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Ann Arbor 200

AADL Talks To: Grace Shackman

When: November 2, 2022

Grace sits surrounded by books about, maps, and bird's eye views of Ann Arbor.
Grace Shackman, August 2000

 

Grace Shackman is an author, educator, and former Washtenaw County Commissioner. But she's probably best known as a local historian and a long-time contributor to the Ann Arbor Observer, where she has dug into many fascinating topics of local and regional history. Grace tells us about how she became involved in politics, her research process, and how her interests spurred her beyond her shy nature. 

Find more by and about Grace Shackman in our archival collections.

Transcript

  • [00:00:10] Amy Cantu: Hi, this is Amy.
  • [00:00:11] Emily Murphy: This is Emily. Today AADL talks to Grace Shackman. Grace is an author and educator, and at one time, Washtenaw County Commissioner. But she's probably best known as a local historian and a long time contributor to the Ann Arbor Observer, where she's dug into many fascinating topics of local and regional history. Thanks for joining us, Grace.
  • [00:00:39] Grace Shackman: Thank you, and that's a very good synopsis.
  • [00:00:43] Emily Murphy: Speaking of Ann Arbor, what brought you here? Did you grow up in Ann Arbor?
  • [00:00:47] Grace Shackman: No. I came here to go to school. People talk about who lives in Ann Arbor, the Germans, the Greeks, et cetera. There's also this whole group that came to Ann Arbor and never left. I had a boyfriend during the time and he was four years older than me. He even got his Master's and he could have gotten a job somewhere else. In fact, his cousin wanted him to move to California, but I was still here. So he just got jobs here, and then by the time I graduated and we got married, he had a job here. I didn't know we could stay so long because I graduated in 1965. It was more like you were either a faculty or working class. There wasn't this middle ground, but Ann Arbor was changing to more tech companies and more stuff to do. We just ended up staying here, and I think I was so lucky. This has been a wonderful community to encourage me to do what I do. I wasn't a nerd or anything. And my kids, they went to schools here and they did real well. I liked it. Real comfortable, interesting place to live.
  • [00:02:01] Amy Cantu: What got you... So we're going to talk a lot about local history and I'm sure that's going to be a large part of what we discuss, but I'm curious because when we were looking in the past at your career, you have always been interested in politics and you were one time a County Commissioner. You were first elected in 1988, I think. Do I have that right? I know you were very much involved with the Democratic Party during the '80s. Can you talk a little bit about your interest in politics and what you learned about Ann Arbor through all of those years.
  • [00:02:36] Grace Shackman: Well, the thing was, I was very shy, but I still entered in politics. I grew up in Lansing and Detroit, and my parents, they were socialists in the '30s. That's how they met and then they became Democrats and all their friends were political friends. You know their friend base. I just grew up knowing all about politics. I knew Governor Williams when he was a governor, and Phil Hart and all those people. I started a group when I was in junior high, the Young Democrats, and we did stuff. It was in my blood. But then when I came of age, when I was done with college and being a regular citizen, it was the Johnson years and the Vietnam War and I didn't like the Democratic Party any more than I liked the Republican Party. But then I don't know if you guys remember Perry Bullard. He was a state rep. I went to a Ypsilanti to hear a Ypsilanti Historic Program and there were some people there who wanted a ride home because they'd come on bus and they lived in Ann Arbor. I gave them a ride home and it turned out they knew my parents and they were from Washington. They were friends with Perry Bullard because the husband had gone to, didn't he go to Harvard? I think so anyway, college friend. I got to know them and they had a good bye party when they were just in Ann Arbor for a semester or a year. I met Perry Bullard then and I thought, well, he's not one of these terrible pro war people, and so I volunteered to help him. Then I was doing a thing which some people say, maybe it's not legal. He was thinking that the next thing he would do would run for Congress. The idea was that was when there were letters to the editors, to the Ann Arbor News that everybody read. The idea was to get a lot of letters into the Ann Arbor News, so they keep him in mind of people. There were friends and myself who wrote letters.
  • [00:04:56] Amy Cantu: Lots of letters?
  • [00:04:57] Grace Shackman: Yeah. I had other people sign them.
  • [00:05:00] Amy Cantu: That's the way.
  • [00:05:02] Grace Shackman: The Ann Arbor News was always getting letters, not just about him, but about Democratic things to get people more. After a while, the Ann Arbor News would not print a letter I signed. Somebody must have told them.
