Broken Pipe: Bill Unger of 'The Pipe Collector'

by Mark Irwin


Case N° 130104

by Mark irwin


Charles Mundungus / Bill Unger / Dr. Fred J. Hanna


     Last May at the Chicagoland Pipe Show I met one of my literary heroes: Dr. Bill Unger, who for the past twenty years as “Secretary / Treasurer” (read: editor-in-chief) had quietly overseen the care and growth of The North American Society of Pipe Collectors’ “newsletter,” The Pipe Collector, a unique periodical in the history of pipes and smoking. which is issued six times a year to over one thousand members worldwide. 

     In late April of 2012, shortly after his 70th birthday, Bill was diagnosed with a type of blood cancer but kept it quiet until his open letter on the front page of the society’s December newsletter, where he stated that he believed he had less than a year to live. It is thus with a sense of the breath-taking brevity of life that I report his passing just a a little over a month later, on January 1st. 

     I began corresponding with Bill a few years ago after reading a letter he’d published in Pipes & Tobaccos singing the praises of the NASPC and its newsletter. At the time I was looking for someone—anyone—interested in publishing any part of my monograph on pipe-smoking in Middle Earth. As was so typical with Bill, he patiently described the nuts and bolts of the newsletter and the NASPC, and after sending my manuscript to NASPC president and Middle Earth guru John Tolle, encouraged me to publish it on my own and send him something “a little shorter” (!), which I eventually did. 

     The Pipe Collector and Bill Unger will always be one and same thing for me. Despite some of the advantages of blogs and online magazines, Bill, like another of my literary heroes, Ray Bradbury, believed that print—paper and ink—will forever hold primacy of place in the reader’s heart and imagination. He further believed that the NASPC’s newsletter could be one place where any pipeman who paid his dues to the club could find a voice and dialog with other pipe-smokers, as so many have done over the years—men too numerous to name, but who include many of the luminaries in our hobby today, from Fred Hanna and Rick Newcombe to Marc Munroe Dion, Regis McCafferty, Marty Pulvers, Gary Shrier, Rich Esserman, Lou Zisholz and Steve Laug—and these just scratch the surface of the membership. 

     Bill authored As Individual as a Thumbprint: The Custom-Bilt Pipe Story (2001) and was also instrumental in seeing Marc Munroe Dion’s Mill River Smoke (2010) and Fred Hanna’s The Perfect Smoke (2012) published through the NASPC Press. He always gave solid advice, encouragement, and email addresses for my Peterson pipe book project when asked, at one low point even offering to serve as copy editor. One of the great moments of my life as a pipe smoker was getting an email from Bill saying how much he’d enjoyed something I’d submitted for the newsletter. That kind of affirmation goes a long way, and I’m sure there are dozens of other pipe smokers who could relate similar stories of their correspondence with Bill. 

     For championing the connection between pipe-smoking and print, for making a space and a place for pipemen to engage in civil discourse on common ground, for his involvement with the NASPC, but above all for championing just how important a pipe and good tobacco can be, please smoke a bowl of your favorite tobacco in a cherished pipe tonight to honor the memory and legacy of Dr. William E. Unger. And if you don’t receive the newsletter which he cared so much about, subscribe by becoming a member of the NASPC at 


"When I organize a trip to the U.S. to attend any pipeshow, I always think about the people that I will probably meet there, to any familiar face that make my participation to these events an extremely pleasant moment. Knowing that some friends will be there, even if I am not completely sure, has always been an important motivation for me, despite the distance from home and sometimes, some organization problem. Bill was one of these "friends", one of these people that I would certainly have met. When I met at a show, Bill was used to thank me for being there, almost amazed that I was affording 4500 miles of travel with such simplicity. Now, I’m sure it will be different for me to take part to any pipe show, knowing that one of these friends won’t be there. I started getting regularly the printed issue of "The Pipe Collector" a few years ago, thanks to Maurizio Tombari who gave me, the first subscription. Since then, the last issue of the magazine has a reserved and special place at Neatpipes, until I get the next number. I wish you great smokes, Bill." Luca di Piazza