Peter Waldmeir, March 24th, 2017
WW: Hello, today is March 24, 2017, my name is William Winkel, this interview if for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 1967 Oral History Project, and I am in Grosse Pointe Woods, Michigan. And I am sitting down with—
PW: My name is Pete Waldmeir. I am the elder Pete Waldmeir. My son Peter is Peter W. and Peter Nielson Waldmeir.
WW: Thank you so much. Could you please start by telling me where and when were you born?
PW: Where and when? Yeah, I was born in the city of Detroit on Mark Twain out on the west side—far west side on January 16, 1931. I was born in a house on Mark Twain. I stress that because I’ve written it on occasion that I was born in a house, and someone has changed it to, “My parents were living in a house on Mark Twain when I was born.” And I said, “Because, why?” “Well you couldn’t have been born—you had to be born in a hospital.” I said, “I could have been born in a taxi cab, you know, the trunk of a car.” So, anyway, what else?
WW: Did you stay in that house growing up?
PW: No, never. I lived in several different places. My mother and dad were separated when I was about four or five, something like that, and I went to five different elementary schools my first eight years. And I ended up—well, I guess my last house was in the far Eastside of Detroit, on Somerset between Moran and Ross, 11435 Somerset, in case you’re looking for a house [laughs].
WW: So growing up you didn’t just stay on the west side, you traveled around the city?
PW: Oh, I wasn’t on the west side, I think we were on the west side because that’s where my father at the time could find a place—find a house, I don’t know. The only significant thing that ever happened to me there was I do recall I was outside playing on the sidewalk one morning when little Pauly next-door hit me on the head with a hammer. So you can put that anyway you think [laughs].
WW: Do you have any memories of the ’43 race riot?
PW: The ’43 race riot? Yeah.
WW: Would you like to share them?
PW: Yeah. I was living at 5900 Pennsylvania in Detroit, that’s near Gratiot and Harper intersection. Incidentally, Sonny Bono lived up at the Gratiot and Harper intersection also, in that big Italian neighborhood up there. This was just a regular neighborhood. I was going to Nativity of Our Lord Catholic Grade School. In ’43 I would have been—what did you say?
WW: Ten. Or you were—
PW: I was like twelve, yeah. I was pedaling the papers at the time. I think I lived there probably three or five—I remember going to fourth grade there, and then I went out to the Sherrill School—I lived with my grandparents for a year in the fifth grade and I came back in the sixth, seventh, and eighth grade at Nativity. First few years I went to two or three different schools. Anyway, where were we?
PW: Oh, in 1943 the race riot—my brother at the time, my older brother Joseph—Joe, was—I can’t remember, he was probably 19—he wasn’t that much older than me—he was probably 17 or so. He’d been out with a bunch of guys that night that the riots started, and had been caught up in it in some way. I’m—now, I was a kid at the time, I wasn’t asking a lot of questions. This was—and he was—I know he sought refuge in the church at Nativity, in the rectory with the priest there. Father Geller was the old priest there, who was the pastor. And I remember Joe—us all wondering where the devil he was all that time. And I finally found out when he did get home that he’d been hiding in there because he’d had some kind of a run-in. His—the few people he’d been running with or out with that night. That’s all the memory I have of it.
PW: I have a lot of memories of that neighborhood.
WW: Would you share a couple of them?
PW: Oh, sure. Yeah, it was the beginning of World War II. I was—I was born in ’31, it was ’41, December ’41, I would have been 10, 11. I was pedaling the Detroit News, in fact, on that Sunday that the whole thing happened. Of course, I didn’t—who knew where Pearl Harbor—I didn’t know where Hawaii was, so we were pretty isolated at that age. Now you’re not isolated, but in 1941 young kids were—
I remember the neighborhood quite well. You know, there were—it wasn’t far from Detroit City Airport. I had some relatives living up the street from us. And I’d pedal the papers there. You know, went to seventh and eighth grade. I had – oh yeah, I was down for about six months, I had tuberculosis, and in those days they didn’t know how to treat tuberculosis. They didn’t have any sulfa drugs or any of the rest of that stuff, it was all pretty much invented in World War II. And they didn’t want me put in a hospital because I was too young. Receiving Hospital—I’ll think of the name of the hospital, but a Detroit hospital was the center for TB patients. And I’d gone out there with my brother because he had a couple friends—one of his friends or two friends were in there. And I’d gone out with him—they made little things to be sold, and my brother was picking the stuff up and selling it to help make them a little money. And I apparently caught something in there. I had a lesion on my left lung. Didn’t keep me out of the Marine corps [laughs]. But by the time I was in the Marine corps they still—they needed guys too, so they didn’t pay too much attention to illnesses. Anyway, I spent six months in bed. I mean, in bed in my house, pretty much alone. My mom was working. It was during the war, and my mother was working, driving from roughly Gratiot and Harper to Lahser Road and Eight Mile Road, every day a round trip, so a long trip. I have good memories of the place.
