You may not find a town officially called “Union Lake” on a map of Oakland County — at least not anymore — but you could always find the contours of the region around James W. Fancy’s heart. It may be the water and scenery, the recreation, that has drawn people to western Oakland County over the years, but the hard-nosed journalist came to the lakes area for the first time more than 40 years ago to further pursue his passion: newspapers.
“His excitement was to be a journalist,” said Dennis Pheney, a long-time friend and the SCN Communications Group’s legal counsel for decades. “That was his calling. That’s what he was very good at. He was a dedicated gatherer and disseminator of information.”
And that may be putting it mildly.
As owner and publisher of the SCN Communications Group and its flagship publication, the Spinal Column Newsweekly, which he purchased almost 42 years ago after running newspapers on the east side of the metro Detroit for years, Mr. Fancy transformed what had once effectively been a community newsletter literally published on pink paper — in the same vein as the cover we are featuring this week in honor and remembrance of our boss, friend, and mentor who passed away on Thursday, July 7 at the age of 77 — into the newspaper the lakes area relies on for the stories that affect them.
“It’s one of the finest publications that keeps its eye on statewide and environmental stories, as well as the local stories,” said Wixom City Manager Mike Dornan, who has worked with Spinal Column Newsweekly reporters and editors for more than 30 years, first from his time as city manager and treasurer of Walled Lake. “Jim leaves a legacy of really prominent journalists who’ve gone to other publications.”
Bob Shimmin, a friend who said he sold Mr. Fancy the building on Cooley Lake Road in Waterford where the SCN offices are located, said Mr. Fancy was one of the first people he met when he came to the area in the 1960s.
“He was the guy you go see,” Shimmin said. “He was a star.”
1960s: Blazing a new trail for newspaper production
When Bob Hubbard was hired at an east-side publishing group in 1965 as a production manager for 11 newspapers covering Detroit and part of Macomb County, he worked directly for Mr. Fancy until the early part of 1969. After Mr. Fancy left that company, the pair got together a couple times a year to talk shop.
Mr. Fancy was a trailblazer in plant imprinting for the East-Side Shopper, taking the publishing group’s newspapers from using a hot metal press to a cold metal press in their production methods, according to Hubbard.
“It was far different,” he said. “There were no computers, and it was a real challenge to make the change from having the papers typeset, Linotypes, and printed on. We did all the typesetting on Adjustawriters, VariTyper Headliners, which was so basic. He was really a pioneer in that transaction.”
Arthur Van Brook, a former Highland Township supervisor and the owner of an independent print shop near Oxbow Lake when the Spinal Column first got off the ground prior to Mr. Fancy’s ownership, helped the previous owners get into the publishing business with the tabloid-style weekly.
“I just helped them learn how to lay out a paper with columns and placing the ad value on the exposure of the front page, inside front page, and centerfold,” he said. “At that time, off-set printing was relatively new, so they were typing the copy and cutting and pasting — literally cutting and pasting. We still used drafting boards with T-squares and triangles. It was a lot of basic work until they finally had made up enough blank layout pages with column lines, so it went from there.”
That’s a far cry from where the newspaper industry is today, brimming with iMacs, Quark, Photoshop, InDesign, RSS feeds, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, tablets, smart phones, and the other technological advances that have revolutionized the publishing field and what it’s capable of.
Beyond the transition in technology used to put out a publication week in and week out, Mr. Fancy oversaw a sea change in other areas, as well — namely, what west Oakland County was like over the course of four-plus decades.
A pink gift waiting in
lakes area mailboxes
It wasn’t always this way.
Those who have flocked here relatively recently have come to know the Spinal Column Newsweekly as the newspaper serving the entire lakes area region comprised of 11 communities: Waterford, West Bloomfield, Commerce, White Lake, Milford Township, Milford Village, Highland, Orchard Lake, Walled Lake, Wixom, and Wolverine Lake — each with its own ethos; its own character, cast of characters and personality; its own political leadership, challenges and triumphs.
