Marine Sgt. Keith Pouliot presents the flag to McDermott’s brother, Bill Brown.

Marine Sgt. Keith Pouliot presents the flag to McDermott’s brother, Bill Brown.

Photo by Donna Dalziel

Community remembers beloved volunteer Bobby McDermott

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison-Park News | Published August 5, 2022

 During a memorial service at Green Acres Park July 23, Marine Sgt. Keith Pouliot salutes a bench dedicated in honor of Vietnam veteran and long-time community volunteer Bobby McDermott.

During a memorial service at Green Acres Park July 23, Marine Sgt. Keith Pouliot salutes a bench dedicated in honor of Vietnam veteran and long-time community volunteer Bobby McDermott.

Photo by Donna Dalziel

 Children wrote letters of gratitude for McDermott, who had volunteered in the Hazel Park Public Schools and with Hazel Park Youth Assistance.

Children wrote letters of gratitude for McDermott, who had volunteered in the Hazel Park Public Schools and with Hazel Park Youth Assistance.

Photo by Donna Dalziel

HAZEL PARK — The old saying goes, “It takes a village to raise a child.” And you couldn’t ask for a better helping hand than Bobby McDermott.

That’s according to the many Hazel Park residents who knew him. Community members gathered to remember McDermott during a memorial service at Green Acres Park July 23. They dedicated a bench in his honor, celebrating his life of service to others, especially the kids. He also served his country as a Marine during two tours in Vietnam. McDermott died of cancer in March at age 73.

For many years, McDermott had volunteered with the Hazel Park Public Schools and with Hazel Park Youth Assistance. He leaves behind a legacy of thoughtful acts that had a lasting impact on those he helped. In a series of emails, community members shared their fondest memories.

“Bobby was the most compassionate person I have ever met. This man never had a bad word to say about anyone. He was nonjudgmental,” said Beverly Hinton, the HPYA activity outreach chair. “He sincerely wanted to help everyone who crossed his path.”

She described how McDermott mentored teen girls for years at Bowman House in Detroit, where they looked forward to his visits each week.

“If it was someone’s birthday, he would take them a cake. Some of them never had a birthday cake before,” Hinton said. “He encouraged them to be strong, and his famous thing to tell them was, ‘Trust the truth in your own heart.’”

She noted that McDermott was a follower of the political scientist Bob Putnam.

“Putnam wrote about the terrible loneliness of growing up poor in America,” Hinton said. “Bobby took this statement very seriously, and I believe this guided him in helping so many. He would quote it at every Youth Assistance meeting.”

His first project with HPYA was the Big Red Box program he operated in the parks. He later renamed it “Our Kids,” after an article Putnam wrote.

“Bobby believed it was up to everyone to do the most they could for the children,” Hinton said. “They were our future, making them ‘Our Kids!’”

The Big Red Box had everything one could want for an art project — paper, glitter, glue, paint and more. He also brought hula hoops and Frisbees, and would play baseball with the kids, even in 90-degree weather. He brought Little Caesars pizza and always made sure there was fruit, as well.

On Tuesdays, McDermott was found at Tuski Park, and on Thursdays, he was at Karam Park. He usually had 10-15 kids with him, along with their parents. He would do this during summer recess each year. Later in the fall, families would also come to the parks to paint pumpkins with him while enjoying doughnuts and cider.

He would then return for HPYA’s Grinch-themed charity event at Christmas, and take children on a shopping spree for clothes. During the winter, he also led one of HPYA’s most popular traditions: The “I Survived Old Man Winter Chili Cook-off.”

McDermott was instrumental in bringing a cartooning program to Hoover Elementary School, where he also volunteered, and he started a lunchtime jogging group called the Cheetah Club to get kids moving. Each student had a punch card, and they would earn a punch for each lap they ran around the perimeter of the field. With enough punches, they would win prizes. But many of the participants just loved being around McDermott, and would join him for a run wherever they saw him.

“Bobby was a kid magnet,” Hinton said. “If Bobby was out in the community, you always would hear ‘Mr. Bobby! Mr. Bobby!’ and a kid would come running.”