WW: You said it was an Italian neighborhood?
PW: Well, there were Italians, it was kind of mixed, but there were a lot of Italians there, yeah. I lived in a four-family flat, I lived on the lower left. The house is still standing there right now. Whenever anybody hears this, it might be gone by then, but it’s still there. And it was a nice neighborhood. I bought my first pack of cigarettes there. I remember Wings, they were 12 cents.
WW: Was the neighborhood an integrated neighborhood or primarily white?
PW: I’m sorry?
WW: Was it integrated or primarily white?
PW: Oh, no, no. It was all white. There were no—in those days, I mean, even the time I went to high school or I started in high school, there was a black high school called Miller High School. You probably heard that from other people you’ve interviewed. And that was the only high school that had blacks in it. Except when I went—I got into high school in 1944. Pershing High had, like, one or two black football players. I think it was when they invented—they realized that black kids could play football and they—somewhere or other the Miller High School thing was abandoned. Miller’s still there, but—it still was there because it was in—right in Black Bottom, you know, down—anyway, let me see, what else?
WW: You joined the Marine corps in the fifties? Early fifties?
PW: I didn’t join, I was drafted.
PW: I was drafted into the United States Marines, yeah. They had a draft in those days—oh, they had it during World War II, too. A certain number of guys they put in the Marine corps, a certain number of guys they put in the Army. And that—see, this was shortly after World War II—you know, Korea was not that long after World War II was over. Wasn’t over until ’46. About June ’46?
WW: World War II?
PW: World War II, yeah.
PW: Oh, ’45, okay. And then Korea was 1950, so—and late 1950, so there were—yeah. In fact, I had a funny story about being drafted in the Marine Crops, too. I don’t know if your audience is interested in listening to it or not.
PW: I showed up at Fort Wayne. There had been a big story in Life Magazine about the Marine corps and boot camp and how tough it was and everything else. I remember laying in bed—I was living at 5900 Pennsylvania—and I remember looking at Life Magazine and laughing about all this. And when I got drafted later and I was sent down to Fort Wayne, and in an auditorium down there, and there were probably three, four hundred of us in the place, and—so we’re all ready to report for the draft, we’d already been assigned and we had—we were 1A, told to report to be enlisted. So, there were two—there was an army sergeant up there and he said, “Okay, all you guys, I’m going to—I got the—” There was a marine corps sergeant standing next to him, gunnery sergeant, he said, “Before we get started here, I’m going to call out a few names.” And so, we figured, oh, he’ll call out a few names, you know. So he went through the As and Bs and Cs, he got to Ws and went on by me. I said, “Gee, that’s fine.” He said, “Okay,” he said, “All you guys whose names I just called, you’re all in the Army. The rest of you guys go with sergeant what’s-his-name over here.” So I ended up in the marine corps that way. Greatest thing that ever happened to me. It was really—you know, I’d been working at—by that time I was—actually I was working with the Detroit News by that time. Yeah, I was. I’d been going to Wayne [State University] part time. And that’s another long story, but—
WW: How long did you serve in the Marine corps?
PW: Two years.
WW: When you got back in 1953 did you come back to Detroit?
PW: Yeah, oh yeah. I’d been at—I’d worked for the Detroit News. My mother had finally got us off of Pennsylvania Avenue. My mother finally got us off of there and bought her first house. So that was like 1944, and I lived over on Somerset between Moran and Moross, on the east side of Detroit. We—I saw an ad in the news— and I’d been going to Denby High School, and I saw an ad—and I’d been working a lot of part-time. I worked the auto plants in summers. I worked at Chrysler Jefferson plant, putting windows in Chryslers, and another place, Briggs body plant over on Mack Avenue, I worked there summers. And I worked a lot of different jobs, loading trains at Michigan Central Depot and other things. Anyway I—where was I?
