Thursday
Jun092016

'It is but nothing at all': Dina Desormes details rescue of U.S. soldiers in WWII-era France

Photo courtesy of Dina Desormes - Jacques Dykstra, left, and Bill Harvey, right, became lifelong friends after the Dykstra family saved Harvey’s life in France during World War II. Harvey’s plane was shot down over France behind enemy lines, and the Dykstra’s protected Harvey and another American pilot until they could make it back to the American forces. Harvey, born in Saginaw and a Mt. Pleasant resident after the war, eventually sponsored the Dykstra family to immigrate to the United States in the 1960s, where Jacque Dykstra’s daughter Dina Desormes and her husband Robaire Desormes opened Robaire’s Bakery in Mt. Pleasant, Mich. By Holly Mahaffey

MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. - History is hiding in plain sight in Mt. Pleasant. 

Despite running a successful Mt. Pleasant bakery for many years, it’s not widely known how and why Dina Desormes and her family immigrated to the United States from France.

Desormes, owner of Robaire’s Bakery in Mt. Pleasant, moved from France to Michigan with her husband Robaire in 1961. Her experience in war-torn France years prior laid the foundation for her family’s transition to the U.S. 

“It is the right thing to do”

On April 24, 1944, two American pilots on a bombing mission were shot down behind enemy lines near a farm in Burgundy, France. 

The farm belonged to Jacques Dykstra, a Dutch farmer born in 1910 who moved to France in 1928. Dykstra lived on the farm with his wife Renee and their young daughter Dina. 

“Surrounded by Germans, they came to our house and we took them in,” Desormes said. “For weeks we had them at the farm; we had them in the attics with hay.”

“During the war, you don’t trust anyone,” Desormes said.

Despite this, Desormes’s father trusted that the Americans were who they said they were and decided to help.

The family hid the airmen, feeding them at night and putting themselves at risk with German soldiers occupying the area. Desormes said her family knew of other French families killed by the Germans for harboring Americans during the war. 

“It was very, very dangerous, what we did,” she said. “My dad made the decision to take in those two pilots — those guys were only 20. We could have gotten killed, so how do you judge, ‘do I put my family in danger?’”

Dykstra was a member of the French Resistance and known as a religious and moral man. 

“He was very strict, but very fair — it comes from that religious background,” Desormes said of her father.

“Our house was headquarters, for Germans when we had them, and for Americans after they came,” Desormes said. “All the French doctors went away for the war, so they came to my dad to help find a German officer or doctor who could deliver babies. And they did. On top of that, we fed French people.” 

Desormes said the lack of food during the war made their farm a valuable resource for everyone in the area.

“It was headquarters, but you had to be careful what you said,” Desormes said.

Desormes remembers her mother being scared protecting the American pilots out of fear for the safety of family, thinking that they could be German spies. 

“She’s a mother,” Desormes said. “She questioned ‘how could you put us in danger in a war like this.’” 

Dykstra and his family housed the airmen for a time before deciding that conditions were becoming too dangerous with Germans visiting the farm daily for milk, butter and eggs.  

Dykstra arranged to move the airmen to a nearby town where they would hide in a hospital’s basement.

“We put them under hay (in a wagon), and all along the road we had Germans. You were supposed to have a pass (to travel). The German would say ‘What do you have underneath,’ and kind of poke with a pitchfork. We took them about 10 miles from our house, got them there, but it was in town with a train station full of ammunition,” said Desormes. 

This new location proved even more dangerous for the pilots when the train station full of German ammunition became a target in the war.  

“It was the Americans bombing the train station, of course the bombs fell around them,” Desormes said. “They were scared and decided to come back in the woods, with Germans all around them.” 

The pilots made it back to the safety of Dykstra’s farm. 

“Can you imagine, when we see them coming back,” Desormes said. “We had to take them back in. They would have gotten killed for sure.” 

The Dykstra family housed the airmen until the time seemed right for them to make their way back to American troops. 

