Bill Pearce, an educator who led WXXI’s expansion and growth in Rochester, N.Y., died May 9 at the age of 95.
Colleagues from WXXI remembered him as a driven and energetic leader who became an integral part of the Rochester community. After joining the station in 1969 as its second GM and president, he became involved in developing television productions, colleagues said. In the mid-1970s, Pearce began adding radio frequencies that expanded WXXI into a full-service public broadcaster.
“He never ran out of energy,” said Deborah Onslow, a nonprofit consultant who worked for Pearce at WXXI for 15 years. “He was always interested in what was going on and what was going on with his employees. Just a terrific, memorable person.”
Pearce retired in 1995, concluding 26 years as the station’s chief executive.
Pearce’s arrival in 1969 made him one of the “pioneers” in public broadcasting, said Norm Silverstein, current CEO of WXXI. The Public Broadcasting Act had been signed two years earlier; CPB and PBS were startups. NPR did not yet exist.
“In the early days, it was a blank slate,” Silverstein said. “There were high hopes for public broadcasting, and it was really created to make sure there was something of value on television. I think Bill understood that and the lifelong learning public broadcasting could do.”
Pearce’s focus and leadership in TV production were exceptional for that era, and that legacy endures, Silverstein said. Among other programs, Pearce created and hosted the show The Rochester I Know, which featured his interviews with interesting people in the community. Pearce also leveraged his connections to personally host a series of interviews with U.S. presidents, including George H.W. Bush.
“That was almost unheard of — the head of a local station going to the White House to interview the president,” said Silverstein. “So that brought a lot of fame to WXXI.”
WXXI won two Peabody awards under Pearce: for Safe Haven, a documentary about America’s only shelter for Holocaust refugees, and for the music show Fascinatin’ Rhythm, which explored the history and themes of American popular music.
Today WXXI manages a large portfolio of TV productions for a station of its size, Silverstein said.
Under Pearce, the public broadcaster added two radio stations. Classical WXXI-FM, on 91.5, launched in 1974, and AM 1370 began service in 1984 and continues as Rochester’s NPR News station.
Pearce arrived at WXXI from WLIW in Long Island, N.Y., where he had been GM. WXXI’s studios and offices were in the basement of a former high school. A running joke among staff at the time was that the floor was so unlevel, the cameras rolled on their own, Silverstein said.
Pearce started the campaign to build a new headquarters for WXXI. The two buildings that were constructed in downtown Rochester are where the station is located today.
“He was really proud of that,” said Tyler Pearce, one of his daughters. “He garnered public support for it by showing how this was something that was needed in Rochester and could be something that would put us on the map.”
Pearce was born in Oklahoma and grew up in Buffalo, N.Y. A citizen of the Potawatomi Nation, he was one of the first Native Americans to enlist in World War II at the age of 16, according to WXXI. After serving in the Navy for four years, he earned his undergraduate degree in English at the University of Miami through the GI Bill. Afterwards, he taught in a high school in Connecticut and then moved to Japan to teach English for four years.
He later earned a master’s degree in radio and TV at Syracuse University and began pursuing a career in educational television. After jobs with the New York Department of Education and at Brown University, Pearce joined WLIW. He was with the Long Island station for a year before moving on to Rochester to lead WXXI.
Education had always been Bill Pearce’s “pet mission,” said Tyler Pearce. He saw public broadcasting as a medium to provide equal opportunities for education because its programs are free to everyone.
“I think he saw that he could reach a lot more people through broadcasting than through a classroom,” Tyler said.
During his retirement, Pearce returned to his educational interests by researching and writing papers on Native American issues. He was especially focused on the hidden horrors of Native American boarding schools. His grandparents and his father had been sent to the schools, which were part of the U.S. government’s attempts to force assimilation on Native Americans.
“Something that made him frustrated was the extent to which American society was ignorant to Native history,” said his daughter Margaret Pearce.
WXXI colleagues remembered Pearce’s pride in his Native American heritage, but Margaret said that didn’t come easily to her father. He worked through a painful process over a long period of time to achieve it.
“He raised us to be proud, but he had been raised to bury it,” said Margaret. “So he started making those reconnections with us, and as we became adults that was something we started participating in with him.”
Silverstein said Pearce was probably one of the first Native Americans to serve as president of a public broadcasting station. Pearce later served on the board of Ganondagan State Historic Site, a Native American historic site in Ontario County, N.Y., and supported the construction of a longhouse there.
Pearce is survived by a sister, a brother, six children, two grandchildren, and life partner Mary Taylor. Any memorial contributions can be made to Friends of Ganondagan.