Longtime mayor drove improvements in Grosse Pointe Park

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published April 1, 2015


I think he’s done so much for his community over the years. The legacy he leaves is staggering.”

Dale Scrace, Grosse Pointe City Mayor

GROSSE POINTE PARK — Had it not been for a golf game, Palmer T. Heenan might have never become mayor of Grosse Pointe Park.

Heenan, 93, who retired from his elected post as of the March 23 Park City Council meeting and who had not been at the previous two council meetings, was first elected on Nov. 8, 1983. His nearly 32-year career of public service almost never happened, though.

Heenan said he’d been approached on at least three previous occasions by other city supporters — including current Mayor Pro Tem Gregory Theokas — who wanted him to run for office, but he turned them down, arguing that, then in his early 60s, he was “too old.” Then, he and one of his golfing buddies made a fateful wager.

“I was playing golf with Tom Sullivan, and I was trying to get him to run for mayor,” Heenan recalled. “(We bet that) whoever won got the privilege of deciding whether they would run or not. I played him 50 times (before), and the only time I ever lost was that one time.”

Sullivan didn’t want to run for election, so Heenan had to do it.

It should be noted that Heenan is a gifted golfer, having won the Men’s Club Championship at the Country Club of Detroit in 1946, 1963, 1985 and 1992, and the CCD’s Senior Club Championship in 1983, 1984, 1986, 1988, 1989 and 1991. But his rare loss turned out to be the Park’s gain, as Heenan proceeded, against the odds, to restore and revitalize his beloved city, molding it into the latest metro Detroit hotspot for young professionals to take up residence.

With more than three decades of unpaid service under his belt, Heenan is believed to be the longest-serving mayor in the history of the Grosse Pointes. Heenan — who proudly asserts that he’s a “direct descendant” of Ethan Allen, who fought in the Revolutionary War — was born in the family home in Detroit’s Boston Edison District, at 727 Edison Avenue. The third of his parents’ four children, Heenan is the last surviving sibling, having lost his older sister and brother, as well as a younger sister.

His father, Earl I. Heenan, was a lawyer, but he died when Heenan was young, and Heenan recalls starting a business and taking care of his widowed mother. The family moved to a house on Bishop Road in the Park when Heenan was 17, and aside from stints in college and law school, he has lived in the Park ever since.

He graduated with honors from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, then went to the University of Michigan Law School, from which he graduated in 1949. Heenan said he initially “wanted to be part of an ambassador staff overseas,” but instead, he became an ambassador for his hometown.

His youngest child, Page Heenan, of Grosse Pointe Farms, said her father realized “he could make the biggest impact in a small town.”

In the 1950s, Heenan and his older brother, Earl Jr., bought and ran a mortgage company.

“We gave (well known real estate mogul) Bill Pulte his first loan,” Heenan said.

Heenan worked in law and the mortgage business throughout his career, and he and his late wife of 49 and a half years, Jayne — who died in 2006 — were the parents of four children: Palmer T. Heenan Jr., a Fenton resident who works in the mortgage industry; the late Catherine Rives Heenan; Betsy Heenan Fox, of Grosse Pointe Farms, who does interior design; and Page Heenan, a yoga teacher and published author who also has her own photography business. Heenan doesn’t have any great-grandchildren yet, but he’s a grandfather to four boys and four girls, one of whom, he proudly declares, holds a law degree, along with a bachelor’s degree and a doctorate in biochemistry.

Heenan might have been the public politician, but it was his wife who organized his campaigns behind the scenes.

“She got more than she bargained for (by encouraging me to run for office), because she was my campaign manager,” Heenan said.

Besides his family, Heenan said he’s had four major priorities in life: his Christian faith, Grosse Pointe Park, golf and the Republican Party, in that order.

“That truly is the most important thing to my dad,” Fox said of her father’s religion. He’s been an elder at Knox Presbyterian Church — formerly in Detroit and now in Harrison Township — for decades, she said.

As mayor, Heenan forged a deep connection with many city employees. Grosse Pointe Park City Clerk and Finance Director Jane Blahut has worked for the city for about 35 years. She and other staffers in the front office said Heenan would come into the office daily and always knew everyone’s name.

“Mayor Heenan has always been a pleasure to work with,” Blahut said via email. “He was always positive and upbeat, concerned and actively involved, and always a gentleman. I’ll miss him.”

Grosse Pointe Park City Manager Dale Krajniak, who has worked for the city for almost 30 years, is especially close to Heenan, who has an almost fatherly bond with the city’s chief administrator.z

“Without question, the Grosse Pointes have been blessed with so many dedicated elected officials over the years,” Krajniak said by email. “However, no one shall surpass the contributions of Mayor Palmer T. Heenan. He may have served for over 30 years, yet his accomplishments will remain for threefold. His unselfish efforts benefited not only Grosse Pointe Park, but the entire Grosse Pointe community. Lastly, and most important to me personally, the mayor has always been a dear friend, and I truly am thankful to have worked for him for so many, many years.”

