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North country philosopher

Jack Lessenberry logo

Here’s a little secret about our profession journalists don’t like to admit. To an extent, we are sort of the stenographers of society.

We may not accept everything at face value, but we cluster around established institutions to look for stories. We get a lot of them, but we miss things too.

If things don’t fall neatly into the law enforcement basket or the politics basket or the other usual pigeonholes, like sports or society, they often get overlooked. For example, 20 years ago I discovered an amazing man in a little blue house in a Detroit suburb.

His name was Bill Dufty, and he had been not only Billie Holiday’s best friend and alter ego, he had been the famous silent film star Gloria Swanson’s sixth and last husband, and had written a book called Sugar Blues that sold two million copies.

Nobody knew he was here. He told me his mother and Gloria died about the same time, he inherited the little house, and it was a lot cheaper to live there and write than it was in New York City. Michigan has a bunch of people like that, living under the radar.

Another, who has written to me for years, is Mitchell Jon MacKay, a musician, writer and philosopher who lives in the slowly gentrifying industrial town of East Jordan, up north between Gaylord and Petoskey, the place where most of our manhole covers were made.

He has been by turns a folk musician, a carpenter, and in later years an amateur investigative journalist dedicated to exposing police misconduct in northern Michigan, where he settled in the mid-1990s. MacKay, who turns 74 next month, is as American as they come, though he spent his first five years in Canada, and later had a music variety show in Ontario. In recent years he has written Mickey Spillane-style detective stories and a book, Lisa’s Story, about a female police officer in Charlevoix who may have been hounded to death by sexist coworkers.

Meanwhile, under the pen name Anagnorisis, he writes essays looking at today’s society from the perspective of the ancient Greeks. Anagnorisis means “to make known,” and he’s told me about quite a few things before the mainstream media made them known.

Most recently, he was all over the case of Larry Sevenski, the 83-year-old owner of a bar and burger joint at a snowmobiling crossroads. Sevenski ended up with a shattered elbow and a broken nose after he said he went to talk to a couple of state troopers in their twenties who were staking out his place to catch drunk drivers on St. Patrick’s Day. The young cops said the old man attacked them, and he’s been charged with multiple felonies.

However, their dashboard cameras somehow weren’t turned on. Local people are outraged. MacKay sees this as a signal moment. “The system is totally screwed, yes rigged. Yet people, real people, still will rally to the cause of democracy,” he said.

But he’s not a cynic. “Plato said be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. And he was a Republican!” he laughed. Once, over lunch in a bowling alley, I asked if he thought of himself as a Renaissance man.

Nah, he said, “Just a Canadian on the bum.”

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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