BRIAN WOOD: A Tribute to the Integrity, Passion & Levity of a Legendary Force in the Great Lakes Bay

    icon Dec 05, 2013
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''Some say that gleams of a remoter world
Visit the soul in sleep - that death is slumber,
And that its shapes the busy thoughts outnumber
Of those who wake and live.''
                        - Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

It was early afternoon on Thanksgiving Day, gathered with friends, that I heard the news about the sudden collapse of my good friend and fellow journalistic colleague Brian Wood.  Having experienced the loss of family members and many friends over the years, I am humbled at how the passing of each individual that we are close to can impact  us differently, depending upon the unique manner and contours of the ways their actions helped shape our lives.

With the case of Brian, in the 72-plus hours since I learned of his untimely demise; and as I gather these thoughts together to compose this tribute hours before his funeral, I am astounded at how broadly and vividly his friendship impacted my own life at various pivotal stages over the three decades that I enjoyed the pleasure of knowing and experiencing him.

While I have many friends that I was closer to than Brian, there are few that have managed  to extend their support & insight into pivotal moments of my life – both professionally & personally – at critical junctures when I needed unique professional expertise and gifts of levity and insight the most.  And ironically, it was with his passing, that all those moments converged into a kaleidoscope of memory to remind me exactly how large, important, and significant his force and presence within the community indeed was – and how much poorer we now are for losing it.

When Brian first moved to town in 1985 to start his career at WNEM-TV 5, he rented his first apartment above my father’s law offices at 803 Court St.  I had been publishing what was then known as The Bay Area Review for six years, had toured with many of the local press crews when political figures like Teddy Kennedy were running for President and would fly into town; and had broken several important investigative stories, such as the financing scandal involving the Saginaw Conference Center – yet none of the other so-called ‘major media’ outlets had ever bothered to profile either the Review, or the expressive outlets that I was struggling to cultivate with it throughout the tri-city area.

Brian proved to be the exception to the rule – as he did later on many occasions. Early in his days at TV-5, he called me one day to say that he wanted to shoot a profile on The Review, focusing on our new For Singles Only section that had blown up with pages of lonely hearts seeking relationships and companionship.  Brian came into our offices, interviewed the staff, and took painstaking care to tell our story accurately.  Obviously, we were not the only ones to experience his gift for shedding light on new and positive ventures within the community.

This is because Brian took a strong and proactive interest not only in a professional context as an investigative journalist; but in shedding greater light and support upon the positive endeavors of people, businesses, and organizations working to improve the Saginaw community. In many ways he was the 'face' of WNEM TV-5 for many years, precisely because he had that rare gift of involving himself within the community that he both lived and loved; while working in tandem as a force for revitalizing the ambiance, architecture, and 'soul' of our community in Old Town.

In the late ‘90s, when he first acquired the legendary J.B. Meinberg’s, Brian became a ‘neighbor’. The Review offices are located only a few blocks away from JB’s and during this period our friendship blossomed.  Brian would often call and ask about new bands and talent in the area that he could possibly book for the club; and on more than a few nights we would go out on the town listening to new musicians and artists, discussing things happening on the local political landscape that people should know and be informed about, and further solidifying both our personal and professional bonds.

Another one of the beautiful things about ‘Woody’ is that he was a ‘giver’ as much as he was a ‘taker’.  For every phone call that I ever received from him asking about possible sources that he could use for a story he might be working on, I can safely say that he would return the favor. Unlike many proprietary journalists of today seeking media stardom, Brian realized that the truths embedded within any given story were more important than the person delivering the story; and doing one’s job with integrity and fairness was more often than not a collaborative effort. 

Plus, during his entire tenure at J.B. Meinberg’s and later Woody O’Brien’s, there was not a single issue that passed where he didn’t commit to at least a ¼ page display ad from each of his establishments.  This is because Woody knew that despite our commitment to literally offering a ‘free’ press; there was nothing free about it – and that everything comes at a price. In short, he admired what we did with The Review and wanted to support it.

In many ways, Brian’s development of Meinberg’s and Woody’s marked the zenith of the Old Town Entertainment district. I am glad that it is still standing to mark his legacy because under his stewardship, it became the after-work Happy Hour hangout for political figures, business leaders, attorneys, and professionals from all walks of life.  And Brian was always quick to introduce me to anybody that he felt it important for me to meet.  Again, ever the ambassador.