But those who grew up in the Union Lake area — the old-timers, as it were, those whose memories were forged in the waters of Their Lake or Their Pond or Their Stream in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s — remember Cooley Lanes and the dirt roads and Richardson’s Dairy Farm and the Burger Chef and Friday night movies at the drive-in theater at Richardson and Union Lake roads, now a shell of its former self.
They may have memories of the auto barons and industry magnates from Detroit — the Big City — considering this area their own private “Up North,” flocking northwest along whatever route best suited them on the weekends to one of the many lakes and cabins punctuating western Oakland County to be with their families, to get away from the city that was a magnet for the rich and poor.
To relax. To unwind.
They may remember times well before the M-5 trunkline was carved into the local landscape in a compromise move with the federal government; well before Commerce and White Lake became havens of residential and commercial development, with crisp new subdivisions and multi-storied businesses sprouting up like the sweet corn stalks on the Long Family Farm or at Korpak’s; and before M-59′s widening.
Or they could be smaller, more odd-ball things, those you might expect to see on “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” Like the time in the early 1970s when what Patricia Fancy, Mr. Fancy’s former spouse, characterized as a “hot debate” turned into a fiery one — literally — over the Huron Valley School District stocking J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” on library shelves.
A woman, who was smoking during a school board meeting — remember the days when you could do that? — and “talking with her hands” while voicing her opposition to the classic coming-of-age tome to the Board of Education, saw her straw purse go up in flames when the tip of her cigarette fell into it. Hephaestus came alive.
“She ran out of the meeting holding a flaming purse,” said Patricia Fancy, who worked as a reporter for the Spinal Column for a year and a half.
Perhaps some remember when a 32-year-old mother needed dialysis and the Spinal Column drummed up support to help get her a dialysis machine by publishing articles about a proof-of-purchase drive put on by one of the local commercial food vendors four decades ago.
Or when the Spinal Column kept the community apprised of the local men — some really just boys — who were tapped to serve in the U.S. Army in Vietnam. Some never came home. Others were maimed.
“There was 12 of us from Walled Lake that got drafted,” said John Marshall, a veteran who served on the Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors with Mr. Fancy.
Or — if they go even farther back in time and if they are lucky to have enjoyed such a long life — before the dam that was built in 1919 to fuse six small lakes into what is now the village of Wolverine Lake’s namesake. Or before Henry Ford bought the Jacober’s Store in Waterford in 1927.
They may remember a time when General Motors erected the massive GM Proving Grounds in Milford in 1928, just up the street from where an Irish wake was held for Mr. Fancy on Sunday, July 10, at Baker’s of Milford.
Or the construction of the Westacres subdivision in West Bloomfield in 1935 as part of the New Deal. Or the 1957 opening of the Ford Wixom Assembly Plant that was shuttered a few years ago. Or anything else that dots the annals of the lakes area’s history.
Or they may remember a few sheets of pink paper tucked in their mailbox.
What’s in a name? Just about everything
“The news consisted of who caught the biggest fish last week,” Patricia Fancy said. “It was very folksy.”
When Mr. Fancy agreed to a lease for the SCN Communications Group’s offices and executed a promissory note for $102,000 on Aug. 15, 1969 — the day the Woodstock Festival began, when Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young commandeered upstate New York’s and the nation’s attention for a few days in a muddy, sweltering summer — the Spinal Column was basically a newsletter serving the Union Lake area.
Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Lakes Area Resident hosted Mr. and Mrs. Jack P. Out-of-Towner over the weekend.
Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Lakes Area Resident held a barbecue for Mr. or Ms. High School Graduate in honor of their academic accomplishments.
Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Lakes Area Resident welcomed a new baby boy to the family.
Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Lakes Area Resident celebrated the completion of an addition on their home.
