JUST AFTER the unveiling, left to right: Phil Welch, Bill Ballenger, Nathan Henne and Ben Frederick.
On Friday, Jan. 5 Owosso began celebrating the completed refurbishings of fourteen of its historical markers. The event culminated with the unveiling of the refurbished Michigan Historical Marker that honors the Owosso birthplace of Thomas E. Dewey. During his lifetime, Thomas E. Dewey became America’s greatest prosecutor and gangbuster, as well as a three-term Governor of New York, and a two-time Presidential Nominee.
The festivities kicked off with an hour-and-a-half presentation on the life of Thomas E. Dewey, which was held in the council chambers of Owosso City Hall. It was hosted by former Owosso mayor, former state representative and majority floor leader of the Michigan House of Representatives, Ben Frederick. He and others gave talks to a standing room only crowd about the historical markers refurbished and different periods of Thomas E. Dewey’s life.
Denise Grace, the curator and head docent of Curwood Castle Museum, began by listing and describing the historical markers that had been refurbished, including the marker that honors Thomas E. Dewey.
Ben Frederick detailed Thomas E. Dewey’s life up until Dewey became Chief Assistant to the U. S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.
Brian BeGole, Owosso’s and Shiawassee County’s current Michigan State Representative, detailed Thomas E. Dewey’s successes as a prosecutor and as a gangbuster.
Local historian, Shaffer Fox, the hands-on manager of Owosso’s historical marker projects, talked about how Thomas E. Dewey’s goodness, courage and achievements resulted in Dewey becoming America’s Public Hero #1.
Bestselling author and chairman of the Shiawassee County Commission, Greg Brodeur, detailed Thomas E. Dewey’s political years as an elected prosecutor and governor.
Former Michigan State representative and state senator, and President Gerald R. Ford administration official, Bill Ballenger talked about Thomas E. Dewey’s campaigns for the presidency of the United States. During his talk, Ballenger, who was also the editor of Inside Michigan Politics, the founder of The Ballenger Report, and for decades a panelist on WKAR -TV’s Off the Record with Tim Skubick, talked about the high regard that nearly everyone in America had for Thomas E. Dewey. Ballenger repeated comments made about Dewey by several prominent figures including George Gallup, a man who knew just about everyone in politics. The founder of the Gallup Poll referred to Dewey as the “. . . ablest public figure of his lifetime.”
Another notable who Ballenger quoted was Lowell Thomas, who was one of the most famous writers, commentators and broadcasters of the 20th century. Lowell Thomas stated that Thomas E. Dewey was “. . . just about the most impressive man I ever knew.”
Following Ballenger, other speakers at the Owosso event included Phil Welch, who is Thomas E. Dewey’s cousin and he is also the great-great-grandson of A. L. Williams and the great-great-grandnephew of Benjamin O. Williams, the founders of Owosso. Fox, who introduced Phil Welch, referred to Welch as probably the closest thing we’ll ever have to Owosso royalty.”
Fox also stated, “If it weren’t for Phil Welch’s great-great-grandfather and great-great-grand uncle, Owosso wouldn’t exist . . . and most of us in this room wouldn’t exist.”
Phil Welch, who donated $2,000 for the restoration of the Dewey marker, shared his memories of Thomas E. Dewey and the informal times the relatives had together. Phil Welch also talked about his attendance at Thomas E. Dewey’s funeral in New York.
Sue Degerstrom recalled that “. . . oftentimes Thomas E. Dewey and his wife would come to Owosso and visit his mom and be at church and we were always so happy to see them,” and she said that “. . . she also drove Thomas E. Dewey’s mother home from church a couple times.”
Sue Degerstom said “. . . we’d have our picture taken with him. He would pose with us and the kids in the junior choir and we felt really proud.”
Sue Degerstrom further noted that Thomas E. Dewey “. . . also gifted the church (Owosso’s Christ Episcopal Church) with the beautiful lights in the ceiling and was very generous . . .”