“They still had to walk and join their people,” Desormes said.

One of the pilots Desormes’s family helped was Bill Harvey, a Saginaw native and U.S. Army Air Corps airman who lived in Mt. Pleasant after he returned from the war.  

Harvey stayed in touch with Jacques Dykstra after the war, developing a close friendship, and Harvey eventually sponsored the Dykstra family to move to the United States in the early 1960s. Desormes moved to Michigan a year after her parents while she waited for her husband Robaire Desormes to come back from the Algerian War. 

After working in the food industry in Mt. Pleasant, the couple opened Robaire’s Bakery, now a staple in town. 

Jacques Dykstra was killed in a car accident at the corner of Baseline and Mission roads about three years after moving to Mt. Pleasant and buying a farm, leaving Renee, Dina Desormes and her younger siblings. 

Desormes can’t say exactly what made her father decide to risk their lives to help the American pilots, besides that “it is the right thing to do.” 

“I guess he could see a lot further than a lot of people would have seen,” Desormes said. “Maybe it was a way to say ‘thank you’ to the Americans, to the American people. It’s hard to say. He had strict morals, you know, and I think that was a job to save those two young men.”

“It was almost something natural,” she continued. “You didn’t do it for yourself, it’s because (it was) what you had to do and the right thing to do.”

25 June 1943 MIA: The Search for Miss Deal and The Early Raiders on The Reich

Tony Crawford, a writer living in Texas, contacted Desormes after publishing his book “25 June 1943 MIA: The Search for Miss Deal and The Early Raiders on The Reich.” 

The book tells the story of Crawford’s 14 years of research to learn more about his uncle Charles “Charlie” Crawford, a gunner on a B-17 bomber that was shot down by German fighter planes in the Dollard Sea on June 25, 1943. Charlie Crawford and John Way, his pilot, are both listed as MIA and are believed to be entombed in their B-17 at sea, Crawford said. 

During his research, Crawford wrote about the story of Bill Harvey, the American pilot helped by the Dykstra Family. 

“The first time I got a letter from Texas, I said ‘I don’t know that person,’” Desormes said. 

Crawford sent Desormes a copy of his book, which has a chapter dedicated to Harvey’s story — told in first person — about his time during World War II and his experiences with the Dykstra family. 

“It was fate,” Desormes said. “I didn’t know that story, but Tony told me Bill Harvey was with his uncle the night his uncle got killed.”

Harvey — in Scotland at the time — visited a bar and missed the train that would have taken him back to his base on time. Arriving late, he found his plane and crew had been called for a mission and a replacement co-pilot and navigator went in his place. 

The plane was shot down with no survivors.

“He got punished, but it saved his life,” Desormes said. “(Harvey) was confronted by Germans and got lucky so many times. Why him and not somebody else? Fate really played a big role.”

An excerpt from Crawford’s book details the first time Harvey met Dykstra, after hoping he had not made a mistake visiting the French farm for help:

“‘Hello,’ I said, extending my hand,” the excerpt reads. “‘We are American pilots.’ He gave us a great big smile, took my hand and said, ‘My name is Jacque Dykstra. I’m Dutch, but have lived here many years. Are you hungry?’”

Crawford continues to research his uncle’s time in the war, and his book reflects the many people his uncle came in contact with while serving in World War II. He is currently searching for the family of the bombardier on his uncle’s original crew, 2nd Lt. Donald J. Andrews of Muskegon. 

Crawford’s book is available on Amazon; he provided The Morning Sun with the excerpts relating to the Dykstra family and Bill Harvey. 

‘It is but nothing at all’

Desormes remembers her childhood in postwar France as a time where many people from different backgrounds worked together.

“I was a child when the war kind of ended,” Desormes said. “I remember after the Americans came, a lot of the POWs went to camps. We had Italian, Spanish, I remember especially that, because we were allowed to get them to work on our farm. They came to the farm to work daily.”

