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Bill Pearce, key figure in the development of WXXI, has died at 95

A key figure in the development of public broadcasting in Rochester has died. WXXI’s Randy Gorbman has a look back at the life of Bill Pearce:

Bill Pearce, the longest-serving president of WXXI, has died at the age of 95.

His son Ryder said that his father passed away Saturday night at The Friendly Home in Rochester. Ryder Pearce said his father passed away peacefully and some family members were able to be there with him in his final days.

Pearce served as president of WXXI for 26 years. He started the first public radio station on Long Island before taking over as president of WXXI in 1969. Pearce led the stations when WXXI-FM went on the air and when AM 1370 was acquired and became the organization’s main news station. He was involved in the creation and presentation of many key programs for WXXI including, "The Rochester I Know," "Homework Hotline," and "Presidential Interviews."

Bill Pearce was born in Oklahoma and grew up in Buffalo. He was one of the first Native Americans (Citizen Potawatomi Nation) to enlist in World War II. He joined at age 16 and spent four years in the Navy in the Pacific on the USS Windsor, including the Battle of Peleliu, the deadliest amphibious assault in U.S. military history, and Ryder Pearce said his father saw many friends die.

Pearce later earned degrees from Syracuse University, including a master's degree in journalism from the Newhouse School, and also had worked as communications director for Brown University. During his tenure at WXXI, the station earned numerous educational television awards and a Peabody award.

After retiring in 1995, Pearce spent the next two decades researching and writing Native American papers.  He served on many boards, including the Ganandogan State Historic Site and the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Current WXXI President & CEO Norm Silverstein said Bill Pearce was, "The right person at the right time to lead an organization like this," and he said Pearce helped raise money for the construction of the current facilities. He said Pearce was president of WXXI when it added Classical FM 91.5, AM 1370 and Reachout Radio.

Deborah Onslow worked with Pearce for about 15 years, eventually becoming a Senior Vice President at WXXI. She remembers Pearce as a good boss, someone who was fair in how he dealt with employees.

“Even in those early days he was gender-neutral, that is he didn’t give a damn whether you were a man or a woman, what he cared about was what kind of job you did, whether or not you did a good job. And once you showed him that you were capable, he had no hestitation about promotion about praising you," Onslow said.

Ryder Pearce said that his father, "loved interacting with people and was just very friendly and outgoing and I think that came across at WXXI. He was obviously involved in all of the auctions every year and that was a big part of his personality, being the outgoing face of the fundraising."

Peter Jemison is Historic Site Manager at Ganandogan. He remembers Pearce's involvement with efforts there to build a longhouse, and help with education efforts about Native Americans in the Rochester community.

"I recall that he helped set up a symposium that we had at RIT and we were looking at the Indian roots of American democracy and that’s one of the things that Bill was very interested in, our form of government and how it influenced the U.S.," Jemison said.

Bill Pearce is survived by a sister, a brother, six children, two grandchildren, and life partner Mary Taylor.

Memorial contributions may be made to Friends of Ganondagan.

Bill Pearce at his retirement dinner with children Tyler and Ryder, and TV personality and pundit, John McLaughlin.
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Bill Pearce with former Gov. Mario Cuomo and Ryder Pearce in the mid-1990s.
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Copyright 2020 WXXI News

Randy Gorbman is WXXI's Director of News and Public Affairs. Randy manages the day-to-day operations of WXXI News on radio, television, and online.