A friend’s death, a community’s loss

The voicemail message was a bit indistinct, but I finally realized my old friend Ron Upton’s daughter was calling to let me know that her dad, a pioneering superintendent of Livonia schools, had died.

That call brought back a flood of memories – as well as a sharp pang of mourning for what has been lost in countless communities across our state. The story goes back to the mid-1960s, soon after I first started my newspaper company in suburban Wayne County.

My office at the time was in a tiny, cinder-block building at the corner of Five Mile and Farmington Roads in Livonia. One of my papers was the Livonia Observer, a community weekly designed to serve the needs of readers in their hometown.

One morning, a guy, totally unannounced, came bustling into my office: Average height, maybe just a bit pudgy, with snapping brown eyes and a friendly smile.

“I’m Ron Upton,” he said. “I’m the school superintendent here, and I think we should get to know each other.”

That made sense to me. I was not only the new publisher, I was still young (27) and new to Livonia. I knew I badly needed to get to know the community. And Ron – no dummy, he – wanted to get acquainted with the new owner and publisher of the paper.

This turned out to be an important marriage of convenience. Ron took me by the hand and led me all over town, introducing me to all and sundry as the new owner and publisher of the Observer.

That led to my first introduction to Ed McNamara, at the time a Livonia councilman who later (1987-2002) would become the powerful executive of Wayne County. I met all kinds of folks who make any community tick – the police and fire chiefs, the guys who mowed the lawn in front of city hall, the barber down the street.

And Ron also advised me about how to establish the kind of trusting and familiar relationships a local newspaper publisher needs to have with his community. He recruited me to chair a fundraising campaign for the Livonia Family YMCA’s new building, and gave me a quick crash course in the city’s economic development plans.

In return, Ron had an open door to my office. Looking back, some journalists today might say it was too open. But I can’t remember any occasion when I thought he misused his access.

As a matter of fact, I remember one episode a few years later when he and Keith Geiger, then the president of the teachers’ union, were locked in a big-time standoff over a new contract.

It was starting to look as if there might be a big strike that would hurt the community, teachers, families and kids.

I invited both men into my office. After listening to them argue for a few minutes, I told them I was going out into the newsroom for a while. “If you guys don’t get this thing settled by the time I get back, I’m going to let you have it in the next edition of the paper.”

By the time I got back, I found that they had settled their differences. (Geiger, by the way, was no slouch himself; he went on to become head of the National Education Association.)

Livonia in those days was a rapidly-growing, solidly middle-class community of around 80,000 people. It had a per-capita median family income higher than that in nine out of every ten communities in America. Ron Upton was responsible for guiding his school district through the stresses and strains caused by rapid growth.

My belief is that it was his leadership that helped set the pattern for a generation of engaged local school leaders who helped make many communities in Western Wayne great places to live and raise families. To me, Ron became a friend, a guy who helped guide a young man just starting out on a career know the community.

Eventually, he and his friendly and cheerful wife, Jane, retired and moved to Washington State. I would hear from him at Christmas, but except for one visit here in the 1980s, I never saw him again.

Why am I telling you this story?

Today, the Livonia Observer is part of the Hometown Life group of community newspapers owned by the Gannett Company, which also owns and publishes the Detroit Free Press and many other newspapers around the nation.

To Gannett’s credit, the group still exists, and remains dedicated to the job of providing news and information to various readers in various hometowns. But the Internet has had a disruptive impact on newspaper finances. Thanks largely to that, newspapers everywhere – including, sadly, community newspapers like the ones I ran – are at best mere shadows of their former selves.

Thriving community newspapers served – and still serve – an enormous role in countless places like Livonia. They help bind the community together by shared ties of togetherness, understanding and context, whether it’s the winning season by the local football team, assessment squabbles with tax authorities, or the impact of countless people who play roles in their growth and character.

These days, such papers may not have the staff or the number of pages to do what they used to – but they are still trying.