That was the Spinal Column’s character, its appeal and charm.
And yes, it did have that name when Mr. Fancy purchased the publication — at least a permutation of it, “Spinal Column: The Backbone of Suburban Livers” — contrary to what has sometimes been told to the inquisitive public and local political leadership, even by employees of this organization misinformed about its history.
The trademark “Spinal Column” moniker was part of the purchasing agreement with Colford Business Services, Inc., legal documents show.
One story often perpetuated about how the Spinal Column Newsweekly earned that name is that, when Mr. Fancy purchased the newspaper, he didn’t know what to call it. According to lore, he had people in the community put their suggestions for names in a hat, including a local chiropractor.
Well … you can guess whose suggestion he drew, legend has it.
But that’s false — at least the idea that Mr. Fancy held a drawing of sorts.
And then there’s the rumor that the building housing the Spinal Column Newsweekly operations used to be a chiropractor’s office.
Apparently, also false.
“They didn’t say how that name came about,” Van Brook said of the people who first approached him with the product, years before Mr. Fancy took over ownership and operations. “It was just something they dreamed up, I think.”
And we may never really know how the Spinal Column earned that name in the early days, with the area’s links to the newspaper’s idiosyncratic label dwindling with the slow passage of time, why our reporters have to sometimes repeat it over the phone to people unfamiliar with it.
“That’s an interesting name,” some will respond. “What do you cover,” others ask, perhaps because they expect that we here spend our time and resources focusing on the medical industry.
In reality, the name has been around for as long as the publication has — perhaps one of the few things in the lakes area that has remained the same as it was over half a century ago.
‘The power behind, The pen in the area’
But that — along with its devotion to its main constituency, its thousands of readers — may be the only thing about the Spinal Column itself that has remained the same. From design to size to content to reporters, from typography to layout to staff and editorial focus, the newspaper has seen everything from little modifications to sea changes.
“That’s (the newspaper’s original pink color) one thing that Jim changed fairly soon after taking over the paper,” said Walled Lake Mayor William Roberts, who was first elected to the Walled Lake City Council in 1968. “It used to be that the paper just covered local news and it’s expanded well into covering state issues and how they affect the local communities.”
Roberts teared up over the phone. A freshly ordained Episcopalian minister, Roberts had conversations virtually every week with Mr. Fancy in the early days.
“Often I would stop by on a Wednesday night after the paper had come out and meet with him for an hour or so,” Roberts said. “We would have discussions about local, state, and national politics. My viewpoints were more liberal than his, but we would have very good heart-to-hearts and a lot of pretty good debates.”
Virtually everyone the Spinal Column Newsweekly spoke with characterized Mr. Fancy in a similar manner, as someone who virtually breathed the triadic kaleidoscope of current affairs — local, state, and national issues.
And he let his views be known. But Mr. Fancy was a person who, no matter how profound the disagreement on a given subject, never made the disputes personal, many said. He could disagree without being disagreeable, a trait many in the pundit-ocracy say is lacking in the current political discourse on both sides of the aisle.
“I feel there has been a great affinity for each other, and (we had) the ability to talk turkey about how we each see the world and the lakes area, although we might see it differently,” Dornan said. “I knew Jim early on as the power behind the pen in the area.”
“When we talked on the phone, we would just have lively conversations about public affairs,” Pheney said. “He was mostly interested in the editorial side of the paper and commenting on public affairs and making the Spinal Column sort of an indispensable item in every household out there for people to know what’s going on in county, local, state and national government. His focus was to make sure that he could raise awareness in the community about what was going on and be an instrument for a dialogue for people in the community to discuss the issues.”
Van Brook characterized his and Mr. Fancy’s relationship as “adversarial,” but only because of political differences; he had run as a Democratic candidate in a staunchly conservative area. And that’s because, even in the lakes area, the old aphorism held true: Politics stopped at the water’s edge, where it ended. It was never personal.