What saddens me most about Brian’s passing is that right around the time that he announced his retirement from TV-5 one month ago to enjoy life and further pursue his interest in photography, I told him that he was too young to retire and that I had been looking for a new cover photographer for quite some time.  Impressed with the quality of his photographic explorations, I asked Brian if he would be up for the gig.  His face brightened, he flashed that unmistakable smile, and he said, ‘Absolutely, Bobby – that would be great. I’ll give you a call.”   

Unfortunately for all of us, fate carried a different agenda.

Ex-Saginaw Mayor Carol Cottrell summed it up best during the TV-5 tribute to Brian on the day of his passing when she said, “I never heard a single person speak a bad word about Brian. He was loved by everybody that he touched.”  And I will gladly second that emotion.

While sifting through our photo archive  looking for pictures to incorporate into this Tribute piece, I came across a photo that I took of Brian with his staff when I wrote a story about the opening of Woody O'Briens. I remember telling Brian I wanted a nice tight cover photo of him; but he deferred and insisted that I shoot a group photo of him with his staff, because that's just the way Brian was - a firm believer in sharing the spotlight.  And this is the way I like to remember him best – surrounded by his ‘angels’; as I am certain he is right now as I write this.

In summation, there is one final thought – an epiphany, if you will – that I would like to share. At the far end of the corner bar facing Hamilton Street in Meinberg’s there exists a string of plaques commemorating the names of fallen heroes of our community.  Many of them were regular customers at JB’s; and the first one to go was the late Teddy Makrianis. I remember Teddy very well, as he was always one of the first faces I would see when entering Meinberg’s for Happy Hour after a long day of work. When Teddy passed, Brian had a plaque made with his date of birth & date of death and said to me, “We need to keep the memory of Teddy alive.”

Unfortunately, over the years, other names came to rest next to Teddy’s:  my good friend, author of The Two Burner Gourmet,  and long-time Review contributor Terry Searfoss, followed by Mick Cottrell (the man responsible for lighting up the skies of Saginaw with bursts of unmistakable possibility as the force behind Saginaw Area Fireworks, whom without the 4th of July fireworks spectacle that decades later still sets the standard in the Great Lakes Bay area  would never have happened) , and then the fabulous Mark Bellinger  - an ace magician that studied under Harry Houdini, and whom Brian brought regularly into JB’s each weekend to mystify patrons over Happy Hour(For younger patrons frequenting JB’s these days, the cards sticking on the copper ceiling are vestiges of Bellinger’s brilliance).

And such was the way Brian threw a party – take a seemingly discordant group of movers, shakers, and everyday dreamers walking in from the street – serve them together equally, shaken and not stirred…and let’s see what it tastes like.

But I digress.  Because the simple point of this tale is that each time one more of the more vibrant life forces in our community would fall, Brian would add a plaque baring their name.  It was a ‘Special Club’ that he created, born from commitment, passion, engagement, creativity, and a love for individuals that gave Saginaw it’s soul, regardless of their walk or station in life. 

Brian understood that certain forces are so great that when they become diminished from our view by death, it is our job to leave a trace of their memory behind – so some new, fresh-faced 21-year old walking into the pub for their first time might possibly catch a blinding gleam of sunlight flashing off any one of those plaques on a bright Spring afternoon decades later and become distracted enough to walk over, read the inscriptions, and have their interest piqued enough to delve deeper into the possible origins of the perhaps unfamiliar names that momentarily blinded them…and now sit there…mounted for posterity.

Call it a gesture of sentimentality, or a respectful nod to actions of individuals that created waves of impact that rippled in mysterious and magnificent waves throughout the fabric and soul of our social core, but to me Brian’s decision to start this ‘shrine’ speaks volumes about the type of man that he was:  Brian realized that as important as life is, it is through the recesses of memory that  the ghosts of the departed live on; to remind us to be true to our ‘better selves’.

To quote Shelley again and hopefully provide a circular symmetry to this meditation, our thoughts and actions never die but serve a larger purpose.

Farewell my friend: you will be missed, but never forgotten:

''Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,
Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!

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