So the trumpet that marks the death of Ron Upton, community builder and friend, is an uncertain one. His passing may only be noted by a few old-timers – but his life played a powerful theme, one that makes us think of all the myriad ways in which community leaders like Ron still affect the culture and texture of countless hometowns.

Hometowns here, across our Michigan, and the entire nation.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Ruth Hill
Tue, 01/19/2016 - 10:52am
I live in Hastings and I appreciate our local newspaper and owner/editor, Fred Jacobs. The paper helps keep us community. My hometown is Wayne. Livonia had sterling schools; set the bar for teacher-administration relationships; put community needs in the center of education improvement. Livonia knew how to create positive change for its schools. Good discussion: How to create positive change? Nice tribute to your old friend.
Tue, 01/19/2016 - 11:14am
Well said Phil. To those of us in the community newspaper business, the Ron Uptons of the regions we covered were indispensable. Some were school supers, others involved in local or county government, the chamber or business. There were even a few bankers in our history, more interested in the well beingl and social health of their community than the bottom line. With the demise of community newspapers, there is now a widening gap in their traditional role of community watchdog. Virtually no one is watching the store. Public meetings at all levels are left uncovered by media of any type. The repurcussions of this erosion will be felt for generations. Gregg Smith Former Newspaper Publisher/Owner Gregg Publications, Charlevoix County Up North Publications, Antrim and Kalkaska counties
Tue, 01/19/2016 - 11:40am
Well done Phil! This commentary provides evidence of the importance of mentorship, (a) shared vision and the power of collaboration. I too have memories of one of those defining moments when Michigan Chronicle Publisher Sam Logan walked me into your office to introduce me to "someone" I should know (Phil Power). I never forgot the meeting, which became a catalyst for a collaborative media partnership that is now helping to change urban neighborhoods and community health for the better. Thank goodness for people like Ron Upton and you, Phil Powers. We are better - together! Let's keep making these kind of introductions and paying it forward!
Pat Strauch
Tue, 01/19/2016 - 1:36pm
I was a resident of Livonia during those years and appreciated getting all the news in The Observer. I was also a teacher in a neighboring community and saw how the press kept people informed about local schools. How great it would be if community papers still provided the information and a forum for discussing issues that affect the community. I wonder if the problems many school districts are now facing might have been solved before they reached a critical mass.
Keith Geiger
Wed, 01/20/2016 - 9:37am
Phil, what a wonderful tribute to a great superintendent--but an even greater human being. Ron enjoyed life, and he enjoyed telling stories about his many adventures and experiences--and especially about his horses. I will always remember our great times with him.
Wed, 01/20/2016 - 11:02am
Hello Keith Geiger, So nice to know you and John Ort are still around. Every day I thank God I'm still around. Many fond memories of those early years in LPS, and especially with Ron Upton.
John Ort
Wed, 01/20/2016 - 10:49am
I am a retired Livonia teacher(1951-90) I remember both Phil and Ron fondly . Both of these men were strong positive leaders in our community. Their influence permeated the school and community and helped us become a"Lighthouse " district. John Ort
John Kuenzel
Wed, 01/20/2016 - 12:57pm
Ron Upton was concerned about dollars, but he focused on the needs of people and his community. You, Phil Powers, also focus on people as exhibited by this excellent tribute of recognition. The Flint water crisis, the Detroit Schools crisis, the roads and infrastructure crisis and the Straits pipeline pending crisis all need leaders and elected officials listening to the people and focusing on meeting their critical needs.
Randy Liepa
Wed, 01/20/2016 - 1:29pm
Ron Upton indeed set a standard for Superintendents at the Livonia Public Schools to follow, and his influence will be felt for years to come. He was kind enough to contact me when I was Superintendent there (well after he had left the community), and offer words of encouragement and support. That is who he was. And it is an expectation of Superintendents in LPS to be active in the community due to Ron's example and others who followed him. I tried to carry that torch, and I know the newly appointed Superintendent (a lifelong resident and graduate of the school system) has already worked to continue the legacy of community involvement Ron felt so strongly about. Thank you, Ron Upton.
