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To learn about the fascinating people who shaped Michigan, you should read this book

Sep 19, 2014

There are two dirty little secrets about journalism most people don’t realize. One is that we assume that the good is normal. If you work hard, are not flamboyant, take care of your business and don’t kill your family, you may well live happily ignored by the media.

Same goes for your community, if it is solvent and your elected officials aren’t stealing or worse.

While great breakthroughs in science or human achievement do get recognized, news tends to be about system or human failures, which is one of the reasons journalists tend to be unpopular.

We come to show you that the mayor is a crook, the legislature incompetent, your schools are failing to educate "Susie," that your city is bankrupt and the water polluted.

That’s our job, of course, but it sometimes makes us hard to love.

The other secret is that though we hate to admit it, much of the time journalists are sort of stenographers for the institutions of society. We cover what comes into contact with the cops and the courts and our other institutions.

That means some good and interesting things fall through the cracks.

[The author of the book] once dropped everything to build a golf course and then wrote a book about that.

Well, I’ve just been sent a wonderful new book that ignores those conventions and is both an entertaining read and full of information about some of the contemporary and near-contemporary people who’ve had a positive influence on Michigan, primarily Detroit.

This is that rare book that is better than its clunky title: "What They Were Thinking: Reflections on Michigan Difference-Makers."

The cover of Bill Haney's new book.
Credit billhaneybooks.com

That sounds dull and academic, but it actually is a collection of little profiles of a group of mostly fascinating people.

Some of them are new spins on people you may have thought you knew well, like author Dutch Leonard and Jack Kevorkian. Some are people who helped shape today’s world: J.P. McCarthy, who dominated radio in Detroit as nobody has before and probably never will again.

Sue Marx, an Oscar-winning filmmaker who lives modestly and unassumingly in a quiet suburban neighborhood, telling remarkable stories. Ed Cole, the father of the Corvette and of so much else good about the old and much maligned General Motors.

Some of the most riveting writing is about the legendary Ernie Harwell; perhaps the most important chapter is on civil liberties hero Milo Radulovich.

I myself knew, or know many of the people here, and found new things out about most of them, including the author, Bill Haney.

It would be hard to describe exactly what Haney is. Though he has written a number of books, he has had multiple careers, in advertising, aerospace and academia. He once dropped everything to build a golf course and then wrote a book about that.

I first knew him in the 90s when he was running Momentum, a specialty publishing house which produced a number of high quality books, mainly about Michigan. This one was clearly a labor of love.

Don’t look here for critical assessments of the subjects’ careers. These are celebrations of fascinating people.

Detroit is more than economic and demographic data. You need to understand the people who shaped this place. This book will give you insights that a million bankruptcy stories cannot.

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Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.