He said he was keeping Mr. Fancy and his family in his thoughts and prayers.
“This was not controversial. It was just that we were on different sides of the fence,” Van Brook said. “It was strictly professional and genteel.”
Pretty good debates. Seeing things differently. Lively conversations. Vigorous discourse.
Those were almost divine, holy experiences for Mr. Fancy, his apotheoses — at least in his professional life.
‘He knew how to run
a paper, make it work.’
College is often a turning point in the lives of those lucky enough to attend it. It’s where we meet new people, encounter the wayfarers we never would have met, discover philosophy and poetry and politics and poverty, learn how to calculate the light years distancing humankind from the stars, and eventually earn a degree in order to land a good job and live the American Dream.
For Mr. Fancy, like so many others from generations past and present, college at Wayne State University landed him a wife, Patricia. The pair had worked together coordinating a “big” student fair, of which she was one of the managers.
And after the courtship, the pair were married.
“He knew how to run a paper. He was really good at it. When something went wrong, he could figure out what to do. He knew how to run a paper and make it work,” said Patricia Fancy, who was the lone news reporter at the Spinal Column in the early days, along with an advertising manager who covered local sports.
And it was that talent that has kept the Spinal Column Newsweekly the go-to publication for lakes area residents for over 40 years, even when so many have attempted to usurp it.
“A lot of weeklies went by the wayside,” Marshall said. “The Spinal Column has always hung in there and survived. I think that was Jim’s leadership, his background, and the help he had, also.”
“He was a major force in the community,” said former Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Gene Schnelz, a long-time friend of Mr. Fancy’s. “The endorsement of the Spinal Column was very important to anyone running for political office and, even though we were friends, he would never give me an edge.”
Oakland County Clerk/Register of Deeds Bill Bullard Jr., who knew Mr. Fancy for 30-plus years, agreed.
“He was a giant in the publishing industry,” he said. “He created a newspaper that is truly unique. There is no other weekly paper in Michigan that tries to cover state and county and local government like the Spinal Column.”
County Executive L. Brooks Patterson echoed similar sentiments.
“I always thought the Spinal Column — despite its unusual name — had a really inordinate impact for a small weekly paper, and a lot of impact on politics. A lot of my friends in the profession would turn to the articles and editorials that Jim wrote. Considering its size and who you compete with, it was well-written and the research was spot-on.”
But despite his journalistic prowess and the product he created, Mr. Fancy certainly knew how to be fashionably late, according to Schnelz, whose first meeting with Mr. Fancy included a bar and shards of a glass door splayed across the floor of Duffy’s on Cooley Lake.
“I got to Duffy’s a little earlier (than Mr. Fancy) and I was sitting in the bar area. They had a glass door. Jim walked up to the door and I saw him coming and he grabbed the door by the handle and the door shattered,” Schnelz recalled with a laugh. “I said, ‘Some people will do anything to make a grand entrance.’”
Mr. Fancy, a Cass Technical High School graduate who was built like a linebacker, was a music lover, taking in symphonies and concerts at Meadow Brook, and plays with his granddaughter when she expressed interest in the performing arts.
“Since I’m the oldest grandchild by 5 years, I got to spend a lot of one-on-one time with him,” said Ronessa Butler, his granddaughter. “He discovered when I was young that I loved going to the theater. He took me to shows at the Fox Theatre, the Fisher, the Masonic Temple. I didn’t realize how lucky I was as a young girl to get dressed up and go to these gorgeous theaters. I definitely realized how special it was at the time, but looking back as an adult, I see that it was an unusual opportunity. I’m really grateful that he indulged my interest in the arts in that way.”
Mr. Fancy — Herculean in stature at 6-feet-4-inches but with the personality of Philophrosyne, the Greek spirit of kindness — was the person who once offered to lend money to an employee planning a trip to Madison, Wisc. He was the person who got into snowball fights with Spinal Column staff on occasion. He was the person who was frightened when an employee stuck a mannequin leg underneath his desk.