“So everybody had a job,” Desormes said. “One of the Germans, his job was to take me to school. Some days, because I lived a mile from school, he took me on his bike and I would scream all the way because I didn’t want to go.”

That German POW later visited France to show the Dykstra’s former to his family. Upon learning of Desormes’s mother’s death, he wrote a letter to Dina.

“In that letter, he remembers we were all eating together,” she said. “We had diversity — now they make a big deal about it — but he took me to school and we ate all at the same table. When we were in the kitchen we were all human, all on the same level. If my mom would say no to me for something, all those guys would say ‘oh come on,’ and gang up against her. I was a little princess, raised with all the guys, American, German, so on.”

“It was right after the war, and I never felt hate,” she continued. “It’s a great thing. Because if only now we could act the same with all that’s going on in the world.”

“That’s a big thing too, we could have been hateful,” Desormes said. “Except for the SS (the Schutzstaffel, the Nazi Party’s paramilitary group), it’s not really the fault of the people. They were there because the government sent them. They were family men like French people were.”

Desormes hasn’t visited France since her husband Robaire passed away about 20 years ago and said if she ever does visit her birthplace again, it will be with her sisters.

In the meantime, she’s going to keep her bakery up and running.

“Everyone is asking me when I am going to retire,” said Desormes, now 75. “It won’t be for another 10 years. I will be walking with a cane around the bakery.”

One of Harvey’s memories chronicled in Crawford’s book is a story Desormes said she remembers as well: a second bombing attack by Americans on German ammunition trains. 

One of the trains was parked near the Dykstra farm, and Crawford documents Harvey saying:

“We left the house and ran down the driveway to the macadam road and jumped into the ditch on the far side. I was on the end, Dick (the other American pilot) next to me, then Jacques, Renee, her baby (Dina), and the young girl. Thank God, it was a deep ditch because here came the fighters strafing the train, then flying right over us with empty shells falling all around. Then after making a 360 degree turn, back they came firing at the train as they crossed over us. Again, empty shells were falling all around us. What a sight! I noticed Jacque’s cows were still out in the field. I said, ‘Jacque, they are going to kill all of your cows.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Don’t worry, it is but nothing at all.’ I’ll never forget that expression and have used it many times since.”

Originally published online and in print in the Morning Sun, a Mount Pleasant, Mich. daily newspaper. 

Tuesday
Sep302014

Chief Pego declares war on substance abuse on Saginaw Chippewa Indian Reservation


Photo courtesy of Marcella Hadden

By Holly Mahaffey

MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. - Chief Steve Pego of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe declared war on substance abuse to an at-capacity audience at the Celebration of Healing, Recovery and Hope event last week at the Eagle’s Nest Tribal Gym on the reservation.

In a historic move, Steve Pego signed a birch bark document of community standards declaring war, something he said the tribe hasn’t done since 1763, during the Wednesday, Sept. 24 community meeting. 

Steve Pego said troubling increases in car and home break-ins on the reservation in combination with a rise in heroin abuse led to tribal leaders meeting to discuss how to come together as a tribe to fight substance abuse.

What came out of meeting was the Celebration of Healing event, which Pego said will be the first of many different front to combat drugs for its members.

During the event, the Tribal Observer reports Steve Pego as saying “Our community stood together as warriors ready to fight the good fight of stopping the pain that drugs and alcohol cause on the reservation for too many years.” 

The event brought together law enforcement members from the Saginaw Chippewa Tribal Police Department, the Isabella County Sheriff’s Department, Michigan State Police and Central Michigan University Police in a further show of unity in fighting substance abuse together.  

Steve Pego said he was moved by a warrior ceremony at the event that included local law enforcement taking part in ceremonial and symbolic showings of unity and protection. 

“It was nice to see they got it,” said Frank Coultier, Public Relations Director for the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe. “When it comes down to it, we are very good at taking care of each other – we just have to remember that.” 

A DECLARATION OF WAR

“I’m affected by it with my son,” said Steve Pego. “It’s time for all of us to stand together to fight this disease.” 

