Lawrence “Larry” Bonko thumbnail

Lawrence Walter Bonko

June 5, 1934 - May 13, 2021

Larry Bonko spent decades writing for The Virginian-Pilot and other newspapers, covering football games, made-for-TV feuds among wrestling heroes and villains, women pining for a bachelor’s affection and many other topics.

The award-winning former columnist and reporter died Friday morning around 1 a.m. due to heart disease, leaving behind two sons, Dirk and Mark Bonko, and countless bylines that graced the pages of The Pilot, its former sister paper, The Ledger-Star, and its current sister paper, the Daily Press.

After Bonko had a heart attack in 2016 and fell ill again last year, Dirk asked him to churn out one more piece — this time, about himself.

Somehow up for the task, Larry chronicled his start as a young, part-time writer for The Standard-Sentinel, a newspaper in Hazleton, Pennsylvania. A high school student, Bonko worked the phones in the sports department. During his junior year he became the paper’s correspondent in his hometown, McAdoo, and got his first byline.

He graduated and enlisted in the Navy in January 1953, rather than being drafted into the Army during the Korean War. He worked as a journalist during a four-year Navy stint that included time in Norfolk, time on the battleship Wisconsin and other ships, including one that took him to Antarctica during Operation Deep Freeze.

While studying at the Norfolk Division of the College of William & Mary (now Old Dominion University), he worked nights in The Pilot’s sports department, then got a job at the Daily Press and, in 1961, began working full-time for The Pilot.

During his career at The Pilot, Bonko wrote a column, “Signals with Larry Bonko,” and covered radio and television news as a staffer, then as a freelancer.

He wrote in a punchy style, his columns often a collection of observations with lead-ins like: “Most boastful meteorologists” and “Least subtle commercials.”

“Larry had a fun, vaudeville-meets-Vegas comic sensibility,” said Dan Duke, a senior content editor at the Pilot who edited Bonko’s work for several years. “Plus, he had tremendous energy and drive, and cared deeply about the paper and connecting with readers.”

His last piece for The Pilot ran in April 2020, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, delving into how news anchors report news to the community while keeping themselves safe. He also wrote for the local arts publication VEER Magazine.

Bonko really enjoyed his work, especially presiding over the sports desk at the Daily Press in Newport News, said Dirk Bonko.

“He was really kind of proud of that,” he said on the phone Friday morning. “Doing layouts and editing copy. He told me that that was sort of a diamond, or sort of a feather in his cap, so to speak, until 1961 when he rejoined the Norfolk paper.”

Dirk said his father had been at Lake Taylor Transitional Care Hospital since May 9. He died at 86, just as his wife, Annemarie, did in 2017.

Larry was a quiet guy who liked listening to Frank Sinatra, seeing movies and eating at restaurants with his family, according to Dirk.

He read “Rolling Stone” and “Entertainment Weekly” to keep up with entertainment news, and his love for sports didn’t stop when he left work.

He was a big St. Louis Cardinals fan, and one of his sports heroes was “Stan the Man” Musial, a Hall of Fame outfielder and first baseman for the team, his son said.

He also covered the Super Bowl in New Orleans one year.

“He got me a bunch of autographs from the players,” Dirk said. “He liked doing that, and he was great.”

One of his favorite memories with his father was going to Baltimore to cover the Colts when they played the Miami Dolphins. Dirk was about 13 at the time, and the game turned out to be a bright spot during a difficult season for the Colts.

“We saw the Colts beat the Dolphins in the fog,” Dirk said. “Over time, it started a new Colts dynasty in the ’70s. They were good for about six years, and we were at that famous game. It was like the best day of my life.”

Dirk said his father’s health was never good after the massive heart attack in 2016.

He recalled something the specialist who performed bypass surgery said: “He told my dad, ‘I’m gonna give you five more years.’”

Bonko lived for another 4years and 10 months, his son said.

“How about that?”

Currently there are no services planned for Larry.

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