He had two children he adored: Susan, our new publisher and co-owner, and Steven, our new co-owner. Then there were four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren upon whom he constantly doted.
He “waited” for those grandchildren to leave his bedside, when they went to get lunch, before he passed away last week, according to Susan Fancy.
A Mr. Fancy tradition:
The nine-month rule
It’s probably coincidence, a strange alignment of the stars, but nine-month periods have, in some way, lead to the essence of everything Mr. Fancy was as a man. Debater. Publisher. Loving father, grandfather, great-grandfather.
For example, according to his sister, Noreen, he was speaking in complete sentences when he was 9-months-old — right around this time of year in 1934.
Nine months. “It’s hot,” may have been one of his first sentences in the upper-level flat in Detroit his parents rented in the 1930s, well before the days of central air conditioning.
Prodigal, perhaps, but he was also argumentative with his parents at the time, debating things like the color of an object or something else that was obvious to the Canadian man and Irish woman who met in Europe and raised three children: James, Noreen, and George.
“Don’t argue with the kid,” Mr. Fancy’s father would say to his mother to perhaps stave off, or nip in the bud, his argumentative nature early on.
“But he makes me so stinking mad,” his mother would retort.
And he was out of work for nine months after leaving the East-Side Shopper following a disagreement with other management before he finally pulled the trigger on purchasing the Spinal Column Newsweekly, what became his professional legacy.
But most importantly to him, those nine-month periods are how long it took him to see each of his children, Susan and Steven; his four grandchildren, Ronessa, Jeff, Patrick, and Alex; and great-grandchildren, Lily, Aevryn, Maddie, and Zoe, emerge into the grand arena of life, that thing that so encompassed Mr. Fancy.
That thing he squeezed every drop of juice out of like an orange.
In grandchildrens’ eyes,
family man, friend, mentor
Over the course of his late life, Mr. Fancy was a mentor and confidant to family and friends, employees and members of the lakes area community. He was known as a someone who was always interested in hearing what was new in other people’s lives, and someone who advised and helped others become better people in their professional and personal endeavors.
“I brought friends down to visit all the time, ever since I could drive,” said grandson Jeff Fancy. “There wasn’t a single one of those people that didn’t call later to talk to him, sometimes to get advice. If anyone was in trouble, he would instantly shelf what he was doing or wanted and helped that person.”
“It could be problems with teachers at school — I had a buddy black-listed by teachers, as simple as that — and he wanted to resolve the issue and take care of that person,” he added. “He did a good job of it. He always had to be ‘the guy,’ and he always was the guy to make sure all the ducks were in a row. Everyone that knew him had the same thought: ‘What a great guy.’ That’s what he was to people.”
“Grandpa was one of the few people that you felt had a genuine interest in who you were,” said grandson Patrick Fancy. “It didn’t matter if it was someone he was meeting for the first time or a friend, he would always ask about you and try to understand who you were and where you were going.
“One instance that sticks out in my mind occurred last summer when I brought two of my friends — both lived outside the U.S. — over to his house to stay the night,” he added. “We had to catch a flight at 8 a.m. out of Metro the next morning. We arrived at around 11:00 the night before. We all stayed up until about 5 a.m. talking to my Grandpa as he continued to ask more and more questions about their lives and what it was like at home. He didn’t just ask about you to be polite, he truly cared and was interested. We all joke about how when you get on the phone with him it takes hours to get him to hang up. Well, anytime that happened with me it was because he was either giving me advice about a current situation, or just talking to me about what I was doing and where I was headed. You just don’t meet many people like that anymore.”
“He was just really happy to be a grandpa,” Ronessa Butler said. “He loved us and spoiled us rotten. And then some. He truly enjoyed spending time with his family. He would often stop by our house unannounced in the evenings, totally disrupting our bedtimes — much to our utter delight and my mother’s begrudging smiles at the hysterics he was inducing in us so late at night.”