Although the last couple of years have found Park leaders battling back against accusations of racism and anti-Detroit sentiments — accusations that Heenan has consistently and staunchly denied — one of the biggest hurdles he said he faced as mayor was early in his career. Circa 1984-85, Heenan said, he and other Park leaders concluded that, with crime on the rise, they needed a greater police presence, but with separate police and firefighters, they couldn’t put additional officers on the street. They realized they could accomplish their goal by converting to a public safety department — whose officers would be trained in both police and firefighting — but they faced an uphill battle, with residents torn as a vote on the conversion approached. Krajniak said it was the firefighters who forced the issue onto the ballot.

“I pushed the doorbells of every person in the city to get them to (approve the) change,” Heenan recalled.

During a special election on June 18, 1986, Park residents voted 58 percent in favor of shifting from separate fire and police departments to a single public safety department.

Park Public Safety Chief David Hiller, who’s been with the department for the last 43 years, remembers that time well. There were challenges to the public safety proposal, but the move allowed the Park to reduce staffing from 30 police officers and 20 firefighters to 36 public safety officers today, which has been an enormous cost-saving measure for the city.

“I was very much a part of his plan and implementation (of public safety),” said Hiller, who said Heenan “listened to us” in the police and fire unions and agreed to give them what they needed.

“It’s been an extremely successful transition ever since,” Hiller said. “He’s always been very supportive of public safety, but he also puts us to task.”

The public safety veteran and longtime Park resident called Heenan “a great guy to work for.”

“We’ve seen a lot of changes (in the Park), and it’s because of his vision and focus,” Hiller said of Heenan.

Among the projects that Heenan has shepherded through during his career are improvements on Jefferson Avenue and the Tompkins Center at Windmill Pointe Park; construction of a lakefront boardwalk, splash pad and putting green at Patterson Park; construction of a $21 million storm sewer system that separated sewage from rainwater; reforestation throughout the city; construction of a new public safety building and renovation of City Hall; the creation of a movie theater and fitness center at Windmill Pointe Park; and the construction of the Ewald Branch of the Grosse Pointe Public Library next to City Hall about 10 years ago.

In recent years, Heenan has championed what could be the Park’s next major project: building a water treatment plant that would enable the city to break away from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department and its ever-rising rates.

“The important thing about being mayor is to always have a project you look forward to upon completion of the current project,” Heenan said. “There is always work to be done to improve the city. I’m always working to make the city better.”

Fox said her father’s likeable nature wins people over, even when they disagree with him.

“He tries to do the right thing for the city,” she said.

And he looks ahead of him, not behind.

“You don’t let the things other people say affect you personally, so you can stay happy and focused and fix whatever problem is in front of you,” Page Heenan said to her father as she, her father and her sister discussed his life and mayoral career.

Heenan was out of town when his council peers and other local leaders saluted him during a March 23 Grosse Pointe Park City Council meeting.

Before that meeting, Park City Councilman Daniel Clark said Heenan offered him some sage advice.

“He said never look back,” Clark said. “Concentrate your focus, not on the way things are, but on how you want them to be.”

It’s a way of thinking that Heenan instilled in his children, as well.

“He always used to say to us as kids — and it used to bug us — ‘You can go through this life happy or you can go through this life sad,’” Fox said. “‘I choose to be happy.’”

His daughters said their father also has an uncanny ability to spot and nurture talent, and he has recruited many young Park residents over the years for volunteer positions — a number of whom are today among the city’s most active residents and leaders.

Former Park City Councilman Andrew Richner — who also served terms as the region’s Wayne County commissioner and state representative before, more recently being elected to the University of Michigan Board of Regents — was a political newcomer when he ran for council in 1991. He didn’t have Heenan’s support at first, but Richner said that as the campaign evolved, they became “close allies and friends, (and) that continues to this day.”

In an email, Richer said, “Palmer is an institution in the state and local Republican Party. His advice and support to me was absolutely essential. One of the things that I love about Palmer is that he always takes a personal interest in encouraging people, particularly young people, to get involved in government. He really understands the importance of preparing leadership for the future.”

Now in his mid-30s, Park City Councilman Daniel Grano is another of the young leaders that Heenan mentored. Grano said residents today take safe neighborhoods and parks for granted, but only a few decades ago, that wasn’t the case.

City Councilman James Robson remembers those days.

