Finley: Thank you, Don Pilette, and RIP
I'm not sure where I'd be today if not for Don Pilette.
In the winter of 1976, I was sitting in Don's news editing class at Wayne State University, a journalism major in my junior year, uncertain whether I'd be able to complete my degree.
The small auto factory where I'd worked since high school, and which was providing the paycheck I needed to pay for college, had shut down. I was out of work and out of money, and on the brink of giving up.
At the end of class, Don, who was then the national editor of The Detroit News, asked if anyone was interested in a copy boy's position at the newspaper. The duties, he explained, would fall mainly into the messenger/clerk category, but it would provide valuable exposure to the newsroom.
I was amazed to look around the room of roughly 20 students and find that mine was the only hand in the air.
Two weeks later I walked into the Detroit News to begin what is now 42 years in the newspaper business.
Don continued to teach and mentor me after I arrived. Perhaps he didn't want to get the blame if I flopped.
But more likely, he was just doing what Don Pilette did: help a kid get a start in the business he loved and served so well.
Don worked at the old Detroit Times until The News purchased the notorious daily from the Hearst chain in 1960. He was just one of six Times staffers who made the transition to The News. From the stories I gleaned from him and the other Times vets who were still around when I started, it was a wide open, cowboy outfit.
Don said there was a small lawn in front of the downtown Times building where drunks would stretch out to sleep after a night of carousing. His job as a young editor, he said, was to search through the winos to sort out the reporters among them and drag them into the office.
He kept teaching even after he retired from The News in 1992, at Wayne State and the University of Michigan-Dearborn. That was his joy. Wayne named its journalism lab in honor of Don, who taught there for 37 years.
I'm one of countless journalists in this town and across the nation who benefited from Don Pilette's wisdom. And from his helping hand.
I owe him a tremendous debt and hope I never gave him cause to regret giving a break to a scared kid at the moment when he needed it most.
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