homeless people who'd linger outside Slows To Go in the Cass Corridor, and don't tell, but sometimes he'd sneak them something to eat from his barbecue smokers.

Now he's the inspiration for a scholarship. And a sandwich, of all things, both bearing the name Plaid Pig — his go-to pattern combined with his favored meat.

There's a benefit for the John T. Osborne / Plaid Pig Endowment Oct. 18 called A Night of Swine Dining, with tickets $100 apiece. Some chefs who knew him, and some chefs who know those chefs, will cook a multi-course meal at the Whiskey Factory near Eastern Market. Detroit City Distillery will pour its first single barrel bourbon, also called Plaid Pig.

The goal is to fund annual grants for culinary arts students in the renowned program at Schoolcraft College, where John was accepted four years ago. He'd talked of earning a two-year degree and then rolling out a food truck, but he never eased off the throttle enough to enroll.

The hope is that helping other young people achieve his dream will also help his survivors, wracked with undeserved guilt.

"If we can make that happen," Marie Osborne says, "it's going to give us a moment of peace."

The Osborne family: from left, Robert, now 31; mom Marie; John T., who died at 28; Domenique, 38; and dad John H.

John, who lived in Warren, would think about Schoolcraft as fall approached, then put the notion on a back burner. "Mom," he'd say, "I just want to finish another year at Slows."

Then after seven years there he took a new job at a butcher shop and deli in Sylvan Lake, and a month later the co-owner was looking up a recipe in his office when he heard a thump.

It didn't register, Dave Hubbard says.

Hubbard had worked with John at the carry-out spinoff of Corktown's Slows Bar-B-Q. John was the pitmaster, "a little goofy, just an awesome kid."

He was delighted when John walked into the Butchery saying he was open to a fresh challenge.

John was making sausage on that last, haunting, mid-July morning. He was excited about it, Hubbard says, which invigorated everyone around him. Hubbard was maybe 10 feet away, around a corner, thinking it was almost time to turn on the lights and welcome customers.

Then, from the deli counter, where a college kid had been hired for the summer: "Big John! Big John!"

John was on the floor. Hubbard started CPR. The professionals were there within two or three minutes with their equipment and expertise. An ambulance roared away.

Hubbard stood numb, thinking of John's parents and of his own children, now 4 and 2. 

Marie Osborne careened northward from the Fisher Building toward the first moments of an aching emptiness.

"I have covered death and destruction," she says. "Accidents and suicides. Plane crashes. Train crashes."

Her heart would always break, she says, and she would always give thanks: "There but for the grace of God."

Then the grace of God turned somewhere else, and Osborne was left wondering what signs she missed and how she could have missed them.

The official finding was dilated cardiomyopathy, what the division head of cardiology at Henry Ford Health system calls "a fancy way of saying 'weakened heart.'"

"There's no clear screening tool," Dr. Henry Kim says. From a public health standpoint, we'd be better off if more people knew CPR and there was a defibrillator in every building, but if the ailment is detected it's usually by the patient.

Fatigue, swollen legs or abdomen, a falloff in stamina, chest pain. Shortness of breath. John fell into the most common demographic, men aged 20 to 50, but he never complained about any of the symptoms.

Kim says there might not have been anything to notice. An unrelated EKG five months earlier hadn't sounded any alarms. The most common causes are a heart attack, virus or unfortunate genes, but the first two were ruled out and testing by his survivors hasn't pointed to the third.

Across an unknown span, John's left ventricle simply stretched, weakened and failed.

Osborne called the coroner's office, searching for clues: "I'd been on the phone with them plenty of times before."

Brian Perrone, one of the founders of Slows Bar-B-Q, poses with the Plaid Pig sandwich at Slows To Go carryout on Cass Avenue in Detroit on Friday, September 14, 2018.

She pumped his friends. His co-workers. His girlfriend, Blair West, maybe 5 feet tall — "the most hilarious looking couple ever." West lives a few blocks away from the Osbornes in Royal Oak now and she's essentially a part of the family, but she offered no clues.

Osborne is in the question business, but there's no satisfactory answer to be had.

There are just memories, an endowment to fund, and an enormous sandwich.

The Plaid Pig "is pretty ridiculous," concedes Brian Perrone, the founding chef at Slows. "It's huge. But so was John."

Perrone says it took a while to decide on a suitable tribute. He and his staff considered a meatball sandwich, but it wasn't practical. Then he recalled John smoking a ham for him, delighting in the process.

Hence the Plaid Pig, a stack of shaved ham and smoked jalapeño bar cheese with mustard barbecue sauce and a cross of bacon skewered with a steak knife to the top of the soft brioche bun. It's $13 at the Corktown and Midtown locations, with $1 bound for the scholarship fund.

The Plaid Pig sandwich at Slows To Go carryout restaurant in Detroit.

"We've all had it," Osborne says — she, her husband, her daughter in from New York, her son who lives in Hazel Park. They are a tall family, from her daughter at 5-foot-9 to Osborne an inch more and the men at 6-foot-6, "and I'm not kidding, it feeds two people."

It's something John would have liked. It's comfort food, in the most literal sense.

It's a reminder of something Osborne clings to, something she probably told strangers after she came to their doors with a microphone, something that gets her through the days when she leaves work and can hardly remember being there.

"John's death was tragic," she says. But his life?

He was steady and funny and good to his cat, and his life was a joy.

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn