Remembering Steve Wilke

Hour Detroit’s former editor passed away this week. Today, metro Detroit’s journalism community pays respect as they remember him.
Steve Wilke
Steve Wilke

Steve Wilke took a moment to introduce himself, in the most Steve-like fashion, in his first editor’s letter for Hour Detroit magazine in January 2013. Although he had been at Hour Media for 11 years in the company’s custom publishing division, Steve was a new face to the magazine’s loyal readers. Humbly, he dedicated only a brief paragraph of the letter to his background and wrote about how he grew up in Fraser in a General Motors family, how he took a few years off from community college to play in a New Wave band appropriately called Cuppa Joe, and how he moved around the metro area as an adult until eventually ending up in a historic home in Detroit’s North Rosedale Park, where he and his wife raised their two children together. He lived there until his passing this week at the age of 61.

Steve’s letter ends with a quote from German statesman Otto von Bismarck: “Laws are like sausages; it is better not to see them being made.” And he said the same could be said of magazines. At the time, that analogy was meant to pay respect to Hour Detroit’s former staffers while celebrating those with whom he would work with for years to come as he ushered in a new era for the magazine. But, the sentiment, as it turns out, was just as fitting for how he would go on to run the operation.

Under Steve’s leadership, readers began to see a new side of Hour Detroit. It was a magazine that was in tune with the soul of the city. It featured photographers, writers, stylists, and other creatives who shared in Steve’s vision to create a publication that honored new developments in Detroit as well as the longtime residents and establishments that made revitalization possible. Steve’s editorial efforts were authentically him — as a leader who rejected the title “boss,” there wasn’t another way he could have guided the team — but that doesn’t mean it was always easy. Behind the scenes — where the “sausage” was being made — Steve could frequently be found pulling all-nighters or working weekends and holidays to meet deadlines. He’d push for more stories about “old” Detroit, encouraging staffers to get out and explore the city. He spotted raw talent and took the time to bring new journalists under his wing and help them craft their voices and build confidence as storytellers.

Steve Wilke
Steve Wilke photographed interviewing Alice Cooper and John Varvatos for Hour Detroit

Even for those who worked closely with him, there was a mysticism to how Steve was able to pull it all off while still remaining genuinely enthusiastic. In an industry like journalism, where deadlines are short, budgets are tight, and the president of the United States is encouraging citizens to distrust you, it can be difficult to find the motivation to keep at it for so long. And, as a cigarette-smoking, beer-loving, bass guitar-playing cursing caffeine fanatic, he didn’t necessarily embody the fashion-forward glossy reputation long associated with Hour Detroit. But Steve’s understanding of the state of journalism meant he advocated for his freelancers and encouraged his staff to take the time off they’d earned. Along with doing first edits on each story, he frequently contributed his own writing to the magazine, profiling hometown heroes like Alice Cooper and John Varvatos, reviewing his favorite books, and tapping into a range of topics like food, music, craft beer, sailing, baseball, and history. Through all this, his raw, real Detroit personality came through, adding new dimension to the magazine.

When Steve retired from Hour Media last year, as many who knew him came to learn, it wasn’t really goodbye. Along with joining the band One Foot in the Groove and the Golf Association of Michigan Foundation as a manager of fundraising and programming, he continued to take on projects for our company’s custom publishing department, worked on freelance stories for the magazine, and even joined Hour Detroit’s table at the Society of Professional Journalists Awards banquet in May 2019. Every time an Hour Detroit staffer — both current and former — won, he cheered and congratulated us. He was always a part of our team. He always will be.

Steve truly cared. He cared about his work, and he cared about those he worked with. In the moments since his passing, it’s evident just how many people cared for him, too. Today, as the news begins to settle in a little more, we’re taking a moment to reflect on who Steve was and what he meant to each of us. Past and present Hour Detroit journalists and creatives have shared some of their favorite memories of Steve. If you, too, have a memory you’d like to share, please do so in the comments.

Memories of Steve Wilke

Steve was remarkable to me because he was always so even keeled. No theatrics with Steve, I always knew what I was getting. And in this business that is pretty rare. He was the essence of good guy. —Molly Abraham, former food columnist

My fondest memory of Steve was when we would talk about food and restaurants. He would ask me what restaurants I ate at and recommend places for me to check out. He would explain to me in great detail about dishes that I must order and would ask me later if I had tried it. Steve was passionate about the community and the food. He will be missed. —Jenni Choi, former associate art director

One thing that I wish more people understood about Steve and his time at Hour Detroit was that he was a proud Detroiter. He bought a house in North Rosedale Park long before it was “cool” to move to Detroit, and helmed Hour during the years when Detroit’s reputation (finally!) started changing from Murder City to Comeback City. Though the glossy pages of Hour often depicted an upscale, cosmopolitan view of our city, Steve made sure they still had soul. As he used to say to critics, “Don’t hate us ‘cause we’re beautiful!” —Lee DeVito, former associate editor

