Outgoing -- County bar association director put 'heart and soul' into her job

By Paul Janczewski

Legal News

She's the seventh of eight children. The daughter of Danny Sain, arguably once one of the most powerful men in Genesee County for his involvement in the United Auto Workers and the Democratic Party. And now, the outgoing executive director of the Genesee County Bar Association (GCBA).

Ramona Sain is all that, but there's much more to her makeup than all those things. True, those experiences may have provided a road map for her life. But Sain has also picked up a few tricks of her own along the way to set herself apart and forge her own image.

"We were raised that, no matter what you do, you do it well, and you do it with honor and integrity," Sain said during a recent interview. "You put your heart and soul into it, and it doesn't matter what your title is, or how much money you make."

Those who have known Sain throughout the years realize she is hesitant to indulge in anything that hints at self-praise. Of course, she could, given all that she has accomplished as leader of the GCBA these past dozen years. But that's just another part of her makeup that sets Sain apart from so many others in this narcissistic world we live in.

Sain, the GCBA executive director since 1998, is leaving after 12 years there to begin a new job this month as corporate development officer for the Flint Cultural Center Corp. At a farewell party recently, she had to be convinced that her leaving the GCBA warranted a story. "I hate talking about myself," she said, before finally relenting.

Others are not so shy. In fact, it's not difficult at all to find people who are more than willing to talk about her accomplishments during her tenure. The hard part is deciding who to leave out of the article, since everyone wants to talk about Sain. Judges, attorneys and many others who have come in contact with Sain over the years attended her farewell party.

"It's a huge loss to the Bar Association," said attorney Jeremy Piper. "She's done an outstanding job, and we'll miss her, but we're glad she will still be around. It's good for the community."

"She has provided inspirational leadership during some difficult economic times, and the association has flourished," said retired Genesee County Circuit Judge Robert M. Ransom. "Ramona has been very active and has taken a very personal interest in her job by treating the bar as an extension of her family, but she never looks for credit."

Attorney Sue Preketes, past president of the GCBA, called Sain "the most outstanding executive director we've ever had" because Sain works quietly behind the scenes to get things done.

"She's got the whole package," said Genesee County Circuit Court Judge Duncan Beagle. "While we all can be replaced, she will be a little more difficult to replace."

Sain's story, like so many others, begins with her parents, and for that, we have to go back to Missouri, where her father was born, near the Arkansas border. Her mother, Doris Kennett was born in Arkansas. Danny Sain's older brother was a outstanding basketball player in Missouri, and he was recruited to play for a high school in Arkansas, so the Sain's packed up their brood of 13 kids and moved a few miles down the road into another state.

Danny and Doris met there, and later married. The couple moved to Flint when the factories were booming, and Danny got a job in 1953 at Buick, a General Motors plant, and became involved in the UAW. His involvement in Local 599 saw his rise through the ranks as committeeman to vice-president of the local to president of the UAW Community Action Council. Those positions and associations led him to become involved in many leadership roles on various boards and commissions, as well as chairman of the Genesee County Democratic Party, a member of the executive board and a delegate to two national Democratic presidential conventions before dying in 2004.

The family settled in the Beecher area, a school district encompassing north Flint and a portion of Mount Morris Township. Sain, 47, who now lives in Davison, said the eight kids and their parents squeezed into a three-bedroom, one bathroom house.

"It was loud, fun, chaotic," she said. "But you learned about the importance of family because of the loyalty and love we have."

Sain said that also taught her how to get along with others as she entered the work force, and beyond.

"Even though there's always going to be some strife and conflict, you always come back and work together," she said.

The family played sports together, sang together, and learned how to get along. Their home had the only basketball hoop in the neighborhood. Sain said they didn't have much, but they used what they had.

One of her earliest recollections that her dad held an important job in union and political matters came in the early 1970s when he received death threats during the presidential election. Sain was outside playing hopscotch and her mother ran out, grabbed her up and whisked her inside. Later, the FBI came through and swept their house for anything that could harm the family.

"And that's when I knew that this was some serious business," she said. "There was a palatable fear that was in the house during this stretch."

But since dad was involved in politics, the eight kids followed suit.

"I started working on my first campaign when I was six years old," she said, stuffing envelopes and helping to screen print yard signs. "And I loved every minute of it," Sain said.

At a young age, the kids started keeping scrapbooks on city, state and federal politics, pasting newspaper articles in the appropriate book. Several times each week, the family would talk about some of those issues.

"It gave us a sense of community, and recognition that we needed to be very aware of what's happening, not only locally but across the country," she said.

Another event that stuck with Sain occurred in the early 1970s after her father had a heart attack. Besides seeing her father as being vulnerable, it also separated the family for about a year.

She said her father asked her mother what she would have done if he died, and she told him she would probably pack up the kids and move back to Arkansas to open up an antique furniture business.

"She's a Southern belle, and she knows her antiques," Sain said.

And her father insisted she do just that. So her mother went to a bank, obtained a $4,000 loan using primarily her "charm," and moved to Arkansas with two of the youngest children. Sain and the others knew it was not like a divorce or a separation for their parents, but it was still unsettling. And every three months, the entire family would meet in Indiana for mini-reunions.

After working long days at her business, Sain's mother and siblings moved back after a successful year as a business owner. Her mother then received an associate's degree and became a successful realtor.

"That's what my mother had to do to find her place in life," she said. "Before that, she was Danny's wife and the mother of eight kids."

"We saw a growth and development in mom that, at that time, many women didn't have the opportunity to experience," she said. "It told us something about relationships and trust and allowing someone to grow and blossom."

"We adored and looked up to dad, put him on a pedestal, but my mom kept everything together. She was the glue," she said. "Mom was the heart and soul of the family, and she shaped our personalities and instilled southern values."

