Past and Present: Dickinson attorney to guide Michigan History Foundation

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By Linda Laderman
Legal News

From the time he was in elementary school, Dickinson Wright attorney Jack Dempsey was drawn to historical events with a specific interest in the American Civil War.

“I’ve been caught up in history since I was a young boy and fascinated with the Civil War since I was 8 or 9 years old,” Dempsey said. “My grandparents encouraged me too, giving me books on the Civil War. They really wanted me to understand our nation’s history.”

Last month Dempsey turned his passion for history into a second career when he accepted the position of executive director of the Michigan History Foundation, a nonprofit that aims “to present opportunities to provide the financial support needed to collect, preserve and interpret Michigan’s past for the education and enjoyment of present and future generations.”

“I’m thrilled,” Dempsey said of his new duties. “And my firm has been just great. From when (former Detroit mayor) Dennis Archer supported my initial appointment to the commission to this most recent opportunity to help lead the History Foundation as executive director, Dickinson Wright has done all I could have asked.”

Questions that resonated during America’s Civil War’s era remain a conundrum in 2017, according to Dempsey.

“There is no question that we still confront issues today regarding race and discrimination,” Dempsey said. “On one hand we elected the first African American president, and on the other hand there were protestors waving the Confederate flag outside the NCAA tournament this past March in (Greenville) South Carolina.”

An existing wealth of stories about ordinary citizens who took it upon themselves to challenge prejudice and discrimination personify Michigan’s contributions to the nation, Dempsey said.

“The reality that farm boys from mid-Michigan, clerks from Detroit and Native Americans from northern Michigan enlisted to help save the American Union and ultimately to put an end to human bondage in the U.S. can serve to motivate anyone who appreciates such a monumental level of sacrifice into doing all he or she can to serve the public good.”

Looking at the past as a roadmap for the future, Dempsey said he thinks the foundation of American democracy will endure as the country faces new challenges.

 “We continue as a nation to strive to fulfill the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, that all are created with inalienable rights, and that we have a constitutional government that is to represent each of us without regard to race or station.”
Dempsey, who joined the History Foundation’s board of directors in 2007, said he was able to meld his love of history with his work as an attorney, while at Dickinson Wright, where he focuses on administrative and regulatory issues in the energy and telecommunications sectors.

“Legal research and writing at work made it seem possible to do the same, after hours, on history,” Dempsey said. “Advocacy during the day had to be put aside at night, usually in order to write in a more balanced approach.”

Along with books that fueled Dempsey’s love for history, visits to Civil War battlefields helped bring momentous conflicts to life for the 64-year-old attorney.

“The sites I’ve visited include Gettysburg, Fredericksburg, Monocacy and Appomattox,” Dempsey said, adding that in 1835 Michigan nearly had a battle of its own with its neighbor just to the South.

“We almost went to war with Ohio. Literally, when Michigan could not get into the Union it insisted that it’s border should be more southern, but Ohio wouldn’t let that happen,” Dempsey said. “Andrew Jackson was president and there was some armed militia called out by both states. There was a lot of posturing and beating of drums but not much military conflict. Michigan was finally admitted in 1837.”

As the History Foundation moves forward under Dempsey, it will sponsor an exhibit with the Michigan Historical Museum in Lansing highlighting the vitality of the Au Sable River. Tentatively titled, “The River that Changed the World,” the exhibit will run for six months, beginning in September 2017.

Dempsey, the author of five books and various articles on history, called the joint endeavor “a great subject because it combines the age old themes of natural resources and conservation.”

Once in jeopardy, the vitality of the Au Sable River “is in great shape today, recognized as an internationally re­nowned trout stream, thanks to a lot of hard work by conservationists in government and local groups,” said Dempsey. “We didn’t always appreciate what we had but that is no longer the case. Today, the Au Sable receives the level of respect and care it should have.”

During his one-year term as executive director, Dempsey hopes to encourage more people to participate in his organization’s work.

“I invite any Michigan history lovers to contact me at executivedirector@michiganhistory.org.  We’ll get you involved, and you’ll enjoy great rewards doing it,” Dempsey said.
 

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