Mr. Fancy valued family and fun above all else, often at the same time, according to his grandchildren.
“My favorite Grandpa story happened when we were vacationing up in the UP,” said grandson Alex Fancy. “My bothers and I were asleep in our cabin when Gramps came and knocked on our window. He sneaked us out and took us to breakfast. Going out to eat with him was a trip. Every single meal I had out with him I can remember always involved some sort of food and/or spit wad fight. He was always doing things like that with us. He never quite grew up. He has always had the personality of a 25-year-old, which always made him incredibly fun to be around and that’s the thing I’m going to miss most about him.”
Family, friends and fun were priorities for Mr. Fancy — who was also a dear friend to the late June Byers — but he also felt a strong connection to his employees, people he did his best to look after in any way he could.
“During the last 10 years I have had several discussions with him about retiring,” said Patrick Fancy. “It was something he always wanted to do. I know a big reason he never walked away was fear of what might happen to his employees. The last thing he wanted was to see his employees get thrown under the bus. He could have retired and walked away with everything and not a care in the world. Instead, he held onto the paper. And I truly believe it was because he didn’t want to worry about what would happen to his employees, most of which I am sure he considered good friends.”
It’s a family thing —
and a lakes area thing
Susan, Steven, and Steven’s wife, Marisa, have all worked at the Spinal Column Newsweekly in years past — that’s where Steven met Marisa, when he was the production manager and she was a sales secretary.
“The family and the extended family, along with all the long-time employees we have here, will carry the operation forward,” Susan said. “Although many print media are struggling, there’s information in community newspapers you can’t find anywhere else — including easily on the Internet — and local newspapers are actually picking up.
“We will be featuring new content in the newspaper soon, including a new section, ‘Local Matters,’ next week, and we will be unveiling a new website in the fall,” she said. “We appreciate all the loyal readers’ and advertiser support over the years with my dad. We look forward to continuing that relationship and we would love to hear from you. Please write us, call us, and tell us what’s on your mind.”
It’s changes like those that were forthcoming in early 2011 when the newsroom staff was in a Wednesday editorial meeting — where the content for the next week’s issue of the Spinal Column Newsweekly is decided. Susan, who was at that point acting publisher, walked in with a stack of books tucked under her arm.
She came to say, among other things, that the Spinal Column was going to take a turn in a different direction, in terms of editorial content. She said it would maintain its credibility as a hard news operation — its bread and butter — but shift its lens in some circumstances in new directions, on the lighter, more uplifting side of the lakes area. It would keep in 20-20 focus the heart and mind of this region, this place replete with little histories and quirky people and amazing talents and raw and refined genius and a unique, distinctly west Oakland County mentality.
That’s because people’s daily lives aren’t consumed with outdoor vendor ordinances or title-swaps among local government officials or new zoning regulations or small updates in fee schedules. People don’t spend their 9-5 jobs — or their second or third jobs, if they are struggling to make ends meet — thinking about full-time equivalency or closed-bid processes or building and site sinking funds or the vendor for a new sidewalk project.
In their cubicles or on their feet, people are worried about their children flunking trigonometry class, or what is for dinner, or how they are going to afford dinner. Or maybe it’s nailing that essay they have to write for class. They are thinking of their elderly neighbor who spends so much time in the oppressive July heat tending to her bougainvillea or morning glories, her basil or mint. Paying for college. Medical bills. Credit card debt. Friday football games. Wednesday night bowling. Their parents’ health. Where that bright orange sculpture in Walled Lake with the sunflowers behind it came from, or why people are sporting Civil War-era garb in Milford.
There is a hierarchy, a strata, to people’s worries and what truly interests them, Susan said. And we will be there to report it all. Cover life, she said, as well as the hard news.
Editor Tim Dmoch contributed to this report.