  • [00:05:16] Amy Cantu: Tipped them off. This was the '70s and the '80s or ?
  • [00:05:22] Grace Shackman: Yeah. Well, this must have been in the '70s.
  • [00:05:25] Amy Cantu: That would have been before that.
  • [00:05:28] Grace Shackman: Yeah. Then I was running out of friends to sign these letters, so I went to a precinct meeting for the Democratic Party, and there I met Kathy Agron, and they were talking about, that the 5th ward had been redistricted, every 10 years the city is redistricted, so there was a new fifth ward and even though the fifth ward had always been Republican, it looked like maybe there was a chance it was 47% Dems or something, but it was changing fast. People didn't quite realize the old German population that had been the Old West Side was being replaced by younger families that they were more likely to be Democratic. They were saying, well, we should run a candidate and maybe we can win. I'd gone to the meeting just to get people to sign the letters, but then I get, this woman is willing to run and everything, so I got to know her and I worked in her campaign and she's still one of my best friends. That's how I got into regular city politics.
  • [00:06:40] Amy Cantu: That's really cool. That's great. Great history.
  • [00:06:42] Grace Shackman: The third ward won, Jeff Epton run. The first ward used to be the only ward that ever elected Democrat because that was a real working class across the North side.
  • [00:06:55] Amy Cantu: Sure.
  • [00:06:57] Grace Shackman: Now everybody's a Democrat. They got the majority of city council and finally a Democratic mayor and all that. During that time is when first I did their newsletter. I always liked to write, and then I became chair of the party. In fact, they almost didn't make me chair because they said, well, you're still doing the newsletter. You like that? I said, well, that's not fair.
  • [00:07:21] Amy Cantu: Were you the chair and ?
  • [00:07:24] Grace Shackman: No, I found somebody.
  • [00:07:26] Amy Cantu: To do the newsletter.
  • [00:07:28] Grace Shackman: Yes. Then I became chair. That was fun. Then I guess from there is when I ran for County Commissioner. I had always thought I am just behind the scenes. I could never speak out in public forums and all this is in the back of I was a very shy person and I had a terrible mother to bring that up. But she just meant I had no self confidence. I never thought I could do, but I was always interested in things. That was my savior. I kept doing things even though you may be out of my comfort level. Just because I was interested in it seemed something that needed doing. Then when Don Duquette, he was the County Commissioner, and I knew him through all my politics. He called up, and I remember he left a message, and then I called back and he was out of town, and we were back and forth, and I knew that he was probably not going to run for County Commissioner again, and I thought, well, he probably is going to run by some candidates that he's thinking about should maybe do it. Then to my surprise, he said, well, you should do it. I thought, no. But I knew enough not to say totally no. I said, well, I'll think about it. Then when I thought about it, I thought, well, I don't want to run, but it would be interesting to be a County Commissioner. I guess the theme I'm thinking as I talked to you guys is that it always was more the interest drove me on even when the personal issues didn't. But anyway, I did and I won. I did that for eight years and it was very interesting.
  • [00:09:10] Amy Cantu: I see that you were particularly interested in environmental services. You served on the Solid Waste Management Task Force. Do those continue to be?
  • [00:09:18] Grace Shackman: Yeah.
  • [00:09:21] Amy Cantu: How did those interests start? Just by your normal involvement with the Democratic Party or had that been something that you'd carried with you through your whole life, those particular issues.
  • [00:09:31] Grace Shackman: I don't know. I think I was more interested in social issues. I was on the shelter board for a while, and I was involved in when Avalon got founded and I still love Avalon, although the people I knew the best have all retired. But I was interested in environmental issues and it's everything you do, you have a few best friends. My best friends turned out to be Janis Bobrin, who's the drain commissioner now water resources and Rebecca Head who unfortunately died, but she was a county solid waste person, and we got to be friends. I was very interested in what they were doing. Janis was really, it had started before but she took it further. The Drain Commissioner used to be just someone who made sure there were drains for the farmers to drain their fields, but it got to be more and more of an environmental thing. Tom Blessing started it, but she took it even further and now it's more or less, looking at the whole picture of environmental.
  • [00:10:39] Amy Cantu: She was on that for years too. She did that for years.
  • [00:10:41] Grace Shackman: Yeah, she did.
