Saline's eccentric ex-mayor
Hubert Beach, mayor of Saline from 1971 to 1974, lives in a house on McKay Street that has also been the home of three other mayors. But among all the mayors Saline has elected in its years as a city, Beach may well qualify as the most eccentric. For instance. Beach takes periodic trips to solar eclipse sites, from Acapulco to Nova Scotia, to "slay the cosmic dragon." He wears a mask, brandishes a sword, and beats a drum—his way, he says, of making sure the sun returns.
Beach also qualifies as the most hands-on mayor Saline has ever seen. While he was in office, the city and the state fought over whether to close Michigan Avenue, a U.S. highway, for the Memorial Day parade. Beach got in front of traffic and closed the street himself.
Beach was for years the city's one-man volunteer public works office. People remember Beach driving around town in "The Beast," an old school bus he converted into a mobile workshop. He was often pictured in the Saline Reporter scaling heights to do upper-story work, such as moving the bell from the old Methodist church to its new location and painting the flagpole in front of the post office. His motto: "If it's out of reach, call Beach."
"I've always loved climbing," he explains. "As a kid I climbed every tree I could, up to the tiniest branches."
He installed a sound system at the cemetery for the Memorial Day program, strung Christmas lights across the main intersection, and put in the finishing line banners for races. He designed and built a panel that lit up Yes or No to show how council members voted. When there was a blockage in the storm sewer, he looked down a manhole to see what was wrong, and discovered that a contractor had thrown old boards down the hole to get rid of them.
Mary Hess, who served her first term on city council when Beach was mayor, recalls that his expertise on TV systems, which he acquired from putting up antennas, came in handy when the city negotiated its first cable TV contract. And his knowledge of construction was very useful when the building code was amended.
Beach also worked as a tax preparer, and he used his accounting skills to develop clear budgets. "He wanted to make sure that the people we served understood where their money went," explains Hess. Bob Harrison, a friend of Beach's, remembers that Beach caught a major error while discussing adding sewage capacity with representatives of Ford Motor and a civil engineering firm. "Hubert's mind was sharper with numbers than if he was standing there with a calculator," says Harrison.
Growing up on a farm near Clinton, Beach learned to be practical and thrifty. He was born in 1923 and attended a one-room school. His dad died when he was nine, and he helped his mother run the farm. At age fifteen he started hauling milk from area farms. He moved to Saline in 1948, after marrying Catherine (Katie) Sliker.
Never one to sit still, he started his contracting business because he finished his milk route in midafternoon. He did almost anything—electrical work, carpentry, servicing fire extinguishers, installing security and sound systems. His specialty was height work: aerials, eaves troughs, flagpoles, lightning rods, church towers. To keep busy in the winter, he ran a tax business out of his house.
Beach first ran for public office because he was concerned about the fate of the dam at Wellers' that had washed out in the 1968 flood. The narrowing of the millpond had created a wetland, and there was talk of putting a trailer park there. After one term on city council, Beach ran for mayor. During his two terms, he saw the dam restored and the millpond dredged and restocked with fish.
Beach went through a period of political eclipse when he ran unsuccessfully for county commissioner twice in the 1970s and for mayor three times in the 1980s. In 1987, he won a seat on city council. He kept it until 1996; he resigned after an automobile accident and has still not totally recovered from his injuries.
Beach warned colleagues, "If you don't want the truth, don't ask me." His straightforward style and eccentric behavior earned him both admirers and enemies— which may explain why he lost elections despite his popularity.
"People either loved or hated him," says his daughter, April Pronk.
"Sometimes it's hard to change a first impression," explains Hess. "There was never any question where he was coming from. Compromise was not one of his strong points; he was firm in his convictions."
Beach describes his politics as populist, motivated by a concern for the underdog. "I always said garbagemen should make as much as administrators," he says. In his first race for county commission, he ran as a Democrat. In the next race, he ran as a Republican, since the Republicans are the dominant party in the Saline area. Although he counted both liberals and conservatives as political allies, he says he's a Democrat at heart "Republicans are too stuffy," he explains.
People appreciated Beach's accessibility. A regular for years among the friendly crowd at Benny's Bakery, Beach enjoyed debating and listening to others' opinions.
"He loved the city as no one I know," says Hess. Saline plans to honor him by naming a street in the new industrial park Beach Drive.