“In ’83, we were spinning our wheels,” he said. “Crime was up (in the Park), property values were down.”

After winning his first election by less than 100 votes, Robson said Heenan — while a “reluctant candidate” — nonetheless “hit the ground running … and he never stopped. … He’s a warrior. He’s transformed Grosse Pointe Park into the community (it is today).”

That community includes two lakefront parks and a burgeoning business district along Kercheval.

“People trusted in his judgment,” Hiller said. “And he put the right people in the right places to get things done. That, to me, is his greatest attribute: People trust him.”

Heenan’s fellow mayors had high praise for his time in office.

“Everyone has the highest respect for him. It’s not easy to be mayor of any city. To be able to bridge divides says volumes about his character. I’m just so pleased and proud to have met him,” said Grosse Pointe Shores Mayor Ted Kedzierski.

During the Park’s March 23 City Council meeting, Kedzierski — joined by Shores City Councilman Robert Barrette and City Manager Mark Wollenweber — presented Park officials with a resolution in Heenan’s honor from the Shores.

Grosse Pointe Farms Mayor James Farquhar said Heenan watched the lifelong Farms resident — who worked in the family’s floral business from a young age — grow up. After a meeting of the mayors during which Farquhar and Heenan clashed over consolidation of city services — Farquhar was against it, Heenan was for it — Farquhar said Heenan told him, “‘Son, I like you.’” Farquhar was on hand to pay tribute to Heenan March 23, along with a resolution from his city for the Park mayor.

“I’ve always enjoyed Palmer’s point of view,” Farquhar said. “I think he’s done a wonderful job. He wasn’t just about Grosse Pointe Park — he was about all of the Pointes.”

Having been first elected mayor on Nov. 5, 1990, Grosse Pointe Woods Mayor Robert Novitke has the second-longest tenure among current Pointe mayors to Heenan’s; Novitke said he was first elected to the Woods City Council in 1977.

Novitke called Heenan “a friend, a mentor and my favorite mayor.” He was unable to attend the March 23 Park City Council meeting because his own council was meeting that night, but Novitke sent a resolution from his city.

“It’s not that I agreed with everything he said or did, but most of the time (I did),” Novitke said. “I think he was a great leader. I think he did a great deal for Grosse Pointe Park. … (And) his influence went beyond Grosse Pointe Park.”

Grosse Pointe City Mayor Dale Scrace is finishing his 14th year as mayor.

“When the (Grosse Pointe) mayors meet, we always consider Palmer to be our elder statesman. He’s the dean of the mayors,” Scrace said.

“I think he’s done so much for his community over the years. The legacy he leaves is staggering,” Scrace said.

While addressing Park leaders and presenting a resolution from the City in Heenan’s honor March 23, Scrace called Heenan “a dear friend and wonderful colleague” who has “always been the consummate professional in everything he’s done. You didn’t always agree with him on every issue, but you always knew where you stood (with him).”

In addition to resolutions from all of the Pointes, Heenan was honored with resolutions from Gov. Rick Snyder and a joint resolution from the Wayne 14th District Republican Committee and Eastside Republican Club. Although Grano said Heenan realized that partisanship “should take a back seat to community issues” — and it did during Heenan’s career as mayor, a nonpartisan elected position — Heenan was among the founders of the ERC. Richner, who called Heenan the local party’s “spiritual leader,” said his friend and mentor “helped resurrect a local Republican Party that had become stale and moribund.”

Eric Turin, of Grosse Pointe Farms, a veteran Republican campaign strategist who has run campaigns for candidates locally and in Washington, D.C., said in an email interview that for Republican candidates, Heenan’s endorsement “was Fort Knox gold.” Grano said Heenan was crucial in securing Michigan’s support in 1980 for Ronald Reagan, and Turin said Heenan’s opinion remains highly valued.

“Palmer’s impact (on the Grosse Pointe political landscape) has been nothing short of incredible,” Turin said. “No one will match his 32-year tenure. Grosse Pointe Park represents the greatest diversity demographically. The Park has a changing group of constituents, (and) for him to maintain a cohesive connectiveness over 32 years is a tribute to his interpersonal skills. Grosse Pointe Park is unique from other Pointes in many regards, and he continually championed that specialness.”

Theokas has agreed to take the reins as mayor for the rest of Heenan’s term — he would have been up for election in November — and the council approved Theokas’ appointment March 23.

But as mayor emeritus — a designation approved by the Park City Council on March 23 — Heenan “will still have his hand in city matters,” Page Heenan said. He’ll remain active in the city’s nonprofit Grosse Pointe Park Foundation, as well.

The recently retired mayor said he’s known for telling people, “I’m the happiest person you’ll meet today.”

“And he means it,” Fox said.