WW: Joining the News.
PW: Oh yeah. So I picked up—I was looking for a job and I’d go through the Sunday paper and I found an ad in the Sunday paper for messengers, and so I figured I’d give it a call. So I gave them a call Monday morning and they said, “Yeah, come on down.” And it was to be a copy boy at the Detroit News. So I said, “Fine.” Like $17.50 a week for five days and eight-hour days, and no benefits or anything else because it was run on a part-time basis, the way people do to get out of paying for healthcare and things [laughs]. I didn’t need it anyway. So yeah, then I worked in a city room with a whole bunch of other copy boys. There were about ten of us, something like that, rotating on shifts. And I was going to Wayne part-time, and I wasn’t a very good student. In fact, I got kicked out after the first semester of my freshman year, and then I begged my way back in, got back in for the—no, what I dealt with—yeah, I got back in, then I laid out a semester, and that’s when the draft got me because I wasn’t going to school. And—so that’s what I was—I’d been working at the News as a copy boy in the city room for—well, I worked up there for about a year, as a copy boy. And then I took a look around the city room and I realized that all these guys had college educations and everything else, and I’d probably never get a job as a reporter. Although I hung out—my grandfather was a Detroit police officer, he was a lieutenant detective at the eighth precinct up on Grand River and Twelfth Street, right there in that big old building that said Grand River and Twelfth Street. Well, my grandfather was the head of the detective bureau there. And he’s got some great stories about patrolling that neighborhood when he was a foot patrolman. Anyway—and I’d been hanging out with police reporters myself, I’d gone over, because I knew a lot of the cops there from my grandfather indirectly at park picnics and things so they knew me, and I’d go over and volunteer for doing things. Volunteer in the press room and things like that, and I’d fill in for guys once in a while. Anyway, I looked around the sports department, and all those guys were about 35 years old, and I figured they’d all be dead before long, so—when a job opened as a sports—oh, I’d gone to see H[arry] G[eorge] Salsinger who was the sports editor, and I had just come into the sports department, once I got to know what I was doing, or half of what I was doing in sports as a copy boy. They only had one copy boy, and I was it. The one before me had gone on to another job someplace. So I went up to H. G. Salsinger and asked him if I worked—I knew Saturday night was a really tough night in the sports department, they had a lot of things going on. Big Sunday papers in those days, you couldn’t lift them with a truck. So I told Sal—I asked Sal if I volunteered to work on Saturdays for nothing if he’d be sure that these guys would teach me something. So I did, I worked a lot of free time. Not only Saturday nights but other times when I wasn’t working upstairs, I’d go down to the sports department and work free. We didn’t have any unions so it was no problem. Anyway, I looked around and I figured I’d better—sooner or later I got promoted to doing small jobs and other things in the sports department. So when I went into the Marine Corps I had already become a reporter. I was—I hate to use the term “cub reporter,” but pretty much that’s what I was. I was the low man on the totem pole, I would write little squibs and cover the roller skating championships and things like that. Which was—and I’ll tell you, what’s really funny is the first roller skating championship I went to, it was held at the old Arena Gardens. Now, when I was a kid living with my father—no, not living, I was still living with my mother—my father was working in the bar at the Arena Gardens, he was a bartender. My natural-born father. And he’d take me to fights—he’d take me to fights at the Arena Gardens. And Joe Louis, I saw Joe Louis when I was like seven years old, fight at the Arena Gardens on Woodward Avenue in Detroit.
Anyway, one of my first assignments was to go to the roller skating championships at Arena Gardens. They had a big roller rink there, and they[unintelligible] fights and stuff like that. It was – Cobo Hall and all the rest of those places weren’t built yet. It was right off the Wayne campus, right on Woodward Avenue, just Woodward and Forest, there was the old Arena Gardens, so. Anyway, I go in there and I’m asking somebody, you know, “What do you do with—how do you score a roller skating championship?” I thought it was races, but it wasn’t, it was dancing on roller skates like ice skates. Anyway, they said, “Well, go see that lady over there.” And I look over and there’s some nice, tall, blond lady with a big—I remember she had this fur coat on with a beautiful, white fur collar on it and everything else, and it had a sign on it, “Judge,” and she had all the ribbons hanging down, and the sign on it said “Mrs. Salsinger.” It was my boss’s wife! I didn’t even know it, apparently that’s why I was there. He didn’t say anything, never said anything, so I figured, what the hell, if I do a good job on this I’ll get a little pillow talk maybe, you know. So I went over and talked to her and she was very friendly and very helpful and everything else. I think that helped me move up in the sports department a little bit.