  • [00:10:44] Emily Murphy: Did you decide to leave politics or were you considering roles other than County Commissioner?
  • [00:10:50] Grace Shackman: Yeah. The last two years I knew that I would be chair or I had a good chance to be chair. I thought, well, I should probably do this because of everything I do. But by then I was pretty sick of it.
  • [00:11:06] Amy Cantu: I can understand.
  • [00:11:07] Grace Shackman: Your life is not your own. I think I'm a nice person, but you had to be nice to everybody. If you think of, if you just go to meetings, it's not that hard. But if you take it seriously, you go to all these other functions and political events and environmental events and it's your whole life and also, if someone wants to take you aside, even at a social party and give you a earful about something, you do it. I was eager for my own life again.
  • [00:11:45] Emily Murphy: Understandable.
  • [00:11:47] Amy Cantu: You were raising your kids through all this?
  • [00:11:50] Grace Shackman: Yeah, I was. When I was thinking about what I would tell you guys today, I thought about that's the best thing I ever do was have two kids. I loved having kids, I mean my first job, I was involved in politics, I was working for Wes Vivian, and I got friends with Mary David, who was, her ex husband Herb David, of the guitar studio.
  • [00:12:16] Amy Cantu: Yeah.
  • [00:12:17] Grace Shackman: Yeah, so I was telling her that I was looking for a job, and she said, well, she was a teacher, but she'd quit teaching and this was a time when they were really needing teachers and she said, well, she'd gotten a job in Taylor, and I could go and talk to the principal, see if I could get a job too, if I wanted. Why not? [LAUGHTER] Of course, I got the job because I remember the principal saying to me, I didn't have a teaching certificate at that point, he said to me "The day someone with a credentials walks in the office, you're gone," I said, oh, okay. [LAUGHTER]
  • [00:12:53] Amy Cantu: What grade?
  • [00:12:54] Grace Shackman: Well, somebody put me in this class with 36 first graders. [LAUGHTER]
  • [00:13:01] Emily Murphy: Wow. It's sounding like you didn't have a life of your own, from first graders to politics. [LAUGHTER]
  • [00:13:07] Grace Shackman: No.
  • [00:13:08] Emily Murphy: What did you do when you finally got to to do something for Grace.
  • [00:13:13] Grace Shackman: Oh, yeah, I guess that's when I started seriously writing, yeah. No, I didn't have kids when I was doing the teaching, so I did this really hard teaching job, and then so I thought, well, maybe I should be a teacher, so I went back to school and I was going to Ed school, and while I was in Ed school, I got a part time job at Perry Nursery School. The end of the day when the teachers were gone and I love that place so that when they offered me a full time job, I took it and it was a wonderful job, very good memories, I still have good friends from that. Usually have a job and you have a few good buddies, that job I loved everybody, we were all a tight group, we were all in our early 20s, none of us had kids, but we wanted kids. I guess I was 26, not early, but I squeezed in a lot before that, and then we all got pregnant one after another [LAUGHTER] so we all hung out with our babies and shared childcare, and passed on maternity clothes and all that stuff.
  • [00:14:23] Amy Cantu: Eventually you got into writing, you say.
  • [00:14:26] Grace Shackman: Oh yeah.
  • [00:14:27] Amy Cantu: Was the writing originally local history or?
  • [00:14:31] Grace Shackman: The thing was I had worked in daycare and I'd worked in teaching and I said, these are my kids, I'm going to raise them, I'm going to stay home, and my husband had a job, so we weren't living high off the hook, but we could do it. I stayed home with them, but it also was kind of boring, I mean, [LAUGHTER] you love your kids to death but still they're, yeah. That's when the Old West Side News has just been formed and all that, so I just started writing for the Old West Side News just for something to do and people liked my article, so then they were saying, well why don't you write for the Observer? I finally got up my nerve and called up Mary Hunt and started writing for them and that's how that started.
  • [00:15:19] Amy Cantu: What year was? Gosh, it's been what? How many years that you've been writing for the Observer now?
  • [00:15:24] Grace Shackman: Well, I think I quit when I was a County Commissioner, cause it seemed like they shouldn't be encouraging giving a politician a byline or whatever, although I'm not sure they would have minded.
  • [00:15:39] Amy Cantu: That brings up, I have to know when you're picking things to write about.
  • [00:15:45] Grace Shackman: Yeah.
  • [00:15:46] Amy Cantu: I mean, politics has to figure in somehow.