I joined the Hour staff as a lowly copy editor. On the side, I did (still do) a pop-up restaurant. A few years ago, he and his wife graciously volunteered to serve at one of my events. Once service was over, we bellied up to the bar. As we waited for our drinks, he told me I was being promoted to managing editor! Steve was a good editor, but he was an even more amazing, generous, kind-hearted person who would fight to the ends of the earth for people he believed in. He saw something in me that no one else did, and for that, I will always be grateful. —Dorothy Hernandez, former copy editor and managing editor

Steve did not put on airs and was happy to exist left of center. You could always be real with him — and he was always real with you. He invited my mom and me into his home in Grandmont Rosedale one day while we were there for the annual home tour. He wanted me to move to his neighborhood so badly. He thought I could do anything. He was such a booster of Detroit, of life’s possibilities, and of the people he cared about. —Monica Mercer, freelance writer and former associate editor 

Steve loved to cook, loved to eat even more, and enjoyed writing about food perhaps best of all. Not so long ago, I agreed to meet Steve at Troy’s Polka Restaurant and Beer Café, which he was to review for Hour Detroit. I [was slavering] over the tender beef short ribs and the “delightfully lumpy” mashed potatoes. “I’m going to steal that description from you in my review,” Steve said. “Go ahead,” I countered, “just don’t steal my potatoes.” He went wild over the city chicken, which he pronounced as good as his grandmother’s. We demolished the dill pickle soup, greedily sampled every manner of pierogi, cheese, and sausage, and heartily quaffed pints of Polish beer. Our conversation was lively, veering from soccer and politics to Detroit history. Good times like that aren’t made; they just happen. We left filled, but also fulfilled: the mark of an ideal meal. So long, Steve. —George Bulanda, The Way It Was columnist and former managing editor of Hour Detroit and Detroit Home magazines

My memories of Steve all tend to run together with that same mile-a-minute frenetic energy the man possessed while talking about books or golf or bass guitar. A dead ringer for J.K. Simmons — only nicer and rail thin, hopped up on coffee, rocking back and forth from heel to toe, chain-smoking, always with that grin so wide and those kind eyes, punctuating every sentence with a drawn out “you know…” while waiting for your reaction — that’s how I’ll remember him. Steve was a reluctant boss and a generous soul who never made a single enemy despite his love for a well-placed curse word. He was a booster — of his city, his family, his friends, Frank Zappa, craft beer, obscure authors, perfect strangers. It didn’t matter. Steve radiated love and kindness of the sort that made all of us in his ever-humble orbit better. The world is a little less good without him, but all the better for that little while he was here. I will always miss him. —Mark Kurlyandchik, former senior editor

Steve Wilke wrote for me long before I ever wrote for him. When I was hired as an editorial supervisor for Campbell-Ewald in the ’90s, Steve had been there for years. He knew the ad agency inside out, and could have been prickly about having to report to some newbie. Yet he was not only gracious, but garrulous: I had written about his band, Cuppa Joe, years before in The Detroit News, and he loved to talk music. Likewise, I freelanced for Hour through four editors before Steve arrived. I wasn’t sure what to expect with the tables turned, but his upbeat personality never wavered. He was my first editor to ever invite me out for a beer. Or a cuppa joe. —Jim McFarlin, freelance writer

Steve had an amazing ability to find the nugget of wisdom within a long list of story pitches. He’d hone in on that one concept of high interest that would resonate with the audience. Of all my editors, he was the one most responsible for improving my style and ability to engage people. Thank you for everything. You will be missed. —Nick Britsky, former spirits contributor

I’ll never forget getting the call with a job offer from Steve — I was the first person he hired when he became Hour Detroit‘s editor and that job offer shaped my career (and life) forever. I remember a drive back to the burbs from Detroit in his Saturn — we took the long way back and drove through Rosedale Park and Boston Edison. His love for Detroit was real and he passed that on to all of us who worked with him. He encouraged us to leave the office and explore Detroit to find story ideas — my love for the city is largely because of him. He was the best boss I’ve ever had. —Casey Nesterowich, former associate editor  

I sat next to Steve for several years when we were both new to Hour. We shared a love of the Thai food spot and bakery down the street for lunch and spent many an afternoon cracking each other up with nearly impossible-to-follow conversations about music and pop culture. I loved hearing about his former band, Cuppa Joe. He was a talented writer and editor and, more importantly, a genuinely nice person. My favorite memory of Steve is that we had spent many, many hours riffing on pop culture esoterica over the years, including one winding discussion on rock concepts that had not aged well.  And at my going away party he presented me with the piece de resistance of aged rock concepts — a vinyl of Uriah Heep’s Demons and Wizards. Hilarious, yes. But whenever I thought about it later, it struck me that Steve went to the record store, found that album, and bought it, just to say goodbye. And that was the kind of guy he was. —Matt Lee, former associate editor

Steve was a mentor to so many talented writers in Detroit. He was generous, kind, and curious — in every sense of the word. —Mickey Lyons, freelance writer  

I will never forget the look of delight on Steve’s face when his wife surprised him by bringing their German shepherd puppy to model in a dogs-wearing-men’s-accessories shoot art directed by Cassidy [Zobl]. He was such a kind, genuine person, and he will be deeply missed. —Rebecca Voigt, Metro Detroit Weddings magazine editor