Steve Pego said his brother Robert Pego was instrumental in organizing the first community event to address the problem, and will solicit idea from the community on future meetings and projects, as well as continue strategic meetings.  

“We always come together as a small community,” said Steve Pego. “It’s mostly for the love of our children – we don’t want any more deaths.”

“We want a healthy tribe and we want a healthy future for our grandchildren,” Steve Pego said. “I’m proud sitting as a chief to sign that declaration.”

“One of the things we have is the support of our grandmothers,” said Robert Pego. He said the Indian Child Welfare Committee at the reservation happens to be comprised entirely of grandmothers who “pretty much see it firsthand – they see it, and see it as a problem.” 

HEROIN USE ON THE RISE

Law enforcement and communities working together are a theme of the message the Tribe is trying to convey, as rising heroin and opiate use is not just a problem on the reservation.

The AP reports that heroin overdose deaths in Michigan increased from 271 from the four-year period of 1999-2002 to 728 from 2010-2012, and that admissions to publicly funded programs for heroin treatment nearly doubled from 7,300 in 2000 to about 13,600 in 2013.

The Morning Sun has reported on escalating heroin-related deaths and crimes in Gratiot County over the past year, indicating that the tribe is not alone in facing drug abuse issues in mid-Michigan  

The Detroit Free Press reported in April 2014 that heroin is a “significant” public health problem in Michigan, according to Angela Minicuci, spokeswoman for the state Department of Community Health. According to the department, heroin abuse can result in fatal overdoses, infections of the heart lining and valves, liver and kidney disease and pulmonary issues related to pneumonia. Those who inject heroin are at high risk for contracting HIV and hepatitis C, Michigan health officials said.

HEALTHY TREES, SICK FORESTS

Steve Pego referred to a quote from White Bison, an American Indian non-profit charitable organization that offers healing resources to Native Americans. 

In “The Wellbriety Journey: Nine Talks by Don Coyhis,” Stevo Pego likened this passage to the struggle his community is facing healing members suffering from substance abuse:

“Imagine it as a dysfunctional forest, like a sick community. The elders often use nature to explain things. They say if you take one of those sick trees out of the forest and take it down the road to a nursery and nurse the tree until it is well, and if you then bring that healthy tree back to the sick forest, then what will happen to that well tree? It will get sick again. In fact, if you are a well tree in a sick forest, the sick trees will try to convince you, the well tree, that you are the sick one. You will appear to be the outsider,” reads the passage. 

The passage from The Wellbriety Journey continues as saying: “Let’s take the idea of a sick forest and relate it to Native communities. If you describe the sickness a little deeper you’ll see that some of those trees are alcoholic trees, and some trees are married to them. There will also be codependent trees, sexual abuser trees, those who are abused, the abusee trees, and all the other dysfunctional behaviors we see today. If that’s the way our forests look, the elders have said you really need to look underground or in the “unseen world” in order to find solutions.”

“So that’s the thing here,” said Steve Pego. “We have to heal the forest.”

A GRATIFYING UNITY

Robert Pego said seeing the different religions practiced by tribal members coming together has given a “spirit of unity” to the Tribe’s declaration of war on substance abuse.  

“It’s a page from the history from our brothers,” Robert Pego said. “We can’t fight the battle alone.”

Stemming from the meeting has been more instances of “tattletelling,” which is what tribal leaders want to see happen more frequently in the community when someone notices a problem with a fellow tribal member. 

“It’s a gratifying sense of unity. Since the meeting a lot of people have been reporting incidents,” said Steve Pego. He also said that “Facebook has changed everything” as far as tribal community members becoming more vocal about crime and substance abuse in threads on the social media site. 

Neighborhood Watch programs, in place again for the first time as long as tribal leaders can remember, are one of the starting points the tribe is getting in place to help community members look out for each other. 

Accountability is another goal of the tribe. “We are working on resources to aid and assist,” said Cloutier. “Anything we do now is more aggressive (than in the past).