Another thing Sain learned about growing up in a large family, and being almost the youngest, was standing up for herself. More than once, her father had to answer for his daughter's fights at school. But her fights usually involved her protecting someone who was being picked on. But one fight she had in junior high school changed the entire family. When her dad reported to the principal's office, he noticed a sign that was grammatically incorrect, and asked his daughter to tell him what was wrong with the sign. She was unable to figure out the mistake, and her father decided that her, and his other children, may not be getting the best education they could.

"Within days, our house was for sale," she said, and the family moved to Grand Blanc. "It was a huge culture shock.," she said.

Beecher kids had a reputation for being tough, and Grand Blanc was perceived to be a bit more upscale. From having best friends who were African-American, Hispanic and Latino, now Sain had to fend in a mostly white environment.

Sain graduated from high school in 1981and went to Albion College for one year but found it was not the right mix for her. She was one of perhaps a dozen Democrats at the school and felt like an outsider, so she moved back home and enrolled in the University of Michigan-Flint.

While earning her degree in political science, Sain worked two jobs to help pay her way through college--as a dispatcher at a towing company, and as a bartender at the college's food service department during receptions and parties.

It was during a late night shift at the towing company when Sain met William Khouri, then a Flint Police officer. He and another officer needed to check a vehicle that was impounded following a traffic crash. Sain, who was "perturbed" when the telephone rang because she was engrossed in a newspaper article, quickly changed her demeanor when she saw Khouri.

"I took one look at him and there was an instantaneous attraction," she said.

The two began dating, and were married in 1989. That year was selected because it was an off-election year, and Sain was still heavily involved in Democratic politics.

Sain graduated from college in 1987, and wanted to go to law school, but didn't want to go into debt while paying off undergraduate loans. But she saw a job opening for executive director of the local Democratic Party, and applied for it. She had been involved in campaigns, and was a member of the Young Democrats, but really had no understanding of the party's structure.

Sain was offered the job after two other candidates turned it down because the pay was so low. Although she was happy to get the $16,000 a year job, her father was not. He did not know she had applied for the job, but wanted to keep any whispers of nepotism at bay.

"I was so naïve about the depth of party politics. Later, he told me this job was going to be very, very difficult for me, and he was angry," she said.

Sain later learned that there was good and bad about getting the job. "Because I was Danny's daughter, I got a measure of respect and inclusiveness that they might not have afforded someone else. But the conflicts my dad had with some also extended to me."

With her profile elevated, Sain was approached to join a number of boards, and many wanted her because of that familiar last name.

"They didn't know anything about me," she said. "I was an access point. If they couldn't get Danny, get Danny's daughter."

Because of that, Sain said she joined a number of boards, but made it a point to work harder than those already there. She also learned why her father told her he had no friends, because he was always being asked for favors.

"He had no personal life outside the family," she said.

But working for the party gave Sain political insights, and how to work within a system. She stayed there for six years before leaving.

"I learned a lot during some exciting times," she said. "I loved the politics, I loved the campaigns and the elections. And I learned how to run bingos, three days a week."

But soon the bingos, fund-raisers and untold campaigns, and being the only person in a one-person office grew old, and Sain wanted to advance her career. She was offered a job as deputy ombudsman under a person who was just named ombudsman for the city of Flint.

"I was excited about the prospect, and flattered," Sain said.

She started in 1995, but by the time she left, she was serving as interim ombudsman after controversy erupted and the obudsman was fired.

"I learned that allegiances are very fluid, and as someone who always put a lot of stock in loyalty, it was a shock to me," she said.

Sain left after four tough and controversial years there. It was about that time in 1998 that the GCBA and the Genesee County Bar Foundation was looking for a new executive director and Sain applied for the job. She knew a number of people on the GCBA's search committee from her earlier connections to the Democratic Party, "and it afforded me a comfort level that I really appreciated."

"I wanted this job," she said. "I walked in, and that old desire to become an attorney a decade earlier came out, and I was ready to seal the deal."

Over the years, Sain has presided over huge advancements in the GCBA and given the organization increased exposure as president of the Michigan Association of Bar Executives. She said although the GCBA exists in a small community, that is actually an advantage because attorneys know each other for many years and develop a level of respect and civility that might not be achieved in larger communities.

"We have a sense of comparative here that only small communities can develop," she said. "It's wonderful to be part of that family."

She said the bar rallies together when there is a need. The annual Christmas Dinner has grown over the years, and members give their time and money freely to free seminars and worthwhile projects. Sain says she can only remember a few times when an attorney has declined an offer for help, and usually it's because they have a prior commitment.

The GCBA is also the only local association that bought its own building. Sain said leasing space back then was becoming cost prohibitive, and the members backed the purchase.

"I like to think that I have sustained that sense of community within this bar association," Sain said. "I like to think that our members feel valued and are really part of our small family. To me, it's all about day-to-day building blocks, relationships and values."

But Sain quickly falls back on staying in the shadows and giving the members the bulk of the credit.

"I know what my job is, and that's to support the bar, support the members, and make us look good," she said.

"It's about the members. It's not about me. I have a big voice, and I think all the members would tell you that, but it's behind the scenes. I like to help make things happen, and give the kudos where they are deserved, and that's to the members, because the reality is we couldn't do anything without them."

Sain said the timing is right for her to leave now. "I've taken the bar as far as I can take it, and I'm looking for new growth and development opportunities. Plus, this is a wonderful opportunity for a new bar director to come in, put their stamp on things, reshape, redirect, do whatever needs to be done to take the bar to another level. But it's time for me to move on."

Published: Thu, Jun 17, 2010

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