Sue Degerstrom remembered that her father, Robert L. Storrer “. . . headed up the school board for a few years and when the new high school (the current Owosso High School) was built, he invited Tom to come to the dedication and, by golly, he came [on December 9, 1962].” At the ribbon cutting ceremony, Thomas E. Dewey referred to the new Owosso High School as: “Absolutely breathtaking!”
Francis (Bus) Spaniola, who was the Shiawassee County’s longest-serving Michigan State Representative, shared his memories of being nine years old and being one of the “tons and tons” of people on Main Street in Owosso who attended the parade that launched the Thomas E. Dewey for presidential campaign in 1944. Spaniola said what he remembers better, though, was watching Thomas E. Dewey pass by in an open convertible during the Dewey campaign parade in Owosso during 1948. Spaniola recalled: “It was a real exciting day . . . even though he [Spaniola] is of another political persuasion [than Dewey was].”
During that era, Spaniola’s father also owned a business in the same building in which Thomas E. Dewey was born years earlier.
After Spaniola shared additional, endearing memories of the Thomas E. Dewey campaign parades, and of life in Owosso during the 1940s, everyone made their way across the Main Street bridge to where Dewey’s birthplace once stood on the site of what is now Tim Horton’s. The refurbished Michigan Historical Marker that honors Thomas E. Dewey’s birthplace was unveiled and then attendees gathered for a lively, hours-long, mingle session inside of Tim Horton’s.
Efforts to refurbish Owosso’s historical markers began during the fall of 2020. Shaffer Fox, who had served many years on the Owosso Main Street Design Committee, the Owosso Historical Commission, and other civic improvement boards, had long been bothered by the “unsightly” condition of the bronze on stone historical markers in Owosso. “The plaques were placed to beautify, honor and inform,” said Fox, “However, the bronze plaques had become so stained, and coated with years of patina, combined with dirt, mold, and mildew buildup, that they were nearly unreadable. People who would begin to read the plaques, would often become frustrated and quit reading the plaques mid-sentence.”
Fox, went onto the internet to find the latest, safest and best ways to restore bronze plaques. He received permission to refurbish the bronze on stone historical markers from the City of Owosso, the Owosso Historical Commission, and property owners upon which, or near which, the historical markers were located. Then, he went to work. Unfortunately, though, Fox said that the formulas and methods he found on the Internet “. . . didn’t work well, and even the marginal results achieved didn’t last.”
That began what Fox described as “. . . what sometimes seemed like a trip down a rabbit hole while trying to find or develop something or a system that would work. I talked with chemists, I looked up scientific studies, I bought and tested different products, on and on,” said Fox.
Fox further stated that after two months of testing several different products and over thirty different application methods, he finally developed a method, which includes four products, one of which he had to dilute, applied in specific sequences, that works. “Sometimes you must apply one product within seconds of another, sometimes you have to quickly force-dry products after applications, and other times you have to wait two hours between applications, but the end result is nearly perfect and should last for several years – maybe decades,” said Fox.
Fox said the system, which he calls “The Owosso Method,” is now being used worldwide. He also said that he’s grateful to Sam McLaren who did low-pressure power washing during the first couple days of the project. “McLaren Rent-All also kindly allowed me to borrow a generator during the two months of method development,” said Fox.
As the refurbishing of bronze on stone historical markers was nearing completion, Fox decided to refurbish the Michigan State Historical Marker that honors the birthplace of Thomas E. Dewey. “The fifty-year-old marker’s paint was flaking, lots of the marker’s paint had been chipped off, and all the paint had faded,” said Fox, “In addition to that, the marker’s wooden posts were rotted, their foundations had deteriorated and sunk, and the plaque portion of the marker was falling out of its wood frame and was in danger of being irreparably damaged.”
