What Else On Earth Could We Want?

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Count me among those Kalamazooans who feel we were blessed to have had four years of Dr. Elson Floyd’s leadership as President of Western Michigan University. His master stroke was dangling the $55 million College of Engineering as a public incentive at a critical time in our community’s development. I was fortunate to play a very minor role in a series of events that allowed witness to a significant change of course in economic development here. In my view, although WMU had tremendous clout to leverage community resources, the shift had less to do with the university’s emergence as a community force than the ability of key individuals to fill the void left by the absence of Upjohn and First of America’s corporate leadership. Dr. Floyd has every right to take full credit for his catalytic role in some dramatic successes. Right up to the end, though, he claimed publicly and privately that it was a team effort, and so it was.

The heroics of Craig DeNooyer and Bob Brown, the knowledge of Jim Kalleward, the courage of Pat DiGiovanni, the creativity of Jeff Eckert and Steve Deisler, the leadership of Hannah McKinney and Linda Teeter, the wisdom of Jack Hopkins and the support of many others reached a seminal moment in City Hall during the tightest of times when it dawned on all present that the solution was at hand and there were no representatives in the room from either Upjohn/Pharmacia or First of America. “My God, we’re empowered,” said one, and then it was back to the details of what it would take to move ahead.

For a number of reasons, Dr. Floyd can leave in good conscience. He performed admirably and achieved important goals. He wasn’t afraid to play his aces, trump cards and bowers and — to continue the card analogy — took a lot of tricks early. His skill set may be that of a transformer more than a maintainer. In that regard, he was a prime victim of the “Next Bigger Town Syndrome,” in which job-specific candidates work their way up the pecking order, leaving behind communities and organizations that start the process all over again, dipping down to smaller towns to find promising candidates who some day will prove themselves good enough to leave (which I more fully describe in my piece “Living With Strangers”).

As the first WMU President not to retire here, Dr. Floyd may not be remembered in Kalamazoo with the reverence of a Waldo or Sangren. Probably more important to him, though, will be the challenge of finding the time and energy to maintain the friendships he has established here. He has chosen a professional life that has distinct trade-offs. It’s a life that has success written all over it.

Our fascination with such life choices accounts for some of the fuss, but the undercurrent in all this has more to do with leadership, influence and community pride. To an extent we feel jilted and uncertain of ourselves and, empowered or not, we’re faced with the same vulnerabilities that confronted us when Pharmacia went to London or New Jersey or wherever. If anything, the threat that Pfizer could yank a couple thousand jobs out of here brings into clearer focus the question of who and what is important to our collective future. I’ve touched on these issues in earlier writings, including “A Gorilla in our Midst,” about the declining influence of Upjohn and “Whose Community Is It, Anyway?” about old timers who are anxious to recruit new blood to Kalamazoo.

With Dr. Floyd’s departure, remember, we don’t even have to put a house on the market. He will be replaced, very carefully, by a crack team of 14 highly educated people who will spend hundreds if not thousands of hours on the task. This part of the community puzzle is under control and the missing piece won’t be missing for long.

Losing Dr. Floyd isn’t scary. What’s scary is losing the students who graduate from Dr. Floyd’s university to find jobs in Chicago, Denver, Raleigh, Boston and Seattle. The thought of losing the downtown research jobs? Now, that’s scary.

So, where do we turn our attention in trying to preserve leadership and community development in an age in which all roads seemingly lead the best and brightest to places bigger and better?

Barry Broome, the head of Southwest Michigan First, can give you one answer. It’s not the people who have the jobs — it’s the people who create the jobs we need to focus on, and Broome’s brilliance is in his advocacy to create those jobs locally. Ironically, although Barry Broome has a job himself and he may indeed move on to a job in the next bigger town some day, he has distinguished himself as a fighter who, with the support of a great board, has helped reshape the culture to be more entrepreneurial and fit.

George Arwady has always taken the same approach as the Publisher of The Gazette. Anyone who thinks George Arwady is just doing his job has missed the point.

Although they’re both extremely bright and hard charging, Broome and Arwady (one new to the community and one long-serving) are by no means alone in their passion to make Kalamazoo a better place.And as important as these champions are, you have to move into the realm of people who barely have jobs at all to get an inkling of how we are going to shape our future.

It’s not entirely coincidence or luck that we have the genius of Dr. Tim Fischell in this community. In the tradition of W.E. Upjohn and Dr. Homer Stryker, Dr. Fischell is a medical pioneer who, if he left, simply could not be replaced. And he’s not alone among medical pioneers here. To varying degrees, the physicians and scientists in our community are among our most precious resources.

At the same time, we’re blessed to have people with great wealth — none of whom even need jobs, obviously — who willingly invest in our community development because they feel there’s something special about Kalamazoo. That they’re also very smart is a big bonus.

The unsung heroes of community development are the risk takers — Joe Gesmundo, Tom Huff, Josh Weiner and Ken Miller to name a few — and the local industrialists — such as Greg Arvanigian, Kathie VanderPloeg, Marc Schupan and Tim Tyler — who provide an important foundation to our economy.

My personal heroes, Dr. Upjohn and Dr. Stryker, were individuals who had an amazing number of interests. Like Dr. Fischell, they were physicians, businessmen and inventors, and they also loved clocks, cars, flowers, politics, woodworking, opera and the visual arts.

Dr. Stryker involved himself in the lives of young people as a baseball coach and manager and distinguished himself as an employer who hired the handicapped. Dr. Upjohn served as Kalamazoo’s first mayor and built the Civic Theatre, where Dr. Stryker appeared in plays.

Their interests and legacy of community involvement have resulted in a culturally rich, vital and caring community — a place where natives and newcomers work side by side on the issues of the day. You’ll see hospital presidents Frank Sardone and Randy Stasik joining forces to help Ministry with Community. You’ll find WMU football coach Gary Darnell motivating single dads with insights into what colleges are looking for in young men. And you can read a newspaper column by retired WMU President Dr. Diether Haenicke, who when it comes to intellectual honesty and use of the language has no peers in these parts. Dr. Haenicke and Jon Stryker have quietly protected our cultural funding interests in Lansing at the same time they’ve promoted important causes here.

Dr. Floyd was obviously sincere when he said he was torn about leaving Kalamazoo, but as the old adage goes, “You can do anything you want; you just can’t do everything you want.”What do we want as a community? Figuring that out is our job.