  • [00:15:49] Grace Shackman: Yeah.
  • [00:15:49] Amy Cantu: You can't really just erase all of that and just how do you go about picking topics to write about?
  • [00:15:56] Grace Shackman: The Old West Side, it was because it was a German neighborhood, it was all Germans, I didn't that was a whole field to talk about, I mean, Ann Arbor was a much simpler town earlier, it was the university people on the East and the Germans on the West [LAUGHTER] and the first Germans had come early in the founding of the town and they did all the practical jobs, they ran the stores and they were the ones that knew how to be shoemakers and blacksmiths, and all the working stuff. I did one article, and then people kept telling me about other. It just one thing led to another, led to another, led to another, and I kept having different articles to write about.
  • [00:16:48] Emily Murphy: What was your research process like when someone would give you an idea?
  • [00:16:53] Grace Shackman: The way I love to do was talk to someone, go interview them, and these are people that didn't think that what they did was particularly important, but it really was interesting, and often these stores they started out like, with shoe stores, started out with making shoes. When you go back and there was this whole wide range of things that probably happened in every town, but wasn't recorded, so I really felt like I was finding some interesting stuff to write about. It was never a problem to find things to write about, it was just getting to it, and at first people would hesitate, but after I had written a few, it got to fairly easy to find people to agree. I started out writing in the Old West Side news, and then people said, well you're a good writer or something to that effect, so why didn't you try the observer? I remember I called up Mary Hunt and I was all nervous, but my first article I remember now, it was the Indians in Washtenaw county. Yeah because I was thinking, well, if you're doing the history of something, you want to go back to before the settlers, and I found out quite a bit about that there were Indians and still traces of Indians and all that.
  • [00:18:12] Amy Cantu: You spent a lot of time in libraries and or county records and all stuff?
  • [00:18:18] Grace Shackman: Yeah, the library was always a good source, so I remember I used to spend a lot of time in your, what do you call it, when you had the things where you could look at old newspapers?
  • [00:18:28] Emily Murphy: Microfilm.
  • [00:18:29] Grace Shackman: Microfilm, yes, [LAUGHTER] the microfilm and like if there's someone I wanted to know about, if I knew when they died, I would look in the microfilm to find their obituary and that would tell me a lot of things.
  • [00:18:43] Amy Cantu: That would spur that's interesting, that makes sense. You get the full name, you get a lot of the dates.
  • [00:18:51] Grace Shackman: Yeah and sometimes it would give you ideas for looking back further, but we didn't like now, it's so easy to just type in what you want to know and comes up thanks to you.
  • [00:19:02] Amy Cantu: You had to do serious research back in the day.
  • [00:19:06] Grace Shackman: Yeah.
  • [00:19:07] Amy Cantu: You were also involved in the Downtown Historical Street Exhibit program [OVERLAPPING].
  • [00:19:12] Amy Cantu: With Ray Detter and Louisa Pieper, can you talk a little bit about that project and them?
  • [00:19:20] Grace Shackman: Yeah. Well, that was really interesting. We would meet once a week on Friday. Ray was an instigator, he's a real go getter, and he had this unusual schedule where he slept till noon, so we would go over at 1:00, I guess, and he might still be in the shower because he'd just gotten up and then he'd put out some cookies. He's very big on refreshments. He'd put out these cookies and we'd be nibbling on the cookies and drinking coffee. Then about 3:00, he'd be ready for lunch, so he'd heat up some soup. That was his lunch. He does exactly -- regimented, so he'd heat up some soup and we had to eat some of the soup. Then we were really hungry because we'd had lunch at noon at our house, and then we were spoiled for dinner, but it still was part of the ritual or whatever. But we learned a lot. We hammered out all these street exhibit things.
  • [00:20:24] Amy Cantu: That was a huge project. Many years in making.
  • [00:20:29] Grace Shackman: Yeah. Ray, down in his basement, he had every book ever written about Ann Arbor, and we were always going down to the basement and getting another book and looking it up and when writing it. How it worked basically was both Louisa and Ray thought they were in charge. Well, Ray was in charge, but Louisa knew more, you know?
  • [00:20:52] Amy Cantu: Yeah
  • [00:20:52] Grace Shackman: But they would get these arguments and then I was always in the middle, okay.
  • [00:20:59] Amy Cantu: Keeping it.