But anyway, when I went in the Marines, I was--in 1951, was the last—I was-- by that time I was covering high school football. I’d done some of that when I was in high school at Denby, I was the Denby reporter for the Detroit News, for an old guy named Harvey Barkus who was one of the reporters there who did Detroit football, that was all he did, Detroit league. So I did his—I’d call him in with the score and a few names, and I covered basketball and football and other sports for the news. I remember my first check was ten bucks I think. And that was—anyway, I—
WW: So, you continued to be a sports writer throughout the fifties?
PW: Yeah, yeah, well what I did was I—in 1950 I actually rose to be a sports writer and I was in there, you know, for—well, not doing anything great, I was just working in the sports department, I’d been in there about two, three years by then. I graduated in 1948, so ’48, ’49, ’50—yeah, I’d been there three, four years, in sports as a copy boy and then as—I spent about a year as a reporter, young—the lowest-rated reporter there. So when I went in the service I was talking—I was interviewed in the service. During boot camp they take everybody in and they give you a military operational specialty number. So you can either be, like, 0100’s a grunt, you know, and the 0200 series is a little bit higher than a grunt. And I was in a 43 series, I was a combat correspondent, so that’s what I was assigned to be, for whatever reason. All I was doing was basically assigning me to the PR department, which the Marine Corps has always been big on PR anyway, you can tell by the ads [laughs]. Anyway, I went in the service, started in the 43-12 assignment, and when I came out in ’53, I was released at the convenience of the government. They just cleaned out the marine corps, once the armistice was assigned in point—oh, Jesus—up at the thirty-eighth parallel. Anyway, they—I came back and I was a reporter. I was also married and I had one child, my son, Peter. My first wife at the time—when I got out I was a buck sergeant, my wife had been a woman marine, and she was a sergeant, when I got married I was a corporal at the time. She was on recruiting duty in Philadelphia, and I came back to the Detroit News. Yeah.
WW: As you were working at the Detroit News throughout the fifties and early sixties—
PW: I’m sorry?
WW: As you were working at the Detroit News in the early fifties—I mean, in the late fifties, early sixties, was there any talk of community tension in the city?
PW: Not that I know of. And in fact, I was looking up something today, about the irony of the ’67 riot. The week before—the week before—no, the month before the riot, in Baltimore, they’d had a couple of riots in Baltimore—
PW: I’m sorry, in Newark. I’m not sorry, I’m getting mixed up with Washington, and they’d had a couple riots in Newark. But was it the week before or the month before? I think it was--
WW: It was only a couple weeks before.
PW: A couple weeks before. Well, the U.S. Open was there a couple of weeks later, and it was at Baltusrol, which is right outside, it was in—by that time I was covering golf, I was covering all kinds of things, and by ’67—and I—actually, just to back up a minute, when I came back from the Marines I started getting real hot assignments. I covered Michigan football, I covered Michigan State football, I covered Notre Dame. I covered football, basketball, baseball, all that kind of stuff. I was always the second man on different jobs, I was the second man—I was like the guy with the locker room after the game, and wrote the locker room story. I wrote the notes. We always had somebody who was covering hockey or covering football or something. I covered a lot—and I learned a lot by being the second guy, just hanging around. I get to know the players better than the writers would.
But anyway, that riot in New Jersey?
PW: Yeah. The Open was in June—yeah, it was June 16. I remember that because Arnold Palmer—Nicklaus and Palmer, and Nicklaus won it and set a record.