Fox started the refurbishing project by contacting one of Thomas E. Dewey’s cousins, Owosso native Phil Welch, who now lives up north. Fox asked Phil and his wife, Mary Jo, to meet with him in Owosso. The three met and Phil and Mary Jo Welch immediately put two thousand dollars towards the refurbishing. Fox said that he “. . . then contacted his great friend, everyone’s great friend, Ben Frederick, and Ben immediately donated another two thousand dollars for the project.”
With the needed money in hand, Fox went to work applying to the State of Michigan for permission to have the Thomas E. Dewey marker refurbished through the State’s only authorized manufacturer. While doing so, he discovered a little-known grant that, if won, would pay for sixty percent of the cost of the refurbishing. However, Fox said it looked like the application for the grant needed to be filed by a non-profit organization, and Fox said he didn’t have one set up at that time. So, Fox contacted Owosso’s city manager, Nathan Henne. The two co-wrote the grant application through the City of Owosso, which Fox said is kind of a defacto N. P. O., and they won the grant. That meant the refurbishing of the Dewey marker was going to cost $1,307 less than projected. “Then another nice thing happened,” said Fox.
Instead of asking that the $1,307 savings be divided and returned to them, Phil and Mary Jo Welch and Ben Frederick generously said that the portion of the money they donated, which wasn’t used for the Thomas E. Dewey marker, could be used for work on other historical markers.
Fox and Henne co-wrote applications to have the Michigan State Historical markers that honor Curwood Castle, the Comstock Cabin and the birthplace of Frederick Frieseke refurbished, too – and they also co-wrote three more applications for grants. They quickly received permissions to refurbish from the state and they won all three additional grants they applied for as well. Then the Owosso Historical Commission came through with additional grants that paid the balance of the costs of refurbishing Curwood Castle, Comstock Cabin and Frieseke markers.
About that time, Fox recruited some other great Owossoans who immediately stepped up to the plate. Advanced Drainage Products in Owosso provided the large pallets that were needed for shipping off the markers for refurbishing. Brent Singer, the general manager of Maurer Heating & Cooling in Owosso, took his truck and he and Fox picked up the pallets from ADP as well as supplies that were needed from stores around town. Kevin Mauer, the owner of Maurer Heating and Cooling in Owosso, made his business available for the warehousing of the markers, and Maurer’s also became the packaging, shipping, and receiving point for the markers and he put Brent Singer in charge of coordinating everything. Brent Singer, along with Jim Bowles, Mark Fox, Gene Jankovic and Mike Kovich helped Fox and Owosso’s DPW with dismantling the markers for inspections and shipping. Georgia Williamson consulted on coverings for the markers until unveilings could be held.
Fox and his brother, Mark Fox, also took a chain saw and he cleared out the scrub trees along the fence line where the refurbished Dewey marker was to be reinstalled. Fox further noted that: “I was really pleased to have met Cassandra Russell, the general manager at Tim Horton’s, because she put me in touch with the George Damouni, a wonderful guy who is the owner of Owosso’s Tim Horton’s franchise. Both Cassandra and George have been very supportive of our work over there.”
When we’re talking about the Dewey birthplace and the Dewey boyhood home markers,” Fox said, “we must be grateful to the Shiawassee Historical Society because it was the Shiawassee Historical Society that originally put up those two markers over fifty years ago and if they hadn’t, we might not even have any historical markers that honor Thomas E. Dewey today.”
Fox said that after the Thomas E. Dewey birthplace marker was reinstalled, “Owosso’s great city manager, Nathan Henne, took a hundred dollars out of his own pocket and bought a drapery to keep Michigan Historical Markers covered until unveilings and we’ll be able to use that drapery for years to come. That’s the kind of good guy Nathan is,” said Fox.
Fox also said that he has plans to install additional Michigan Historical Markers in Owosso. “I thank God every day for my friends and my family, for allowing me to be born here and for being able to live here,” said Fox, “I think Owosso is the most wonderful place on earth.”