Former Grosse Pointe City residents served the community with dedication and distinction

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published July 27, 2022

 Mary Ellen and John Stempfle and their borzoi, Nikki, stand in the backyard of their former home in Grosse Pointe City.

Mary Ellen and John Stempfle and their borzoi, Nikki, stand in the backyard of their former home in Grosse Pointe City.

Photo by K. Michelle Moran

GROSSE POINTE CITY — When Grosse Pointe City Councilman John Stempfle announced he was stepping down from his post in June because he and his wife were moving out of the community, it was a loss that resounded beyond the City’s borders.

Not only had John Stempfle served on the council for about 18 years, but his wife, Mary Ellen Stempfle, had also been a longtime elected official, serving as a trustee for the Wayne County Community College District for 27 years — the last 5 1/2 of which she served as the board chair. Neither of their offices were paid — both served for free.

The Grosse Pointe City Council presented John Stempfle with a resolution in his honor during a meeting July 11, as his wife and longtime former Mayor Dale Scrace were among those in the audience looking on.

“I told myself I wouldn’t get emotional,” John Stempfle said, fighting back tears after he was greeted with a standing ovation. “It’s been one of the most rewarding experiences in my life.”

John Stempfle’s last City Council meeting was June 20.

“It’s been an honor and a privilege to be on the council for 18 years,” he told his colleagues at that meeting. “I’ve always tried to do what’s in the best interest of the residents.”

He received a standing ovation from residents and officials alike in June, as well.

City Councilwoman Maureen Juip said John Stempfle succeeded at his goal of putting the residents first when weighing matters before the council.

“You’re a gentleman of the utmost character,” Juip said. “I have so much respect for how wisely and how balanced … you considered all of the issues. I wish you and your wife so much happiness in this new chapter.”

City Councilman Christopher Walsh said his fellow council member “enjoyed digging into the issues.”

“We’ve seen a lot, and it’s been a treat serving with you,” Walsh told him.

City Councilman Donald Parthum Jr. said John Stemple was “a gentleman and a scholar,” but perhaps more importantly, he was his friend.

“It’s been a pleasure and an honor serving with you,” Parthum said.

City Councilman Dave Fries thanked John Stempfle for his “dedication to Grosse Pointe City.”

“You leave large shoes to fill,” Fries said.

Mayor Sheila Tomkowiak recognized John Stempfle for his “enormous empathy” and devotion to the City.

John Stempfle said the City is “in good hands” and is proud of the accomplishments administrators and elected officials have made over the last two decades, including achieving a AAA bond rating — the highest possible — and making improvements to The Village, Neff Park and City facilities.

Since 1988, John Stempfle and his wife had lived in the Lincoln Road house that his parents had purchased in November 1955 for $15,000.

“I’ve been in that house a long, long time,” he said. “I’m going to miss it. (Leaving it) is probably going to be the most difficult decision I’ve ever made.”

The Stempfles moved earlier this month to Holland, Michigan, where Mary Ellen Stempfle, 68, grew up and where she still has family. The house they purchased is across the street from her sister’s home.

John Stempfle, 75, was born in Detroit and grew up in Grosse Pointe Park and Grosse Pointe City. Mary Ellen Stempfle formerly operated a resale store in Grosse Pointe Park, and her husband is a juvenile attorney who handles abuse and neglect cases. The couple, who met through a mutual friend, have been married for 34 years. They have no children together; John Stempfle has an adult daughter and son from a previous marriage. The Stempfles are devoted pet parents to Nicki, a 10 1/2-year-old borzoi.

The fate of a Village landmark is what sparked John Stempfle’s decision to seek a council seat.

“The reason I ran was Jacobson’s was for sale, and I wanted to make sure that it would be sold to a reputable person and it would be developed appropriately,” he said of the anchor store on Kercheval Avenue. “And it was.”

The popular specialty grocery store Trader Joe’s now occupies the space where Jacobson’s once stood.

Mary Ellen Stempfle said she first ran for WCCCD trustee in 1994.

“A previous trustee asked me (to run), and in my political naiveté, I said, ‘Sure,’” she said with a laugh.

She said she was fortunate that the college brought in Curtis L. Ivery as chancellor about two months after she started her first term. This spring, Ivery was recognized as CEO of the Year by the American Association of Community Colleges.

Mary Ellen Stempfle said that 30 years ago, WCCCD had about 7,000 to 8,000 students. It had also gone through a string of chancellors with short-lived tenures.

Under Ivery’s leadership, WCCCD was up to an estimated 80,000 full- and part-time students prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is a well-respected institution, has partnerships with a number of universities for bachelor’s degrees, and offers a host of in-demand career programs in fields such as truck driving, nursing and firefighting. In 2021, Mary Ellen Stempfle said the community college completed another 10-year accreditation with no findings, “which is a huge accomplishment.” The school recently approved a partnership with the UAW to offer skilled trade apprenticeships that’s being funded by the state, she said.

“We offer a lot,” Mary Ellen Stempfle said. “And we can turn on a dime.”

As an example, she cited the college quickly creating a program for retail store middle managers that was requested by Walmart a couple of years ago.

Ivery said all of WCCCD’s programs today “are accredited at the highest level,” and the college has a AAA bond rating. He said Mary Ellen Stempfle’s leadership has played an important role in these achievements.

“Everything she did represented leadership,” said Ivery, calling her “a beacon of hope and a beacon of care.” “And she wanted people to know that we were doing a good job. I don’t know that I’ve ever worked with anyone more humble, more decent.”

In February 2013, WCCCD recognized Mary Ellen Stempfle’s dedication by naming its Harper Woods campus the Mary Ellen Stempfle University Center. It’s housed in what used to be the Beacon East movie theater.

Vernon Allen, of Detroit, is the new chair of the WCCCD Board but said he’s “not replacing” Mary Ellen Stempfle. Instead, he said, “I’m just assuming the role.” A former deputy city clerk in Detroit who’s been on the board since approximately 2008, he said his predecessor was a “coalition builder” who continuously worked to make sure WCCCD was fulfilling its mission.

“There have been times when there was some contention on the board, and she was always the one that would settle it,” Allen said. “She was good at that. I would call her the ultimate peacemaker. She kept things in order. And she did it in a diplomatic, fair, humane manner.”

Allen said she had “a talent for listening,” and made everyone feel heard. He said Mary Ellen Stempfle “didn’t appear to have an ego” and put the college and its students first.

“She was always fair-minded and respectful,” Allen said. “Her (focus) was on the betterment and edification of the institution.”

Sharon Scott, of Westland, the WCCCD Board treasurer, has known Mary Ellen Stempfle for years, and her late husband, Ted Scott, also served on the board with her.

“She was an excellent board chair and ran a meeting very well,” Scott said. “She loved Wayne County Community College District. That was apparent.”

Mary Ellen Stempfle’s husband was also someone who could work with different people, even when they didn’t agree on some issues — something his colleagues said he did well.

“I’ve always prided myself on being able to work with whoever was on the City Council, whoever was mayor,” John Stempfle said. “We would put aside our petty differences to work for the benefit of the community.”