“People will be held accountable,” Cloutier said. “There are not a lot willing to be held accountable.”

Cloutier spoke of a young tribal member who said the first time she smoked marijuana was with her cousins, and that friends and family have to be aware of the implications of exposing community members to drugs and alcohol.

“It’s easy to teach, and easy to corrupt,” Cloutier said. “We have to make sure we know the difference.”

“We can lick this problem,” said Steve Pego. “We can slowly heal the reservation.”

 Originally published online and in print in the Morning Sun, a Mount Pleasant, Mich. daily newspaper. 

Thursday
Sep252014

A final wish: Vietnam veteran takes to the mid-Michigan skies

John Cascaddan, a 72-year-old Vietnam veteran and former missionary pilot, had his final wish to fly again granted Thursday morning at the Clare Municipal Airport. Gary Todd, airport manager and pilot, worked with Howard Lilly and Jim Bonnell to help Cascaddan fly again. Photo by Holly MahaffeyBy Holly Mahaffey

CLARE COUNTY, Mich. - John Cascaddan, an Air Force Vietnam veteran and former missionary pilot, thought he would never fly again.

After not touching a plane for the past 15 years, Cascaddan, 72, suffering from Parkinson’s Disease and a resident of The Laurels in Mt. Pleasant, took to the skies once again today with the help of some community members willing to help him live out his final wish. 

“He’s as happy as a lark,” said Jim Bonnell, who helped make the flight happen. Bonnell’s wife Kay works along with Howard Lilly for The Touch of Life Ministries. It was during the ministry’s time at The Laurels that Bonnell and Lilly heard Cascaddan’s story and decided to help. 

After contacting some area airports, Clare Municipal Airport Manager Gary Todd agreed to take Cascaddan up in a plane Grumman Traveler AA5 over mid-Michigan Thursday morning. 

Todd said he wanted to help because “it was a veteran - we don’t do enough for our military and guys who can serve. Anytime I can help a veteran,” said Todd.

“It was kind of his ‘last request’ type thing - how often do you get to fill someone’s last request?” said Todd. 

Bonnell and Lilly picked Cascaddan up from his home at The Laurels and drove him to the Clare Municipal Airport for his flight. 

“He’s a really neat guy,” said Bonnell. “He flew C130s in Vietnam and B52 bombers.”

Photos by Holly Mahaffey

Cascaddan said he took an interest in planes at an early age, and decided to join the Air Force along with his twin brother. After getting his bachelor’s degree during his time with the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Cascaddan was sent to Vietnam and said he flew his first flight mission in 1963 and completed flight missions in the Pacific Rim. 

“After the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam in 1975, I came back to the States,” Cascaddan said. He taught English to Southeast Asian refugees during his time at California State University, Sacramento for a year, which is where he met his future wife, a Japanese student. 

After his marriage, Cascaddan said he moved with his wife to Japan and opened a school teaching English there. As a civilian, Cascaddan decided to use his flight skills for a new use - missionary flights dropping bundles of King James bibles over China. 

“I had a job to do - I was concerned about doing the job right,” said Cascaddan of the risks involved with stealth flights over China to drop the bibles. “I had a job to help people learn about God and the English language. No one was ordering me to go.”

Photo by Holly Mahaffey

Cascaddan estimates he flew about 100 missionary flights before eventually moving back to the United States. He said he’s been in nursing homes the last four years, and didn’t think he’d ever fly again.

“The flight today was a gift from God,” said Cascaddan. “I had a fantastic time.”

Originally published online and in print in the Morning Sun, a Mount Pleasant, Mich. daily newspaper. Photo by Holly Mahaffey

Monday
Sep012014

Brothers raise money for college with mums business

Brothers Layne Alexander, left, and Landon Alexander, right, of Shepherd have raised and sold mum plants for the last three years to put away money for college. Photo by Holly MahaffeyBy Holly Mahaffey

SHEPHERD, Mich. - Money doesn’t grow on trees, but two brothers from Shepherd have figured out the next best thing. 