Lucy. Timmons
Wed, 01/20/2016 - 4:26pm
My husband. Ken Timmons preceded him in heaven by 3 months. I know Ken was there to greet him and talk about their horses and the L E A contracts. Ron was the Greatest Supt. Livonia ever had .
Wed, 01/20/2016 - 6:54pm
Phil, A moving column and indicates you have life story needs to be told.
Lynne M Haley, DDS
Thu, 01/21/2016 - 5:28pm
I'm a grad of Bentley High from 1963. They got me ready to attend U of M...never would have happened in the system we left. I arrived as a terror stricken kid wandering into the unknown in the middle of 10th grade. Managed to find a niche and a few friends and a few activities. Really began to find myself there. Many thinks to folks like Upton and to all my teachers and buddies during those years. Remember reading the Observer during those years as well. Thank you for expanding my knowledge.
George Croll
Thu, 01/21/2016 - 5:58pm
As a young teacher, in the mid-60's, I began a career as a Debate Coach and taught a number of oral communication classes. Ron Upton was an enthusiastic supporter of my debate teams and I learned that he was a high school debater in California. I believe that he was a state champion with Allen Sherman as his partner. Allen Sherman is best remembered for his "Hello Mother, Hello Father" song that was very popular years ago. I can imagine how good these two guys were as a team. Thank you Phil for bringing back good memories.
Bill Cole, LPS ...
Fri, 01/22/2016 - 2:33pm
Ron was probably one of the most unpretentious men I have ever worked with. He was effective, friendly, and generally had a story to tell.
Mon, 01/25/2016 - 10:22am
It is sad to lose someone who has had an impact on one's life. I have a very short list of people I feel privileged to have known who not only impacted my life but also the broader community. I will always remember them fondly and with great respect. The demise of the local newspaper is sad as well. The one in our community folded many years ago. Fortunately, thanks to the dedication of a retired newspaper woman, a new, free on-line publication has risen from the ashes to serve the community even better than the old newspaper. The Chelsea Update was started on a shoe string about four years ago and served about 2,000 daily readers. It now boasts 25,000 daily readers and is supported by local advertising. It does not delve into investigating reporting, but simply shares the daily news and events that are of interest to its readers. For investigative reporting and in depth analysis of larger events and issues I rely on Bridge Magazine. You are providing a most important service for your readers. Thank you.
Don Tavarozzi
Mon, 01/25/2016 - 1:49pm
Hi Keith, lucy, and Phil, We all lost a true friend, and great school administrator. First introduction to Ron, was when he took me into the Livonia schools, (at the time of the annextion of the Nankin District, to the Livonia one) and allowed me to continue on in my position as the Nankin Mills elementary school principal. At the time this wasn't an easy task for Ron. Several Livonia principals felt only a Livonia trained administrator should be in this spot. Ron was above this kind of thinking, and had the vision to keep the status quo. A real leader! One of the best ever! I do remember some of those Upton stories, along with those great house parties that Lucy and Ken hosted. Also will not forget the meaningful contributions that both Keith and Phil courageously accomplished -- for the teachers, and the community. I'm blessed to have known Ron. My condolences are with his wife and family. May he RIP
Bill Harju
Mon, 01/25/2016 - 9:06pm
Ron Upton was a great Superintendent, and the first one I had dealt with in my rookie years as, first, a teacher in Livonia and later as a union staffer first in Birmingham, MI, and later in California. Ron was no pushover, but neither was he one to demand his way or the highway. He was one of the few superintendents in my experience who actually sat in at the bargaining table with the teacher's Union. He had a great sense of humor and was a great practical joker. Many from Livonia will remember, when Ron, as deputy superintendent to Benton Yates, introduced his boss at a staff meeting by saying "We refer to this man, this wonderful man as ' Sweet Old Ben', but sometimes we just use the initials!" Even though I haven't seen Ron in years, his memory lives on.