B.J. Reyes dies at 50: Remembered for his journalistic skills and courage

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Editor’s Note: This piece was re-published with permission of Paul Stevens, the author of this story and EditorConnecting Newsletter, a publication for former and retired AP people as well as industry friends. We thank him for allowing us to honor the life of B.J. Reyes. It was first published on Jan. 19, 2022.


Cancer came knocking at his door when he was just 13, but B.J. Reyes was able to prevail and go on to graduate from journalism school, join the world’s largest news organization, cover perhaps the most significant presidential inauguration in the nation’s history for Hawaii’s largest newspaper and impact hundreds of lives with his bravery and never-give-up attitude toward life. 

He worked as a newsman for The Associated Press for just 10 years – and left the AP for a job in newspapering back in 2005 – 17 years ago. 

Yet memories of this brave man who faced a multitude of health issues, starting at the age of 13 and continuing through the remainder of his life, remain vivid among those who worked with him in four AP bureaus. And they are shared in the wake of his death last Saturday morning at the age of 50. 

“We’re dealing with his physical absence as best we can,” said his sister, Michelle Hillmeyer. “Sometimes smiling, sometimes crying, but always grateful for the time we had with him. He faced down five forms of cancer (bone, thyroid, skin, colon, lung) AND HE WAS WINNING, plus diabetes, kidney failure, and finally heart failure. He celebrated his 50th birthday last November, then his and Lisa’s 10th wedding anniversary in December. BJ knew every day was a gift. I know he wants all of us to remember that as well, and to make sure the important people in our lives know they are important.”


B.J. Reyes on Inauguration Day 2009 when Barack Obama became president. Photo by his Honolulu Star-Advertiser reporting colleague Rosemarie Bernardo.
Reyes, who died on Saturday (Jan. 15) at the Cleveland Clinic, was working as associate editor of The Penn Stater magazine at his alma mater, Penn State University, at the time of his death. He is survived by his wife of 10 years, Lisa. 

“B.J. was dealt more health challenges than anyone deserves,” said his sister Michelle Hillmeyer in a Facebook post. “It started when he was 13 years old and diagnosed with bone cancer in his leg. The first of countless leg surgeries replaced the bones of his hip socket, femur, entire knee joint with metal and plastic, which was followed by chemo. In college he was diagnosed with type II diabetes. As a young adult he had numerous surgeries to both legs to repair or upgrade the embedded hardware, or tighten up the joints. But one of those past surgeries apparently introduced a staph infection into his body, which a major leg repair surgery in late 2013 seemed to kick into high gear, going after his heart.


In 2014, B.J. Reyes – then with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser – was interviewed about the Hawaii U.S. Senate race by Rachel Maddow on MSNBC. That interview took place not quite five months after he had open heart surgery. His sister Michelle Hillmeyer noted, “He looks so handsome and healthy on TV, was so poised and intelligent answering Rachel’s questions, very natural.”
“His kidneys failed a few years ago, putting him on dialysis. He was hoping to be a candidate for a kidney transplant, but another cancer reared its ugly head putting him back on chemo and radiation treatment. But the infections unfortunately weren’t done with his heart…just after this new year, he was in the ER at home in State College then transferred to the Cleveland Clinic for further tests and diagnosis. Just after arriving he had a setback during a procedure – he recovered, but not enough. When it was determined there was nothing more that could be done, he started saying his goodbyes.” 

Reyes joined the AP in Charleston, W. Va., in 1995 and transferred to Detroit a year later. He worked as a newsman there before being promoted to the General Desk in New York where he worked from 1998-2000. He was a newsman in the AP’s Honolulu bureau from 2001 to 2005 before joining the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and then the Star-Advertiser, where he worked for the next 10 years, reporting on Hawaii state politics and government, and covering the inauguration of Hawaii-born Barack Obama. 

Reyes was born in Baltimore on Nov. 30, 1971, and graduated from Penn State with a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 1995. BJ is survived by his wife Lisa; sister Michelle Hillmeyer and her spouse Pat Hillmeyer and their sons Patrick, Aidan and Ryan Hillmeyer; brother Emil Reyes; and his mother and father, Melanie and Eriberto Reyes. Plans for a memorial will be announced at a later date.  

Here are thoughts about BJ shared by former AP (and a Star Bulletin) colleagues: 

Pete Mattiace  – B.J. had so much promise when he came to Charleston as a minority intern. He handled West Virginia news with ease. He worked all the desks and had earned his way to bigger places. Honolulu was his choice. When I tried to talk him out of it (!), he said, ‘Com’on, Pete, I’m not like the people around here.” Maybe, but his ability to so quickly to adapt and to master West Virginia news made him special. 

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Jim Suhr – Being at a loss for words definitely doesn’t happen often with me, but that’s the case tonight with news of the passing of one of the most genuine people I was blessed to know. During our shared time in the Associated Press bureau in Detroit in the late 1990s,
B.J. Reyes was a gift to us journos at a time we were chasing Kevorkian, the Red Wings were winning titles, the nation’s biggest news stories came at us hard, fast and often, and our posse salved our post-shift stresses with refuge, cold Foster’s and free pretzels at Honest John’s with our newspaper cohorts. I still consider it my most-cherished time in my three decades of journalism because our office was family, and B.J. was our sweet brother. He was a guy who just made it all fun, never mind his health challenges. He joked about his steel hip and leg and, in ensuing years, confronted what would be his five cancer diagnoses with remarkable courage and grace to the end. Rest In peace, buddy. The world is a lesser place without you, but we’re all better having shared it with you for the time we did. 