Landon Alexander, 13 and Layne Alexander, 11, have been growing and selling mums for 3 years now with some minor help from their father Pete Alexander. 

“We’ve had two successful years,” said Landon. 

Selling each plant for $3 each, all proceeds from the sales of the mums go into college funds for the boys.

This year the Alexanders said they planted about 1400 chrysanthemum plants in a field next to their home outside of Shepherd. 

The Alexanders said their father helps by digging holes during planting season, usually around Memorial weekend said Landon. Layne and Landon’s younger sister Lexi is three. “She tries to help,” said Layne. 

The boys sell their mums outside their home, either by digging the plants out and repotting them, or allowing customers to go into their field to dig their own preferred plants.

Photo by Holly Mahaffey

Pete Alexander said it’s typical for customer to stop by wanting one or two plants but then to end up leaving with a dozen different plants.

In addition to their roadside sales, the Alexanders sometimes set up a stand in Shepherd to sell their mums, and they also take orders. They said they also sell their plants to some local landscapers who use them in in fall plantings, and that the equestrian team at Shepherd High School sells plants purchased from the Alexanders for fundraisers.

Pete Alexander, who is also president of the Shepherd Maple Syrup Festival Committee, said he had been growing mums for 20 years on and off and thought it would be a good experience for his boys to put in the work and see their success pay off in a productive way.

Pete said all profits from the sales of the mums go in college fund accounts in Landon and Layne’s names, and that they were able to invest some money back into their business with the purchase of a used four-wheeler to help speed up the process of moving the plants for sale.

The Alexanders grow a wide variety of colors. “My favorites are purple, blue, CMU colors and pink,” said Layne. “I like the CMU colors the best. My 4th grade teacher went to CMU.”

Layne’s current choices of potential colleges in the include Central Michigan University or the University of Michigan, while Landon remains undecided on where he will attend college in the future.

As members of Shepherd football teams, the boys’ mother Lisa Alexander said Layne is known in Shepherd as “The Governor” because he is “large and in charge,” said Lisa. She said Landon is known at “Hollywood” because his initials are L.A. Lisa, who works at Sparrow Hospital in Lansing, also collects orders from her coworkers for her sons.

Photo by Holly Mahaffey

As far as juggling their business with the school year starting and putting in time for football practice every day, the Alexanders said they are busy but manage.

“School comes first, then mums, then practice,” said Layne.

For Pete, the best part of the mum sales is seeing his sons put in hard work and reap the rewards. For Layne, his favorite part is “meeting a lot of people,” he said.

For Landon, he says it’s the money, and “people telling me I’m a good help. And knowing I can do things for myself.”

Originally published online and in print in the Morning Sun, a Mount Pleasant, Mich. daily newspaper. 

Thursday
Aug092012

1951 Mercury gets new life after modifications

By Holly Mahaffey

ST. LOUIS, Mich. - Jack Cross had a little luck - and a lot of persistence - when it came to obtaining his 1951 Mercury.

“The car is from San Francisco; a guy drove it to Saginaw and the transmission ran out of it, in the 1960s,” said Cross. “A transmission shop in Saginaw had fixed it, but the guy had flown back to San Francisco. They called and told him how much it was, and the guy sent them the title.”

Jack Cross of St. Louis has owned his 1951 Mercury since the 1960s and recently completed a total restoration of the car, including chopping the top and installing a remote entry system.

“I hounded the guy until he finally sold it to me,” said Cross. “That was in the 60s.”

Cross is originally from Breckenridge and was living there when he obtained the Mercury. He now makes his home in St. Louis. Cross had a body shop in Merrill, and now operates Jack’s Body Shop in St. Louis.

“I’ve had a body shop since 1962. All I do is work on old cars now,” said Cross.

After obtaining the Mercury in the 1960s, Cross began work on it. “I put a Buick motor in it, took all the interior out, was going to chop the top but I quit working on it.” 

