Defining Moments: Robert Dustman’s new book captures a portrait of life at war

Robert “Bob” Dustman has always been a storyteller. After a 25-year career in broadcasting, Dustman served as Director of Communications for Oakland County, narrating the county’s transformation under County Executive L. Brooks Patterson. Now retired, this Auburn Hills resident is still chronicling events — though, this time, he’s revisited the past for inspiration. Dustman’s first memoir, Defining Moments, tells the story of his father’s service in the South Pacific during WWII, and the aftermath war wrought on one family.

“Defining Moments: A True Story of War, Family Conflict & Reconciliation,” is really the story of Bill Dustman, who left Bucyrus, Ohio, for the Philippines in 1940. His story is told with the help of more than 300 letters he penned to his family back home during the war — a forgotten treasure trove Dustman discovered in a footlocker, decades later. “My dad was a very emotional guy, he wore his emotions on his sleeve,” he remembers. “So these letters get inside his head and his heart and let people know what he was thinking and feeling — his perspective on the war and his perspective on life. It’s a very intimate portrait of what a GI in the war was going through.

But Defining Moments also devotes a few chapters to life after the war, chronicling a family’s strife that Dustman says he wasn’t aware of until he sat down to write the book two years ago. “It was very emotional, but cathartic, in a way,” he says. “I was trying to end the book with an epilogue, but I added another part of ‘after-thoughts.’ The conclusion I came to was despite the problems they had, they were really not a lot different from a lot of other families that have gone through dysfunctional moments,” Dustman adds. “That’s the definition of family: dysfunction. Every family goes through that which I think is why it’s relatable and why I think a lot of people will relate to this book. At the end of the day, despite all the warts and all the problems, I’m still proud of my family from which I was born and proud of my upbringing.”

If writing is a genetic trait, like brown eyes or anemia, Bob Dustman’s abilities to wield a pen came from his father. “My father was an excellent writer,” Dustman remembers. “In fact, these letters were written in a way that I felt he intended to write his own memoir — but for whatever reason he never got around to it.”

Though Bob knew he always wanted to write a novel, he began his career in broadcasting, after graduating from college, as the sports director for 9 and 10 News in Cadillac. That began a journeyman’s career behind the mic and in front of the camera in Grand Rapids, Pontiac and, finally, Detroit.

“I was one of the fortunate ones in broadcasting,” he reflects. “A lot of broadcasters, for one reason or another, were forced to leave the state and go elsewhere for other opportunities; but I’ve spent my entire 25-year career in radio and television broadcasting in the state of Michigan.”

A career highlight: serving as political director for WWJ during the 1988 presidential elections, covering the Atlanta and New Orleans national conventions. “I really enjoyed doing the political events,” Dustman remembers. “I was at the inauguration of George W Bush, and some of the people I got to meet along the way because of that … Walter Cronkite, John Glenn, Billy Graham, Al Gore, Walter Mondale, people like that. It was exciting to be involved in that whole process.

His life took a different turn after more than two decades in the news cycle — hunting down stories, running traffic broadcasts, interviewing politicians. L. Brooks Patterson, a county prosecutor whom Dustman had covered frequently during his time in office, announced his campaign for County Executive in the 1992 elections, and asked Dustman if he’d want the role of public information officer. Dustman says they’ve gone back 35 years. “I actually covered the first election he ran for Oakland County prosecutor in 1972, and he pulled an upset of sorts when he beat the incumbent,” Dustman says. He remembers Patterson as a no-nonsense defender of justice, “The People’s Lawyer,” advocating for capital punishment, sending purveyors of pornography across 8 Mile Road, eliminating “good time” for violent criminals. “It was really a no-brainer for me when he asked me to join his team because I had a good sense of what kind of a guy he was, what his character was; I was eager to do what I could for him,” he says.

When Bob Dustman began his tenure alongside Patterson in the Oakland County building, he says there were only 200 personal computers in use in Oakland County. One of their first projects was leading the county to embrace technology across the broad spectrum of government, providing hardware and training to over 4,000 employees. He also helped translate Patterson’s colorful reputation as a politician into news stories. In an essay for The Dome, Dustman wrote of one instance meant to demonstrate Oakland County’s commitment to the environment:

Brooks got behind the wheel and maneuvered the street sweeper for a few miles all over the freeway (and I do mean all over). As he came over a hill just north of Eight Mile, a phalanx of television lights and flashbulbs greeted him. Brooks climbed out of the cab all dirty and grimy, looking as though he had just spent the day in a coal mine. Brooks did his media interviews and the event made the 11 o’clock news.

Dustman says the most difficult decision he ever faced in his life was contemplating retirement, given his time-tested relationship with the County Executive. “I’ve always felt a sense of loyalty to him and I’ve always told him, ‘You know, I left the job but I never left you so anytime you need me for anything I’m a phone call away’, Dustman assures. ” But what I really wanted to do — I’m 65 now, I was 62 when I retired — my priority was to write a book. I really wanted to do that, that was the driving force behind my retirement, I knew if I never retired or kept putting it off I’d never get around to it.”

While Dustman wrote a book about his father’s legacy in the war, examining his own legacy proves to be a more modest affair. He says, at the beginning of his tenure, there weren’t a lot of projects and programs in place to promote the good work of the county to its citizens. But he’s quick to emphasize that leadership was key to his own personal success.

“Looking at the larger picture, I am extremely proud and everybody on the team should be extremely proud to work for a guy like Brooks Patterson because there’s nobody like him — from my perspective in America, in terms of leadership and dynamics and vision. I mean he’s one of a kind, he really is,” Dustman says.

But the freedom of retirement has proven compelling, and even fruitful for Dustman, who enjoys spending time with his wife and golfing when not writing. His memoir, Defining Moments, is available at Barnes & Noble, and several local retailers. He admits that he’s already come up with the title for his second novel — Behind the Mic, a no-holds-barred examination of Michigan broadcasting and Dustman’s experiences in the newsroom.

“It’ll be a book about what happens after the mics are turned off and the lights are turned off,” Dustman explains. “It’s a world that a lot of people haven’t heard about. I think it will be very revealing, I was lucky to have a lot great and some not so great experiences in the business that I think will be of interest to people.

Photos courtesy of Oakland County.