Anyway, I—there’d been the riot a couple weeks before, and I’d been planning to take my son, Peter, who was then—what was he, 14, something like that. I was going to take him on the road to the U.S. Open. And everybody said, “You know, there’s riots. You know riots,” you know, “So what, that’s all taken care of. Don’t worry about it.” I think as much to say that to my wife as anybody else. So I took—I was going to take Peter with me, and I took him and the guys that I knew from golf writers and everybody else there said to me, you know, “You’ve got your kid here, you know, after all that happened a couple weeks before?” And I said—they said, “Aren’t you afraid? We hear there’s going to be riots in Detroit. There might be a riot--” Or they didn’t say that, they said, “Detroit’s kind of a ripe place for the same kind of stuff that happened here.” And this is a couple weeks before what happened, and I said, you know—
WW: Are those journalists from other places?
PW: Yeah, journalists. Jerry Eisenberg from the New York Star Ledger, two or three other guys that I knew from out there. And those New York guys were always like, yeah, talking out of the side of their mouth and telling you that the world’s going to end or something, you know, they always had some kind of—everybody was—I found that writing and spending years with those guys, that they all had a doomsday theory about everything, so [laughs]. But I said—and I remember telling them, and I remember the line vividly because I was thinking about it when the stuff hit in Detroit. I would tell them, “No, guys in Detroit aren’t going to riot, they have to get up and go to work in the morning, they’ve got jobs.” I mean, that was my, you know—for what it’s worth, as stupid as it sounds, that’s what I—that was my rational for going to Jersey, because ah, that’s just something that came up, it’ll go away. You know, that’s how much of a prognosticator I am.
WW: Well that brings us to ’67 then.
WW: Where were you living in ’67?
PW: I was living in Harrison Township, right up around Ship Road and Jefferson, right where it curves up there, right off the lake. I had been living in St. Clair Shores. The first house I bought in St. Clair Shores I bought when my daughter was born in ’55, and my son was born in ’53, Peter was born in ’53. But I had started making a little money. I was working for—by that time, because of a lot of connections I had in covering sports and everything else, I was working. I started out working doing stuff for Time Magazine, and I started working, because I was working at Time Inc., I started doing stuff for Life Magazine, just as a stringer. And then Sports Illustrated came along, and the SI guys, they were—they had an office up in the Fisher Building, and they had Time, Life, House and Home, Fortune, and they added Sports Illustrated. Well, these guys who were doing all these other things weren’t into sports much, and a guy named Nick Timish (?) was in there with two or three reporters that they had in the Fisher Building, because they were covering the auto industry and other suppliers and things. And they—so I—Nick sort of invented whatever Sports Illustrated wanted. Well, after about a year of him juggling two things, during that year Nick, every time he got in a jam, he’d call me and say, “Would you do this thing, would you cover this thing for me? Would you write this, or would you go dig up this information?” And when I was working Time Magazine they were paying ten bucks an hour. Like, you know, is your talent worth a little more than ten bucks an hour? How many hours did I work—well, I worked two—well, twenty bucks—well, Sports Illustrated was paying like yard goods. You know, well that’s worth a hundred and that’s worth two hundred. And they had various sections in the book that were worth money, so I began to work for them, so I was making pretty good dough on the side, working for all kinds of people. That’s why I bought the house up there, that’s where I was living, and my kids were going to Lans Cruise Schools up there, Peter and Patty.
WW: How did you first hear about what was going on in the city?
PW: What was going on in the city?
WW: Yeah, in ’67, how did you hear about it?
PW: On the morning of the riot there was a double header with the Yankees at Briggs Stadium, and I had decided it was—what was that, July—
PW: 23. That Sunday morning. And I had decided three or four days ago I wanted to take the kids to a ball game. So I packed my two kids, Patty and Peter, my older two kids, in the car and went down to the ballpark. And I got there a little bit early, and because it was a double header they started with a game at 11:00 instead of 1:00, or 12:00 instead of 1:00, or something. I remember getting there a little bit early, and the cops in downtown Detroit—the street cops in downtown Detroit—I went in on the freeway, didn’t see a thing, didn’t notice anything, and pulled out and went to the ballpark. And I pulled into the players’ parking lot, where I – I always parked in the players’ parking lot – and the cop in there, a guy named Carl—I can get you the last name, but it escapes me right now. Carl was there and he was assigned to the traffic division, and all the traffic guys always wore white hats, but Carl had on a blue hat. He had a garrison cap with a brim on it, and the top was always white, you could tell then the traffic—when they’re out stopping traffic and doing things, you knew who the traffic cops were; he wasn’t just some motorcycle cop or something. And Carl had a blue cap on, so I asked him, “What’s with the blue cap?” He says, “What’s with the blue cap?” He says, “For – you didn’t hear what’s going on? What are you doing here with your kids?” And I said, “What the hell, what’s happening?” And he said, “Well, there’s a big—shit hit the fan up on Twelfth Street.” And I said, hm. I hadn’t had the radio on, or it wasn’t on the radio, and I believe that there was a certain amount of censorship—
WW: There was a blackout.