“It followed me around everywhere I went and just sat, with many offers to sell – people nagging me all the time,” said Cross.

“About three or four years ago, we put a 32-valve Ford motor back on it, chopped the top, did the entire thing. It was a total restoration,” he said.

Cross said he already had most of the parts needed for the restoration. “Parts were picked up piece by piece at junkyards a long time ago, and most parts were on car anyway,” Cross said. “Been collecting those parts since 1966.”

“The car has a ton of modifications,” said Cross, including a DVD player right in the dashboard. “I saw it one day and thought it would be neat in there. The car has a Mark V111 Lincoln dash. It fits the dash – it fit perfect,” Cross said.

“For the interior, I got most of it out of another car. Everything has changed; the suspension is from a Chrysler. The motor and transmission is Ford. The wheels and tires and stuff we bought from Summit Racing,” said Cross.

“Also has a 1955 DeSoto grill,” said Cross.

The handles of the Mercury are shaved off, and Cross has a remote entry system to open the doors. “I use a remote to get in and out,” said Cross.

Cross “chopped the top” of the Mercury by two inches. “Chopping the top” goes back to the early days of hot rodding and reduces the front profile of a vehicle to increase speed.

“Fast Break (Auto Glass Center, 103 West Washington St.) in St. Louis cut all the glass for it, after I cut it down. We had to make glass smaller,” said Cross.

“The car has cruise control, air conditioning, tilt steering, intermittent wipers – everything a new car would have,” said Cross. 

A woman Cross works with embroidered the Mercury emblem on the steering wheel. Mercury is the Roman god of speed.

The car is painted a shade similar to laurel green, which Cross picked from a color chip book. “I think it’s a truck color; it is painted base coat/clear coat.”

Cross completed the restoration himself, with the help of his friend Mike McGuire, of St. Louis. McGuire was featured in last month’s Auto Trend for his work on his 1929 Ford Convertible. Cross and McGuire helped each other with the restorations of their vehicles.

“Mike was with me every night; he helped me every night,” said Cross. Cross said McGuire is especially handy with the electrical, and assisted him with that aspect.

“A year and nights, for the total time spent on the restoration,” said Cross.

Vicki, Cross’ wife, made him a book full of photos and information about the Mercury, and proudly shows a photo album detailing the progress of work on the car. The album follows the car from the early beginning stages, all torn apart, and continues until the restoration was finished.

“I can tell you it’s the love of his life,” said Vicki. “We have more pictures of this than we do of our firstborn,” she said. Jack and Vicki have two daughters together, and are expecting a grandchild early next year.

“Two days after I got it finished, we went to Branson, Mo., with it. We went on Route 66,” Cross said.

“Started on Route 66 right in downtown Chicago,” said Vicki. “There were a bunch of us, but only two with old cars. The air blew off in Chicago, so we only made it to Branson. Did a couple shows; it was cool. It was good,” said Vicki.

The restoration of the 1951 Mercury has not been Cross’ only project. “We have a ‘68 Pontiac LeMans, an ‘81 Corvette.” said Vicki.

Cross also has passed down his skills and interest to his son.

“My son was 16, helping me and working for me,” said Cross. “I gave him a ‘68 Camaro – he could have it on one condition: he had to do all the work on it. He still has it; he’s almost 50 now.”

Sunday
May062012

Meet Leni, canine ambassador at Mount Pleasant Municipal Airport

Photo by Holly MahaffeyBy Holly Mahaffey

MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. - When flying into the Mt. Pleasant Municipal Airport, expect to be greeted by a friendly face.

Leni the airport dog is a familiar sight to those traveling frequently to Mt. Pleasant by air, as the ambassador of the airport and sidekick to Airport Manager John Benzinger for the past decade.

“We have people who use the airport a lot, and they don’t ask for me. They ask for Leni,” said Benzinger.

Leni has been meeting and greeting air travelers for many years, after being adopted by Benzinger and his wife in 2001.

