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Dearborn Stories: Getting to Know Orville Hubbard

Retired journalist and Dearborn Historical Commission member David Good recalls an interesting experience in 1972 with the then-mayor.

Orville Hubbard wasn’t what you’d call bashful about letting people know how much he hated it when he felt they were wasting his time. You could tell by the “Please Take a Number” sign and the “Now Serving” numerical display in the mayor’s outer office at . That was just in case you missed the sign above his front entryway, an inspirational saying he had cribbed from old Henry Ford, “People get ahead during the time that others waste.”

So how, exactly, was I going to tell him that, through no fault of my own, I had wasted approximately three hours of his precious time the day before–as we started a series of tape-recorded interviews I hoped would eventually become a book. I had already thought of the title: Orvie. Of course I didn’t have a publisher, but that could wait till later.

It was a fine mid-September day in 1972. I was 30, had been married to Janet for almost a year, and had recently wrapped up a three-year stint covering Dearborn and environs as a reporter for the Detroit News. Now I had been transferred to a beat covering the Detroit City Council, and I fancied I had quickly developed a good relationship with the likes of Carl Levin, Tony Wierzbicki and David Eberhard.

I also fancied I’d done a pretty good job of making it through those three years with Hubbard, who, as anyone who picked up a piece of embossed city stationery would immediately know, had been “mayor of Dearborn since January 6, 1942.”

True enough, Dearborn Heights Mayor John Canfield had bellowed at me when I greeted him a day after writing a story I knew would anger him. “Here’s your most unfavorite newspaper reporter,” I chirped as I entered his office. “You’re goddamned right you are,” he exploded.

But somehow I’d managed not to tick off Hubbard, at least not that I knew of. (He probably didn’t remember that 10 years earlier, when I was a journalism major at Michigan, he phoned my home to complain that a nerdy-looking young man driving a car registered to my father had been photographing the mayor’s home on Mead. I was impressed with Hubbard’s quick response to a perceived threat, but I went ahead anyway with plans to write a negative editorial on him for a student publication in Ann Arbor.)

So here I was, taking a few days’ vacation from the News, waiting to go in for our second day of interviews. The day before, I remembered, he had vented about a local attorney who had once sued him successfully for libel (“Christ, it helped his business”), the Wayne circuit judge who had ruled against the mayor in the libel suit (“If I could find the cemetery, I’ll go out and piss on his grave”), and a former city appointee who had gone over to the opposition (“The son of a bitch–I should have been fired for ever giving him a job in the first place”).

After a few minutes, the mayor summoned me. Still an imposing figure at a diet-assisted weight of about 280, Hubbard was dressed in a white starched shirt, navy slacks and his trademark white-on-navy polka-dot bow tie; his navy suit coat was hanging up. As I sat down, he wheeled around in his chair to face me.

“Well, let’s get started,” he said briskly.

I clicked on my tape recorder and said what I had been fretting about saying since the night before, when I discovered that every word I thought I was taping had somehow been transmuted into an annoying hum.

“Mayor,” I said, “I have some bad news. My tape recorder seems to be working fine now, but it didn’t pick up anything from yesterday’s session. We’ll have to go back over all the stuff we covered yesterday.”

There it was. Three hours of his time yesterday–totally wasted.

“We’re not going to go back over anything,” he snapped.

Great, I thought, he’s going to call the whole project off after we’ve barely started. His publicist, Doyne Jackson, had warned me initially that the mayor would never cooperate with this book project. Miraculously, however, he agreed to make himself fully available for interviews, with no preconditions whatsoever.

Except that he didn’t want to retape yesterday’s session. The reason soon became clear. Bending down, he pulled a tape recorder from a desk drawer. “Here,” he said, “take my tape and return it when you’re done.”

“You made your own recording?” I asked, restating the obvious.

“Well, you can’t be too careful, can you?” he said, chuckling. “I figured I might need it someday.”

That was Orville Hubbard–always thinking ahead, never allowing himself to be blindsided. It was a microcosm of his 36-year mayoral career.

As for the book, Wayne State University Press published Orvie, The Dictator of Dearborn in 1989, almost exactly 15 years after a massive stroke silenced the mayor and cut short our interviews. Had he not died seven years before publication, I believe Hubbard would say he got what he expected from me: an adequate platform for explaining his views, along with an accurate–albeit “warts and all”–recounting of his life and career.

At least I hope he wouldn’t figure I’d wasted his time.

David Good
Dearborn Historical Commissioner

Andree hnatiuk November 11, 2011 at 04:03 PM
History is History, we cannot change this. We can only learn from a previous generation of thought, which at the time was liked and not liked by various people...At times we need to be reminded of the past; whether the Hubbard era, or the Roman era, as I'm sure there were generations of thought throughout all periods of time that were liked and not liked by various people. That is why we relive History through all its consequences, both bad and good. Shutting off the past would shut the door to future generations of thought. That is why we relive history for its good and make it better, and why we need to relive the bad history to make it better!
AC November 12, 2011 at 03:54 AM
How is this reliving bad history? What 'bad history' is it pointing to? It simply humanizes and excuses a bigot.
david good November 14, 2011 at 10:59 PM
As this story's writer "from a different generation," I'd ask AC to note my description of "Orive: The Dictator of Dearborn" as a "warts and all" biography of Hubbard. True enough, I didn't call him a racist or even a segregationist in this article. But the University of Michigan Population Studies Center has cited the book as one of 21 "landmark studies" of residential housing segregation published since 1943. You might try taking a look at the book before you you get too far along in taking me to taks for "romanticizing" the mayor. Or you might ask his daughter, Councilwoman Nancy Hubbard, how much she thinks I've "romanticized" him, either in the book or in my never-to-see-the-light-of-day musical spoof, "Orvie!," which she says she hates for making fun of him. -- David L. Good
Ruth Hankins April 18, 2012 at 06:11 PM
I'm looking for information on "Sunken Heights" and specifically the "Sunken Heights Suckers Club" - a group of homeowners in the 40's who lived in substandard homes built with - ostensibly - graft and greed sanctioned by then Mayor Orville Hubbard. Can anyone help me? upnorthgramma@gmail.com
Jack June 13, 2012 at 12:45 AM
I don't know how many of you were born or raised in Dearborn ? I was lucky to be both. I do remember the Mayor when I was growing up. The city was very nice and crime free. They plowed the snow even the sidewalks after every snow !! Ford field was a great place to watch fireworks and the neighborhoods knew all the children and really gave a damn about the way their property looked. Hell, The Republicans and democrats both voted for him and I have been told be many if he was still living, He would STILL be Mayor..... He just didn't take and crap from anybody period !!!!!

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