PW: Yeah, a blackout that went on. So I didn’t know anything. So, I pulled in the parking lot, get out with the kids, Carl says, “Yeah,” he says, “come on.” We went over and got on the elevator, and it was the elevator the runs to the press box on the third deck of Tigers Stadium. Well, before you go up the long ramp and out to the press box, the elevator’s back here, and then you’ve got to go quite a distance out to get into the long tunnel, there’s a door out onto the roof. That’s for the guys that service the lights and everything else from the elevator, so we went out on the roof, and we walked around the side of the roof and Carl points up, and you could see all of the smoke rising, everything else. And I—he said, you know, he said, “You’d better get these kids out of here,” and I said, “Fine with me.” So I—so he said, “Don’t take the freeway back.” And I said, “I just came in on the freeway.” He said, “Jesus, don’t take the freeway out, there’s snipers on the freeway.” Because I would take the freeway up [Michigan Highway]10 and then hang a right on [Interstate] 94 to come out here. And he said, “No, stay off the freeway.” So I went onto Gratiot—the ballpark was at Michigan and Trumbull, and I went down Michigan Avenue into downtown Detroit. Didn’t see much of anything down there, it wasn’t clogged up like it is now on Sunday morning. And I drove through and went over and cut over and started up Gratiot Avenue, and went by Beaubien, and I see 10, 15 cops out on Beaubien, and they’re all dressed, they’ve even got their badges covered. I guess target practice, you know, so they-- and they had barricades up. I looked up Beaubien and the police [unintelligible] and saw there was all the—I was heading out and there was a little skirmish. I could see some skirmishes here and there going out Gratiot. One at St. Jean, one at Van Dyke where the Sears store was at Van Dyke, there was one there. I don’t know whether they were rioting or not, it wasn’t rioting, I didn’t think they were rioting. But they were milling about, you know. And I went straight out Gratiot Avenue and all the way out in Roseville or someplace and then cut over and shot the kids home.
And I stayed home for a day that day, I didn’t start going in until the next day. And I went in late the next day, just to—I made some phone calls, and, you know, things were pretty well shut down. But during the three or four days I was there, you know, they had locked down the bars. You know, nobody could get into a bar except if you knew who the bar owner was. And the Lindell AC, which you guys have all heard of, I’m sure, on Cass and Michigan Avenue, was a big sports bar. It had been in a hotel across the street that had been torn down. We always called it the cocktail lounge of the Lindell Hotel, it had about ten rooms up above the bar, and then it moved across the street and it was a big sports hang out. And I remember driving down there by myself, and I—the other bar that was open was Leo Derderian’s Anchor Bar, which was over just a couple blocks, it was on Fifth—let me see, Fourth—Lafayette and Fourth, Fifth— Sixth and Lafayette, there was a big old warehouse area and Leo had a bar downstairs where all the book—and it was funny because the cops and newspaper guys all knew these guys, and we could get in, and in fact those were the kind of places where we went if we got a late assignment to go someplace and we couldn’t get any money out of the treasury at the Detroit News, we’d go to Leo and borrow money from him, he’d give us money and a little chit and—knowing that we’d come back and pay him as soon as we got our travel expenses paid at the end of the trip.
