The feedback from readers and longtime listeners on Pete Wilson’s death is like a mirror image of his career. They praise him, thank him, eviscerate him and say how much they will miss him.
In death, as in life, Wilson, the consummate newsman, can still stir the waters.
I was stunned and saddened to hear of Wilson’s passing over the weekend because he was far too young, far too exuberant and far too valuable a presence in the Bay Area journalism community. I can’t say I knew him privately, but I knew him well enough, having been a guest on his television and radio shows numerous times during the last 15 years. He was smart, funny, razor-sharp and had one of the best deadpan deliveries I have seen since Johnny Carson. And he had an almost encyclopedic knowledge of news events, big and small, that he covered or read about in a long and stellar news-anchoring career during which he won two Peabody Awards, a host of local Emmys and a very impressive and vocal cadre of fans.
A lot of people who end up on the nightly news get there by becoming expert readers of the teleprompter, showing an ability to read the script while staring ahead at the camera. Wilson was largely unscripted, as good at defining and conveying the news as he was trying to dig deeper into it. He wanted to get the story right, but he also wanted to let the viewers or listeners know that there was much more of the story still unreported — a trait that helped build trust among those who followed his 24 years on the local airwaves.
Many television and radio “personalities’’ toss softball questions to their guests, even when they are people who understand the need for insightful, thoughtful queries. Wilson threw high heat — which is why he could make such an easy transition from television to talk radio. Wilson could talk on any subject, and he did, often in the same sequence. He could argue any way he wanted — he’d take his side and then he’d take your side, and then maybe he’d let you get a few words in if he liked you.
And apparently that was true in my case, since we shared a certain love of the absurd — which is to say the Bay Area’s wacky politics and its ever-growing fringe element. One of his producers would usually call me after I had written about the performance art passing as legislation in this town, whether it was renaming cat and dog owners “pet guardians” or a grand gesture to increase pedestrian safety by prohibiting right turns on red lights.
“He just had this great intellectual curiosity — he wanted to know why people believed what they believed,’’ said Jack Swanson, KGO’s longtime programming director. “It wasn’t a lefty-versus-righty thing with him. He just loved engaging people.’’
One of the reasons he proved so popular over the years is that he echoed the thoughts of most people who cringed at the lack of common sense and reason that has come to define so many government agencies and bureaucracies. He would arch his eyebrows, provide a perfectly timed pause and then utter his exasperation — the exact same thing Joe Six-Pack or Martha from Modesto were feeling from the confines of their car or their sofa. And he could laugh at the silliness of it all.
Wilson could certainly be curmudgeonly — it’s a good trait to have if you aspire to talk radio or column writing. But in truth he was more of a gentle giant who could easily be moved by a story or a listener with a poignant tale. After Sean Jones was mauled by pit bulls and required lengthy surgeries to survive, the tale of the Richmond youngster became the focus of one of Wilson’s shows and led to the creation of a charitable fund for Jones and his family.
“Pete always appreciated the talent in others,’’ said his former radio show producer, Sandra Firpo. “When I was thinking about moving to the morning news show, Pete encouraged me. When I left, he bought me an alarm clock. And now when I get up at 2 a.m. thanks to that lovely alarm clock, I think of him.’’
You can’t be a high-profile commentator without occasionally stubbing your toe, like the time Wilson criticized San Francisco Supervisor Bevan Dufty for having a baby with a lesbian friend. Yet unlike many opinion makers, Wilson generated few enemies.
It’s the way he handled himself — having a wonderful gift of gab, relishing the joy of being unpredictable and taking serious subjects seriously, but not applying that standard to himself.
Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at (415) 359-2663.