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.
Dearborn Historical Commissioner