Charles Hill
 – B.J. Reyes was an excellent journalist for the AP in the Detroit, still early in his career but a fast learner who quickly earned increasing responsibilities, becoming a trusted and strong desk supervisor in a very busy news environment. Before long, New York was calling and he was promoted to the General Desk. He contributed way more than his very good journalistic talents and work ethic, though. B.J. was a wonderful person to have in the bureau, someone who very much added to the excellent chemistry and camaraderie of the team, with everyone pulling in the same direction, working hard but also having a sense of humor and perspective. He was quick to help others and make them better, and others very much wanted him to succeed. B.J was a serious journalist, but knew how to enjoy life. He made the Michigan AP a better place because of his journalism and because of the kind of person he was.
 
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Paula Froke – The Detroit bureau in the 1990s was a pressure cooker of big, breaking stories challenging a group of journalists who excelled individually, but really stood out with their teamwork and camaraderie. The staff was like a family. B.J. was the sibling whose smile, calmness and grace was ever-present no matter what crisis was breaking out. He was an incredibly hard worker and a terrific reporter and editor. But it was his strength in the face of adversity – always with good humor – that made the biggest difference. That seems to be the hallmark of his entire life. He was one of those shining spirits who stays with you, all these years later. That smile! A true gem of a person.
 
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Randi Goldberg Berris – I moved to Michigan sight unseen in 1997 for a job at the AP Detroit bureau. One of the first people I met was B.J. Reyes. We had a tightknit group of up-and-comers in that bureau, and we spent many hours together both working and playing. We spent many a night at Honest John’s or Soup Kitchen … Dee-Ann Durbin – I’m thinking of how we dragged B.J. with us to opening night of “The Titanic” and how we all cried together. The late 90s was a time well before cell phone photos became a thing, and I wish I had more memories captured on film. Maybe Burt Herman can dig up more from that fancy camera he’s holding? I am so saddened to hear of B.J.’s passing. He fought like hell through more cancer diagnoses than any one person should ever have to bear. I last saw B.J. when he came through town for the 2006 Super Bowl. He was such a special person, and I feel blessed to have known him.
 
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Marty Steinberg – I’m so saddened about B.J.’s death on Saturday. I found out via Facebook posts of former colleagues. I was moved to tears by reading his sister Michelle’s post. Given his health problems, which afflicted him for 37 of his 50 years — countless surgeries since he was diagnosed with bone cancer in a leg, according to Michelle’s post — it’s not surprising that he’s gone. But his passing cuts across the heart and leaves a huge void. When I worked with him on the General Desk, he never once complained about his health or his pain. In fact, he joked about his limp. He was the epitome of grace, dignity and courage. His passing is a huge loss for all of us. I wish his family strength and inspiration in their memories of BJ.
 
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Richard Borreca – retired Honolulu Star-Advertiser columnist and state Capitol bureau chief: I worked with B.J. while he was at the state Capitol. He was just what you wanted on a story, in-depth, breaking or new trend pieces. He was the complete journalist and a good friend. His courage was unmatched and he preferred that it be mostly unsaid.
 
During one of his operations he had his old artificial knee removed and in typical BJ style he insisted on keeping the pieces to show off.
 
B.J. worked for the now defunct Honolulu Star-Bulletin starting in March 2006.
 
After working with the AP, B.J. joined the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and then the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, helping to cover the state Capitol.
 
B.J. covered the 2008 GOP National convention in St. Paul, Minn. The next year BJ and fellow Star-Advertiser reporter Rosemarie Bernardo traveled to Washington, D.C., to cover the inauguration of Hawaii-born president Barack Obama.
 
B.J.’s many ailments never stopped him from being the dependable and courageous newsman who ignored his own pain to complete the assignment.
 
While covering the presidential inauguration, B.J., who bought a tux for the event, started to develop stomach pains, which he just put aside.
 
On the 10-hour flight home from Washington, BJ’s “stomachache” turned out to be a seriously ruptured appendix requiring emergency surgery upon landing.
 
Along the way B.J. also dealt with serious diabetes, a condition that BJ all but dismissed because he loved to bake and was top notch. Staff parties were not complete without custom B.J. creations. And he never spared the frosting!
 
I have to believe that when journalism’s roll call is called, B.J. would be the one saying “Who me? Don’t bother me, I’m on deadline.”

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Michael Giarrusso – AP global sports editor – I met B.J. Reyes when he was still a Penn State student and I was AP correspondent in State College. He became our best freelancer and then applied for the AP internship program. His application never mentioned his disability or cancer survival. His work stood on its own. We stayed in touch and ended up working together on the AP General Desk in New York. Over the years, I marveled as he battled cancer and its aftereffects with mental and physical toughness. He never complained, even when we walked long icy blocks between Manhattan dive bars, usually walking faster than any of us. He showed me around Oahu when I visited Hawaii and always seemed happy exactly where he was. I loved talking to him about sports, Penn State, Filipino food and journalism. He will be missed by those he touched around the world. Sumalangit nawa my friend. 

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Tom Coyne – I was saddened to learn of the death of B.J. Reyes. I agree 100 percent with others who worked with B.J. who wrote about what a great co-worker and person he was. When I looked on the schedule and saw that I would be working with B.J. I knew that we were ready for any news that would be breaking that night. B.J. always was eager to jump into a news story. There were a lot of people like that in the Detroit bureau, but B.J. was special. He was never overwhelmed by the moment and always eager to do whatever was needed to get the job done and usually with a smile. He will be missed.

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