On Friday, Dec. 27, 2019, Bob S. observed his 100th birthday. Asked if he had any thoughts to offer on reaching this milestone event, Bob—showing his trademark sense of humor—replied, “You don’t think much about it until it happens,” pausing a moment and adding, “I guess you get to start counting again after getting to a hundred.” If true, then next December, Bob will be one-year-old. But, meanwhile, as for now, there’s his first century of life and living to recall and celebrate. To say that Bob has had a full and interesting life would be an understatement. It’s been one packed with a long list of activities and accomplishments. It includes growing up in rural Fowlerville, working on the family farm, and then assuming ownership of the farm after his father’s death. It also includes a beautiful marriage and the raising of his family. Read on to read the rich life of Bob S, exclusively on the Living Legacies…
Bob also served on the township and county boards, became an officer for the Livingston County Farm Bureau (then called the Michigan Farm Bureau), then getting hired as the legislative counsel for the Farm Bureau (a position he had until his retirement at age 70)! He served on state government advisory boards, the Livingston Intermediate School District board, the Blue Cross Blue Shield board, and the SEMCOG (Southeast Michigan Council of Governments) board. On most of those boards— including the Intermediate School District and SEMCOG where he served long tenures— he ended up being selected as the chairman!
Before the Board
Bob was born at the tail end of 1919 to Temple F. and Julia S. “Our farm was located at the corner of what was then South Cemetery Road and Sargent Road,” he said. “When the I-96 freeway went through, Cemetery Road was cut off, so the people in the neighborhood honored us by renaming it Smith Road.” “We had a working farm with cattle, sheep, and poultry and raised various crops,” he noted, adding that he was the only child, so he got to do more of the chores. Bob attended Thayer Country School, located a mile south of the farm on Mason Road, taking classes through the eighth grade. He then went to Fowlerville High School and graduated in 1937. “My father had a heart problem and was not able to do as much manual work as he’d like, so I didn’t go to college,” he said. “The farm work also kept me out of the service during the war. I was 17 when I graduated. A couple of years later, when they started drafting young men (in anticipation the country might have to go to war), they wouldn’t take those of us working on a farm.” One of his early involvements was the Fowlerville Fair Board. “Dad had been on the board; then, I replaced him,” Bob explained. “He later said that this was a mistake, telling a neighbor that while I was at the fair, he had to do more work at home.”
Bob ended up serving a number of years on the board, both as a president and then as the secretary-general manager. He also became a member of the Fowlerville Masonic Lodge at age 22. When his father died unexpectedly of heart failure during the war, Bob became the mainstay of the farm and took it in a new direction. “We’d always had laying hens, but I decided to sell the cattle and signed a contract with DeKalb to raise chickens,” he said. “Every spring they’d send me cross-bred chicks that I raised and then returned to them so they could sell the hens and roosters to other poultry farmers. I still had a lot of laying hens and continued to sell eggs.”
Bob added to his growing list of activities and accomplishments when he was elected as the Handy Township supervisor, following in the footsteps of his father, who had also held the office. Bob noted that George Eckert had held the position for about 25 years after his father’s term of office ended. “When George died, I was appointed to take his place,” he explained. Back then before the ‘one man, one vote’, U.S. Supreme Court decision required that county representation must be based on equally-divided population districts. The board of supervisors then administered the county, 16 being in Livingston paired with the mayors of Howell and Brighton. “After completing the remainder of Eckert’s term, I ran for the post and served two four-year terms,” Bob recalled. “I and the mayor of Howell both understood how equalization (in regard to property taxes) worked. We realized Livingston County had higher assessments, and residents were paying much higher taxes than neighboring counties that had a lot more valuation. So we planned to take the matter to the State Tax Commission.” There was some confusion by township voters that this move would result in higher taxes, rather than lower ones, and Smith (as he noted) lost his re-election by a few votes.
During the 1950s, Bob was appointed to the Livingston County Board of Education, the governing body for the one-room country schools that (before consolidation) operated as sole entities. That board transitioned into the Livingston Intermediate School District in 1961, with Bob being elected the president of the new board. He remained in that position until his retirement on June 30, 1989. During that time, Bob was also elected to the County Farm Bureau Board and subsequently became the president. He then ran for the state board and was elected, becoming its vice president. His experience in township government, membership in Farm Bureau, and knowledge of property taxes got him named to a Carlton Tax Commission.
“Carlton was a state legislator who established this advisory group,” Bob explained. “We were broken into different subcommittees and wrote reports. This was just before the Michigan Constitutional Convention (launched in 1961). A lot of the report ended up being used in the new constitution.” That convention, organized to re-write the state’s constitution, proved to be a major turning point in Bob’s life.
“Stanley Powell, who had served as the counsel for Farm Bureau at the state legislature for many years, resigned to run as a convention delegate. He won and was later elected to the legislature,” Bob said. “I resigned as the board vice president and was hired to replace him.” That full-time employment proved time-consuming, requiring him to give up farming his 265 acres. Instead, he rented out the land. During the next two years after becoming a legislative counsel, Bob would spend the mornings working as a Farm Bureau representative at the convention and afternoons monitoring the legislature.
With the successful passage by voters of the new constitution, he then put his full focus on legislative matters. As a legislative counsel (most people refer to this type of position as ‘lobbyist’), Bob came into contact with and got to know many of the prominent state-elected officials, as well as leaders in labor, business, and manufacturing during the next three decades. These include the governors, starting with George Romney, the U.S. Senators and Congressmen, Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers, Detroit Mayor Coleman Young, and the elected heads of the state departments, state judges, and the many state senators and representatives.
“My job was to lobby the elected and appointed state officials on behalf of Michigan agriculture, in general, and the Farm Bureau, in particular,” he said. “It was a wide charge. Trying to carry out the policies of Farm Bureau meant a lot more than farm stuff. There’s very little in the way of legislation or administration that doesn’t affect farmers. Labor issues, roads, in-state marketing, land control issues, education, taxation, and the Department of Health.” That involvement, he added, went way beyond merely chatting with legislators or department officials about some concern of Farm Bureau or an issue of importance to farmers. As a legislative counsel, Bob was appointed to various advisory commissions to study and make recommendations on an assortment of issues. “I’ve been appointed by four different governors to serve on committees,” he said. “I was also on the Blue Cross board and its committees for over 30 years.” Bob came into contact with many of those officials, along with a lot of other people, when he served on the SEMCOG (Southeast Michigan Council of Governments) Board. “I was appointed in the 1970s, about two years after it was formed,” he said. “I chaired it twice and worked on several standing committees, including the International Waterways Committee that met with Canadian representatives.” “I never minded being on a committee as long as it had some authority to accomplish things or make meaningful changes,” he said. Bob worked as a legislative counsel with Michigan Farm Bureau for 28 years until retiring in 1990.
On a personal note, he and his wife Joan were married in 1948. Bob said that she was a friend of one of his cousins and that they had known each other since they were young. They were married 65 years when she passed away in 2013. “After my retirement, we were able to do some traveling,” he pointed out.