Park officials share memories of late Mayor Palmer Heenan

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published March 10, 2016


GROSSE POINTE PARK — City leaders are remembering the life and accomplishments of their longest-serving mayor, Palmer T. Heenan.

Heenan — for whom Park City Hall was renamed the Palmer T. Heenan Municipal Center last May — died Feb. 29 at the age of 94 after suffering a stroke. He was the Park’s mayor for almost 32 years, retiring in March 2015, and he shepherded the city through a challenging chapter in its history, helping to make it the attractive and bustling community it is today. He had been serving as mayor emeritus since his retirement, a designation approved unanimously by the City Council last year.

“I will remember Palmer the person as a devout Christian,” longtime City Councilman James Robson said by email. “Some may or may not know he was a founder or co-founder of Knox Presbyterian Church (in Harrison Township). As devout as he was, he never flaunted his faith from his mayoral pulpit. He did, with other Pointe mayors several years ago, establish the annual Mayors Prayer Breakfast. The first prayer breakfast probably had no more than a couple dozen attendees. Now the event has 10 times that in attendance. I will remember Palmer the mayor as the most engaged, enthusiastic and tenacious public servant I’ve ever known. That he sustained that kind of energy over 30 years is remarkable. He had no political ambitions. He never aspired to be anything but mayor. All that he did as mayor was done with one purpose in mind: to make Grosse Pointe Park a great place to live. So much that makes Grosse Pointe Park a great city today is a result of his dedicated and unwavering leadership.

“And lastly, I will remember Palmer the city cheerleader,” Robson continued. “No one bragged about Grosse Pointe Park more than Palmer. Anyone who would ask him about how the Park was doing got an enthusiastic and very long sales pitch. Palmer rarely missed a ribbon cutting, block party or parade. He was a fixture at our parks and at numerous city functions. He had a boundless energy that was contagious. Palmer is now on to his great and well-deserved reward. He leaves behind a grateful and better community.”

Another veteran council member, City Councilman Daniel Clark, also mourned the loss of the longtime mayor.

“I have mixed feelings about this news,” Clark said by email. “On the one hand, Palmer did not have to suffer the many indignities of old age, and for this I am grateful. On the other hand, I have lost a close friend, mentor and confidante. We have all lost a man of great stature whose virtues, depth of character and religiosity constitute his greatest legacy. Palmer Heenan provided a standard by which we ourselves can guide our own lives. I lost my own father when I just turned 18, and it was Palmer who helped fill that loss throughout my adult life. My father would often remind me that I would be judged by the company I keep. I am proud to have been in Palmer Heenan’s company for so long and rest easy in the knowledge that he now is in the company of the God he was so totally devoted to in life.”

Mayor Robert Denner — who Heenan endorsed to be his successor when he announced his retirement last year — knows he has big shoes to fill.

“Mayor Heenan will be missed by many,” Denner said by email. “He loved Grosse Pointe Park and for over three decades strove to make it the very best place to live and raise a family. He was a gentleman, with a calm and persistent way about him, that helped him to build a team to achieve his vision for the city. Like many, I looked to Palmer as a friend and a mentor. He led Grosse Pointe Park during the time we raised our family here, and I am grateful for his stewardship.”

City Councilman Daniel Grano is one of the young leaders who Heenan mentored and inspired. Like his peers, Grano said Heenan’s accomplishments leave a lasting legacy.

“Palmer Heenan was a fervent conservative who could put politics aside to do what was best for our community without compromising his core values,” Grano said by email. “His accomplishments in improving the parks, redeveloping Jefferson Avenue and downsizing city government will serve the residents for generations to come.”

Former Mayor Pro Tem Gregory Theokas, who served out the rest of Heenan’s mayoral term last year from March through the election in November, worked with Heenan throughout Theokas’ 20 years on the council, but the two had known each other much longer. Theokas, in fact, was one of the people who urged Heenan to run for office; Heenan repeatedly turned them down, arguing that, then in his early 60s, he was “too old.” Heenan was a graduate of Princeton University and the University of Michigan Law School who worked in law and the mortgage business before his retirement from a full-time career.

“His footprint is everywhere in this city,” Theokas said. “And he was tireless. He never stopped promoting the interests of the city. And he did it at an age when most people are retired. We are extremely fortunate that he did that. This would have been a very different city if he hadn’t.”

In a sentiment echoed by many, Theokas said, “I’m happy to have known him, and I’m sorry to have lost him.”

City Clerk and Finance Director Jane Blahut, who has worked for the city for about 35 years, recalled that as mayor, Heenan would come into city offices daily and knew all of the staffers by name.

“I was honored to work with Mayor Heenan, and I will miss him a lot,” she said by email.

City Manager Dale Krajniak, whose career with the Park has spanned roughly 30 years, was also close to Heenan.

“Without question, the Grosse Pointes have been blessed with so many dedicated elected officials over the years,” Krajniak said by email last year. “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.”

In an article penned by Heenan for the winter 2014 edition of the city’s newsletter, he recalled the way many people saw the Park three decades ago.

“When I first became mayor, an unflattering comment about our city was making the rounds,” Heenan wrote. “It went something like this: ‘Will the last person to leave Grosse Pointe Park please turn out the lights?’ People were migrating outward, and as a ring suburb we were perceived to be in a downward trajectory. Today, however, nothing could be further from the truth.”

Under his leadership, the city experienced a burst of new development in its Kercheval Avenue business district The Park, added a movie theater and scores of other amenities to the city’s two waterfront parks, reduced blight, saw the construction of the Ewald Branch of the Grosse Pointe Public Library next to Park city offices, and constructed a $21 million storm sewer system that separated sewage from rainwater, among scores of improvements. After a controversial barrier went up — and was subsequently torn down — by the Park at the city’s border with Detroit along Kercheval, the Park and Detroit signed an agreement to jointly redevelop the east side area.

People might not always have agreed with Heenan, but Theokas said the former mayor was good at listening to everyone carefully and bringing different groups together for a common purpose.

“At all times, he had the best interests of the city at heart,” Theokas said. “He was really innovative. He really did not assume the role (of mayor) in a passive way.”

And Heenan was “willing to risk his political career” to bring about changes he believed were needed, Theokas said.

Ever ebullient, Heenan never stopped looking to the future.

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

Heenan is survived by his children, Palmer T. Heenan, of Fenton; Betsy Heenan Fox, of Grosse Pointe Farms; and Page Heenan, of Grosse Pointe Farms, as well as eight grandchildren. He was predeceased by his wife, Jayne; their daughter, Catherine Rives Heenan; and his parents and three siblings.

At press time, a memorial service date had not been set yet; a service is slated to be held this spring.