Anyways, there was a segregation among these—yeah I’ll stop doing that—the segregation among these two bars that Leo Derderian there off of Lafayette, which was right across the street from the federal building, that’s where all the feds went, and they wanted a drink or they wanted something to eat during the riot. And Leo—and Jimmy and Johnny Butsicaris ran the Lindell AC, and there were the regular street cops and then other guys, newspaper guys and other people that they knew. Anyway, I went to the Lindell, and Johnny Butsicaris – Jimmy, his brother, older brother, tough little guy. He’s sitting out—they’ve got everything locked off in the front, and he’s sitting by the back door right across from the parking lot on a chair leaning against the wall, he’s got a shot gun on his lap. I said, “What are you doing.” He said, “Well, I ain’t letting anybody in here.” So I go inside and I have a hamburger, and Johnny Butsicaris comes and he says, “Now, you’re running around downtown, have you got a gun?” And I said, “No, I don’t have any gun, I don’t carry a gun.” He said, “Come on upstairs,” and leads me upstairs into his office up there and he opens a drawer and he’s got, like, ten guns in his drawer. He said, “What kind do you want?” And the only one I knew was a .45 from the marine corps. And he said—I said—he said, “You got to have bullets. Hold on.” And he gave me a clip to put in the handle of the .45, which I didn’t do at the time. And I took it out, and he said, “Yeah, bring it back when the riot’s over.” And that pretty much was their attitude. There were places you could go, in other words, you know. And I’m not too sure the general public went there, but it wasn’t exactly destitute, so.
WW: Did you get to do any special reporting for the Detroit News during that time?
PW: No, no. I was a sports writer, you know, sports was down. All I did—in fact, I was thinking of that whole thing today as I—I was out for a little while doing something this morning, and I—when I came up the driveway, walking up the driveway here, I saw a big jet, four engine jet, which is a tanker, the refueling— air-to-air refueling tanker from Selfridge. Normally they come across the lake and go to Selfridge. This one, they’d come right across here, and it was—I could tell it was a tanker because it had the little—the hose sticking out the back end with the wings on it, you know? And I used to sit in my yard up at Harrison Township and watch these things, back in the days when we were afraid the Russians were going to come over the North Pole, and we were—and we had what they called the pine tree chain, which constantly had B-2 bombers in the air, and they have to go up and refuel them. Well, they refueled a lot, most of them from here, from Selfridge Field, in this area up in the north of Canada. They would go way up in Alberta and come back.
WW: Did you do any other driving around during that week?
PW: Yeah, I drove around the town. You know, I think the big bulk of the trouble must have been centered someplace where I didn’t go anyway, most of the time. So I didn’t see—I don’t recall ever seeing—of course my memory’s not that great, at my age. Things will come to me, you know. But I don’t recall much of anything. I didn’t—I wasn’t looking for trouble, and I wasn’t assigned to do anything, you know? All I was doing—the kind of stuff I was writing—when was that, ’67? I didn’t start writing a column until ’72. So I was still a—I was a reporter, but in—but I was covering golf—no, covering baseball. This is—that was ’67, right?
PW: Yeah. Oh, hell. Now the Tigers were—I think I went—I know along toward the end of the season I went on the road with the Tigers for about ten games. Well, in any case, yeah.
WW: How do you refer to ’67? Do you use the term riot?
PW: Yeah, yeah. I mean, people have said civil disturbance or this or that, you know, the polite terms. I guess if I was going to explain it to a stranger, I’d—hm. I’ve never had to explain it to a stranger [laughs], you know? I was just—people tend to—people I talk to, if it ever comes up in conversation, it’s the year of the riots. Yeah.
WW: Did you look at the city of Detroit differently after that?
PW: No, not much. You know, I’d been—I’d covered boxing, for instance, at the old Arena Gardens, strangely enough, this place that I’d grown up in and everything else, was the first place that they had boxing. When I came back in 1953 there were regular Tuesday night fights there, there was Olympia Stadium, there was—every Friday night there was a fight there, they’d hold International Boxing Club. It was—had James T. Norris, president, was out of New York, where they were running fights all over the country in various cities. And consequently, I spent, you know, a lot of time in Detroit. And I spent a lot of time in the black side of Detroit too. There was a—if you’ll pardon the expression—there was a guy who used to be Joe Louis’ and his managers’—can’t think of his name, it’ll come to me—anyway, he was his traveling secratry Just died a couple years ago. Little guy named Fred [Ginard ?]. And Fred owned a house on Orchestra Place, right back of the old Gotham Hotel, which was right up the street from Gotham Hotel, which was a—you might say a blind pig and a whore house, and it was really strange. It was this old Victorian mansion. Freddy had his uncle who worked the door, and it was the place you would get a drink anytime you wanted—you know, after all the bars were closed, everything was down, you could always go to Freddy’s. And one thing about Freddy is he never took any money for anything, because he didn’t want it if he got arrested by the liquor control commission, he would say, “These are all my friends, I just – ” So he could be honest and say—of course, he sold other things, so. And he sold—but if you wanted to come in there for a drink, you know, which all of us did, most of the guys, we would—you’d have to call, and he had his uncle was working the door, and they had a big entrance hall, and you had to call ahead and he said, “Well, don’t come for 25 minutes.” You know, so you wouldn’t see people passing, I guess. He never said that, but he kept a – Sam Green, it was, the baseball writer for the News, Doc Green, who was a columnist later, the guy I succeeded as a columnist, he always kept—because the night games ran so late, Sam would go over there after at 3:00 in the morning, and he always kept a watermelon in the refrigerator for Sam, because Sam was from Texas or Louisiana or someplace, and he liked watermelon.