  • [00:21:00] Grace Shackman: Let's do this. Then we'd finally hammer something out, looking it up in all the books and everything and going through many different processes. Louisa was a real work horse. She's the one who would take whatever we ended up with our rough draft, and during the week we were gone, make a good copy of it and make three copies, so we started where we left off. After we did all this, Ray had a whole bunch of historians that he sent it to Susan Weinberg, and Wystan Stephens was still alive and everything. But Wystan made a lot of grammatical changes. He's very good on grammar. But hardly anyone made any substantive changes because we'd already researched it all, so we would really know more than.
  • [00:21:51] Amy Cantu: Than they did.
  • [00:21:51] Grace Shackman: Yeah. But I think it made Ray feel better to pass it by them, so no one could later say, you left out this or you didn't do this.
  • [00:21:59] Amy Cantu: Smart. I'd say it was a model exhibit program for other cities too.
  • [00:22:06] Grace Shackman: Well, I thought it was an excellent program where the panels were glass panels, so the idea was it was it was pointing toward the thing that he was talking about. You saw the old picture and then right there was a new picture. I asked Ray more than once, who had that idea. He wasn't sure. They had a charette. I remember I wasn't a member of the charette, but I was invited to come by and see it. They were all working on it. I don't think Louisa was in it either, but Ray and some of his friends. Somewhere at that charette, they thought about the idea of having it be, but Ray wasn't even sure who thought of that.
  • [00:22:56] Amy Cantu: What about the Sister Cities program? I wanted to ask you about that. You were really involved in that, and what's happening with that today?
  • [00:23:05] Grace Shackman: That's an interesting thing. That was lovely. Brigitte Maassen, was the local head of it. It had sort of died out. There was a Sister Cities program that was right after World War II, and our first sister city was Tubingen, which was like another university city. Then our second one was Hikone, Japanese. There's some reason for this, but it had still died out and Brigitte, they came from Tubingen and they wanted to restart it. They have a Deutsche American Institute and the head of that came to Ann Arbor to just talk about it. Because I had written about Germans, Brigette invited me to come to that meeting. That's how I got involved and that was wonderful. I still know a lot of the people from there. It was really frustrating to me that I was really interested in and foreign things in Europe, and my husband and I before we had kids, we did quite a few trips to Europe. The U of M used to have for alumni a $200 plane trip you could take.
  • [00:24:21] Amy Cantu: Oh my Gosh.
  • [00:24:22] Grace Shackman: Of course, 200 was more then, but still is affordable even for people starting income.
  • [00:24:30] Amy Cantu: Oh my Gosh.
  • [00:24:30] Grace Shackman: We went several times before we had kids to England and to France and different countries. But it was frustrating to me when you go like that. When you're a tourist, you don't really meet people, go eat in restaurants and you live in a hotel. But you don't know real families or anything. But the Sister City you do, a whole community, and it's been really wonderful.
  • [00:24:58] Amy Cantu: Is it still going on today? Is it still strong today or?
  • [00:25:02] Grace Shackman: Well, we still all know each other. I don't know what's next. We had three different visits, you know that for a while there. Tubingen's very much like Ann Arbor. Everybody spoke perfect English, and they're all well educated and it's a college town. It's very compatible with Ann Arbor.
  • [00:25:27] Emily Murphy: What are you working on now Grace?
  • [00:25:29] Grace Shackman: Now, I am working on smaller projects. I'm involved in mid-century modern now, that's my fairly later interest, and we're working on our web page, so we were having descriptions of all the architects. I was writing up a lot of those, although I think we're almost done with that. Then also the AIA, the American Institute of Architecture, it's a professional group for architects. Their local branch, they put out a publication. Almost every year when they put out one, they have me write something. This year, I didn't do the main article, but I did two little ones. One on the Observatory and one on the Law School.
  • [00:26:17] Amy Cantu: What are you most proud of?
  • [00:26:20] Grace Shackman: Oh, I don't know. I guess I'm proud of that I managed to do so much even though I was shy and even I had no self-confidence or anything. Still my life has been pretty interesting.
  • [00:26:34] Amy Cantu: It has. Well, thank you so much, Grace. Thanks for sharing your entire life with us so far.
  • [00:26:42] Grace Shackman: Well, I'm pleased to be asked.
  • [00:26:50] Amy Cantu: AADL Talks To is a production of the Ann Arbor District Library.