Willard “Bill” DeMestri, award-winning chief photographer emeritus of the Belleville News-Democrat, passed away Thursday night. He would have been 96 on Monday.
DeMestri was a lifelong Belleville resident and spent 66 years capturing images showing the joys of teachers on the last day of school and the heartbreak of a parent discovering his daughter was murdered. Until the past few weeks, his life was lived on the same Belleville lot on Vernier Avenue where he was born in 1921.
DeMestri survived Belleville’s deadliest tornado in the old family home there on March 15, 1938, by hiding under the dining room table with his siblings. The house lost its front and back porches, 10 people died and 85 buildings were destroyed, including the new Union School.
During World War II, Sgt. DeMestri was part of a secret photographic unit that created 3-D images of France and its terrain to show the Allied invaders the obstacles they faced. He was based near London and was wounded when a German V-1 rocket exploded near his bus and showered him with glass.
But DeMestri was best known as a photographer. He photographed six United States presidents, yet he was best known for the feature images of kids caught breaking a window with their baseball, of a drinking fountain splashing a youngster’s nose and of idled kids who lost their football when it stuck in the arm of a streetlight.
“I got to do what most people consider to be a hobby as my job,” DeMestri said for a story about Belleville’s 200th anniversary. “And I made a nice living at it. I feel like I never worked a day in my whole life.”
He first worked for the Belleville Daily Advocate, then was one of the staffers who migrated when the News-Democrat purchased its competitor in 1958.
DeMestri had a “stop the presses” moment in 1978 when police discovered the body of 14-year-old Elizabeth West, who was abducted, raped and murdered while walking a few blocks home from a Belleville West production of “Oklahoma.” He rushed back to the paper from a wooded area south of Millstadt, developed his images and got them into the afternoon edition.
DeMestri lost the love of his life, Arlene DeMestri, in November. He was never the same and spoke of joining her in the afterlife. Her birthday would have been Saturday.
The couple met in the nightclub of the former Hotel Belleville, which later became the Meredith Home. It started with DeMestri taking a picture of Arlene dancing with another guy but led to a marriage that lasted 61 years.
They are survived by their daughter, Cindy Heidorn, who as a child could occasionally be spotted in her father’s photographs, bundled up for sledding or with a lightning bug on her nose. Her husband, Jeff, and their children, Jessica and Jeffrey, also survive the DeMestris.
As important as DeMestri was to the community, he was the heart and soul of the News-Democrat, mentoring upstart staffers and getting crusty police officers to talk to them. He retired in 1989 but worked part time for another 18 years and never stopped being a presence in the newsroom.
“Bill was like your favorite uncle: always encouraging, always upbeat and always helpful,” Publisher Jay Tebbe said Friday. “His long and successful career at the Belleville News-Democrat was an inspiration to many. I will miss his stories and his encouragement, and am saddened by his passing. It is not an overstatement to say Bill was loved by many current and former BND staff.”
DeMestri still tended the paper’s rose garden, which was named for him, and provided ample produce from his home garden for the local food pantry, as well as the News-Democrat’s staffers. Arlene DeMestri was the baker and inspired recipes in the newspaper’s food section, and made Christmas extra special for the staff with dozens of cookie varieties.
Arlene DeMestri would deliver the calories to staffers, and Bill DeMestri would keep them in check. He would pinch a roll of your fat and say, “You better watch that, buddy boy,” if he thought you were gaining too much weight.
“Bill was a Belleville treasure, and he was a BND treasure, too. He gave back to his community every day by chronicling life here in the pages of the BND,” Executive Editor Jeff Couch said. “He loved this newspaper, and this newspaper loved him during his working days and long after, when Arlene and Bill would visit the newsroom, goodies and good cheer in hand. Bill will always be an inspiration, and he will be missed.”
DeMestri golfed in a foursome with former Publisher Gary Berkley, attended church with and often teased former Belleville District 118 Superintendent Jim Rosborg and was possibly the best cheerleader for Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert, whom he’d known since Eckert was a youngster. He at one time knew every police officer in the city and often ate lunch with them. He was a regular at Fischer’s Restaurant, including eating there on their last day, and loved a Manhattan cocktail with friends.
“There wasn’t a step in my life that he didn’t stop me and talk to me,” said Eckert, whose aunt and uncle lived across from DeMestri and whose father, a Belleville police sergeant, was close friends with DeMestri. “He was always extremely encouraging. When we started Franklin Neighborhood Association, he said, ‘Hey, I really like what you’re doing here.’ He’s somebody who made you feel good about your efforts.”
DeMestri loved Belleville and always wanted to know what was going on or to share news or his opinion. He held court on his carport or cornered Eckert at the back of St. Paul United Church of Christ: “‘What do you know about this,’ or ‘I hear this.’ I said, ‘Goddamn, Bill. I hope when I’m your age I have half the energy you have.’”
Eckert said DeMestri believed in people and built trust and respect that led people to share news with him. DeMestri thirsted for news.
“I haven’t worked a day in my life because I have loved every minute of it,” DeMestri once said. “It was something new and different every day, and I got to meet so many wonderful people. I couldn’t have asked for anything better.”
Arrangements for our great friend and teacher include visitation 4-8 p.m. Monday and 9-10 a.m. Tuesday at Renner Funeral Home, 120 N. Ilinois St. in Belleville. Funeral services will be at 10 a.m. Tuesday at the funeral home. Burial with full military honors will be at Lake View Memorial Gardens in Fairview Heights.