“He was a rescue dog, we got him in 2001 and because I manage the airport he used to come out with me. As a puppy he used to fly with me. As he got bigger because he couldn’t get in the airplane he just became a real natural airport dog, meeting and greeting, offering entertainment to people, playing fetch,” said Benzinger.

“We’ve never had a single complaint,” Benzinger said. “He’s the airport dog. He’s a dandy.

They estimate his age as about 12.

Leni has met people from all walks of life. Many celebrities entertaining at the Soaring Eagle Casino and Resort fly into the municipal airport, and Leni is always ready for his photo opportunity. Framed portraits of Leni with celebrities or visiting children line the bookshelves of Benzinger’s office in the airport terminal, and Benzinger said Leni also manages to insert himself into just about any photo being taken on the grounds of the airport.

“He’s a ham,” said Benzinger. “Spoiled rotten. Any time we have a project out here, like the water main being hooked up to different buildings, he’s always in the picture. The only thing he doesn’t have is a hard hat.”

Leni once had the honor of greeting President Gerald Ford upon his arrival at the airport, and Benzinger said Larry the Cable Guy loves him.

Photo by Holly Mahaffey

Even after his frequent brushes with fame, Leni has seemed to not let it go to his head. “He treats everyone the same, it doesn’t matter who you are. He’s right there to greet you,” Benzinger said. He said Leni knows to wait for the aircraft engines to shut down, waiting on the grass for his cue to welcome arriving travelers. “As soon as the engines shut down, he’s out there meeting and greeting,” said Benzinger.

Leni’s life didn’t start out so pleasant for him. “Someone dropped him off in the Walmart parking lot,” said Benzinger. “That’s how the pound got him.”

Benzinger said he had an agreement with his wife Chari not to get a dog until they were able to move back to a country setting. They saw a photo of Leni in the Morning Sun as a rescue dog of the month, “just a little teeny guy,” said Benzinger. “The photo from the Sun was good, he looked angry leaning up against someone’s boot.”

Benzinger said Chari was volunteering at the shelter, walking the dogs before they were euthanized. “She came home and here was he. He was ugly. She said ‘they aren’t going to kill this one.’”

After being welcomed into the Benzinger home, Benzinger said Leni used to watch him when he got ready in the mornings. “I used to work at the post office, and if I put my uniform on he would go back to sleep. If I put my work clothes on he’d be ready to go.”

“And if he couldn’t come, he’d pout,” said Benzinger.

Leni wakes up at 6:30 a.m. each day and is to work by 7 a.m. for his airport duties. “He’s there all day, he’ll be there until I go home at night,” said Benzinger. He said Leni does runway checks with him in the mornings, sitting in the front seat looking for deer. “He loves to do deer runs,” said Benzinger.

“He has pulled a rude stunt once, “said Benzinger. “The Allman Brothers Band was here one night for the casino, and had pizzas delivered on their jet; there were big stairs going up to the jet. The pizza dude went into the cockpit and Leni followed him right on there. I said ‘You can’t do that!’ Everyone got a good chuckle out of it. He was ready to eat.”

Benzinger said Leni has been jokingly referred to as the airport security. “A gentleman who lives in town calls him Homeland Security,” Benzinger said. “He says ‘Yeah, Leni’s checking you out, he’s Homeland Security.’ If he lets you into the terminal you’re OK.”

In the past few years, Leni has dealt with some health issues.

“He’s been struggling with cancer for the last several years,” Benzinger said. “Last year they took two tumors off, and a toe, because of the cancer.”

Leni has also had both of his hind leg knees replaced, said Benzinger. “He wore them out. He spent so much time chasing that stinking ball. He used to play with skydiving people while they were skydiving, it’s another reason he wore out his knees.”

Benzinger said, “He would do anything for anyone. He’s the airport ambassador, and it’s worked out real well for him.”

Originally published online and in print in the Morning Sun, a Mount Pleasant, Mich. daily newspaper.