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.