WW: Just a couple of quick wrap-up questions.
WW: How do you feel about the state of the city today?
PW: The what?
WW: State of the city of Detroit today.
PW: State of it, it’s great. I think it’s coming along. I think [Mayor] Duggan’s a good guy. You know, [Mayor] Coleman [Young], you’ve probably heard my—all of my associations with—you might be too young to have read—I was—gained quite a bit of notoriety for tweaking Coleman. In fact, I’m in the little red book of quotations by Chairman Coleman Young. And, yeah, we—I always thought that—people would always ask me where Detroit was and if it was ever going to rise, and my theory was, you know, for 30 years it hit rock bottom and stayed there, it just kept bouncing along. But sooner or later things got better. When Coleman finally retired and opened a job up to some other people. I’d been—you know, I was here through several mayors and, you know, Cobo, Al Cobo, and—
PW: Yeah, Jerry. Jerry was there during the riot, he had Ray Girardin as the police commissioner, a former Detroit Times reporter. And—I think it’s done very well, frankly, you know. Did well by me.
WW: Talking about ’67, do you find that it’s important?
PW: Do I find it what?
WW: That it’s important talking about ’67?
PW: Sure. I think everybody—yeah. Why? Because it’s an important part of the history in the city. It’s a—you know, a certain—that kind of stuff happens. I mean, if you go back and read—go through history and see a lot of more horrible things have happened in cities in other eras. And it happened in several places, and basically turned out to be pretty good for the city. In fact, I was in favor of Coleman Young getting elected. And, you know, I figured it’s a black city basically in those—but in those days, you see, it was like almost 50:50, it was like 51:49. And my theory about Coleman always was that he had—he finally made it, got to 51, and the 49—he couldn’t import any more black voters if he was going to run again in four years, so what he’d better do is drive off some of the white voters. And that was quite a popular theory in those days. Whether it was right or wrong, I don’t know. But what occurred was he drove out some of the white voters. I knew—Coleman knew, the minute he got elected, he knew he was elected for as long as he was going to be there, because he—his very presence was going to diminish—I don’t think he intentionally neglected areas, but certain areas did get neglected. And then, you know, there were a lot of other things going on to with the—I had a cop living across the street from me up here who was lieutenant in the Detroit police department. Lived here for years, all the way through residency, over near Balduck Park on the east side over here. There were half a dozen—they used to call it the Copper Canyon over here, and these guys would tell them to buy a house, use it for their address and they’d sleep there while they were on duty. And then he’d go home to Roseville and St. Clair Shores and other places like that. Everybody was cheating and it got to the point where internal affairs couldn’t handle it. Jim Bannon, who was the executive deputy police chief that Coleman had appointed, Jim moved up pretty fast. He had a house out on the west side, I’d been in that house. But he was living in Franklin Hills, because his wife had a lot of money and they had a big house out there. So, you know. I mean, I don’t think—I think the riot centered attention on where there were some real problems. You know, you talk about Twelfth Street and that area. My grandfather out at that station was a foot patrolman. He told me stories about walking up Twelfth Street, and there were a lot of Chinese up there, because in those—in the pre-World War I days, there were a lot of, you know, a lot of building going on, and there were a lot of Chinese who built the railroads all the way across the country. Chinese laborers. And there were a lot of them here in Detroit, the west side. And they had dope houses up in there, and they had racks, and he said, “I’m on foot patrol, I’d walk through just to make sure nobody died or, you know, somebody didn’t need something, or—“ They were right out the next door and never paid attention to anybody, the opium houses. You know. Things come around, so.
WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with us today.
PW: Thank you.
WW: I really appreciate it.