McDermott helped disburse food, as well. He volunteered with the Gleaners program through the schools, and the Forgotten Harvest programs at both the Hazel Park Recreation Department and Landmark Community Church.

“He never missed a single delivery day, ever,” Hinton said. “He even helped the Madison Heights Food Pantry.”

Amy Dressler is an elementary school teacher in the Hazel Park Public Schools district. She first met McDermott when he was helping out at lunchtime.

“He would watch kids outside on the playground, push them on the swings, jog in the field, play ball or catch — whatever the students asked him to play. They loved to ‘race’ him, too,” Dressler said.

In the lunchroom, he helped kids open their milk and ketchup packets, and fetched them the occasional spork and napkin if they forgot it. He also helped in the classroom with projects like identifying capital and lowercase letters, writing letters and numbers, listening to them count and read, and quizzing them with flash cards. He was also a star of a school tradition where staff squared off with fifth graders in a game of basketball.

“He was tall, so he was awesome to play with on the court,” Dressler said. She added that he also assisted her during physical education classes.

“Bobby was kind, caring and had a heart of gold,” Dressler said. “His personality was warm — carefree, but outgoing. Bobby’s passion and love for children is what I think drove him to do the things he did for the community.”

Not all of the children were nearby, either — Dressler said that McDermott also was passionate about an orphanage in Vietnam he had visited while serving there as a Marine. Dressler marveled at his capacity to make connections wherever he went.

“I loved working alongside Bobby because everyone loved Bobby. He definitely drew a crowd around him wherever he went,” Dressler said. “Bobby will be missed by all students and families of Hazel Park. He was such a staple and asset to the community.”

Amy Kruppe, the superintendent of Hazel Park Public Schools, said McDermott was a “wonderful man with many stories of his life that he did not tell.” She first met him while he was volunteering at Hoover Elementary.

“He always spoke in a kind and gentle manner. He was full of ideas on how he could make school better for kids,” Kruppe said. “In my early years (with the district), he would come to my office with a four-pack of glass bottles of Coke — he used that as an entrance to my office, because he knew it was one of my favorite drinks. He would come to me with ideas for after-school programs, changes to the school and summer box programs.

“What was wonderful about Bobby is he always remembered something going on with you,” she said. “My husband has been ill for five years. (McDermott) would always slowly walk over with a wonderful grin and first ask about my husband. He was so genuine and caring about others.”

At the same time, he kept his struggles to himself. He didn’t talk much about his illness.

“Even as he was getting weaker, he was cheerful and happy,” Kruppe said. “My last message from Bobby after we talked was, ‘Ahh! Coke!’ I have not deleted this. He will always have a special place in my heart.”

City officials also remembered McDermott.

“He basically dedicated his life to the young people of Hazel Park,” said Ed Klobucher, the city manager of Hazel Park. “He was a mentor and a friend to so many of our city’s children throughout the years. He will be deeply missed.”

Sareen Papakhian, Hazel Park’s recreation director, said McDermott had an “uncanny ability to make each individual feel important, and like they had something worth listening to.” In addition to programs he oversaw like the Big Red Box, she noted how throughout the pandemic, he helped deliver thousands of food boxes to those in need at the Hazel Park Community Center, part of a partnership with the YMCA.

“On a personal level, Bobby was truly one of a kind,” Papakhian said. “He was warmhearted and deeply courteous to everyone he met. Having worked very closely with Bobby a number of years, this is a great loss. The bottom line is that I miss him, and am grateful to have known him.”

Andy LeCureaux is a member of the Hazel Park City Council, and also chairs HPYA.

“Mr. Bobby, as the kids affectionately called him, was another fine example of what makes Hazel Park a special place to live and raise a family,” LeCureaux said. “The dedication of a bench in his memory will continue serving children and parents who visit Green Acres Park. The landscape around the bench reminds me of Bobby’s own green thumb. His gift to me of milkweed seeds, for my own garden will also continue to remind me of him.

“His volunteerism is an example of selfless giving and caring,” LeCureaux said. “And his kind words and encouragement to our youth will leave a positive, lasting impression on their lives.”