Asked and Answered


By Steve Thorpe

John M. Dempsey is an attorney at Dickinson Wright and was just elected president of the Michigan Historical Commission. His legal experience of more than three decades includes energy, legislative, public utility, and telecommunications law. He currently focuses on administrative and regulatory issues facing clients in the telecommunications, electric, and natural gas sectors. He is also author of “Michigan and the Civil War: A Great and Bloody Sacrifice” published by the History Press. He also co-authored with his brother Dave “Ink Trails: Michigan’s Famous and Forgotten Authors,” just published by MSU Press.

Thorpe: Attorney and historian … is it a natural fit?

Clearly for me, yes. I became an attorney out of love for our constitutional form of government, and the law is all about precedent or making history. My history interest predates my career in the law by a few years: I was fascinated by the Civil War as early as the third grade. It’s turning out to be the next phase of what I’m about.

Thorpe: The commission dates back to 1913. Can you give us some of the history behind the keepers of the history?

The Commission managed the State’s official history programs for its first 50 years, turning it over to the Department of State when the 1963 Constitution was adopted. It had a budget, staff, and responsibility for keeping the State’s history flame burning. It published monographs and “Michigan History,” which evolved into a magazine. The adoption of the Constitution meant the Commission would continue to shepherd the State Historical Marker program while becoming more of an advisor and advocate to State government. In 2007 it was assigned the role of helping Michigan commemorate the Civil War Sesquicentennial. It also takes on selected projects like Capitol Park and the U.S. Grant House.

On August 25, the Commission will host a tribute ceremony at the Antietam Battlefield commemorating our Civil War forebears.

Today, seven members are appointed by the governor, the other two by the House speaker and Senate majority leader. Most are relatively new appointees (I’ve been on since 2007). We are nonpartisan. We are to a person passionate about elevating Michigan history to the place in our cultural fabric it should attain.

Thorpe: Explain the relationship between the Historical Commission and the DNR.

Dempsey: The Commission is housed in DNR with the professional historians of the Michigan Historical Center. The Center receives a small amount of general funding. We seek to work collaboratively with the DNR, and the long history of our State parks and contribution to our quality of life makes it a very god fit. All 9 commissioners are citizen volunteers who serve without compensation.

Thorpe: Which museums are involved with the commission and what are their roles?

Dempsey: We advise the State Historical Museums system, from Lansing to Fayette. And two of our newest members have day jobs running the Gerald R. Ford and The Henry Ford museums.

Thorpe: What are the Archives of Michigan?

Dempsey: The Archives are a key part of the Center, maintaining Michigan’s official and collected records and images. It used to be the place where people visited to do research. Increasingly, it has much more to offer by taking collections online, accepting opportunities to preserve priceless private collections, and envisioning new channels to save our heritage. The State Archivist, Mark Harvey, is a Michigan treasure.

Thorpe: Any future plans for the group you can share?

Dempsey: Next year’s our Centennial celebration with lots planned. It’s an opportunity to celebrate 100 years of public appreciation for our heritage. It is also the time to develop a plan for the next century, strategizing how Michigan government should work with the many individuals and organizations that are committed, despite many obstacles, to promote our history. What investment strategy is required for assets that taxpayers have spent hard-earned dollars to construct? What public/private partnership is optimal? How can our Commission best serve the people of Michigan as we journey down new paths?

In 2013 the Civil War Sesqui will see a heavy Gettysburg focus (Michigan had a key role). Plus look for a reinvented Olympics-quality Marker program that seeks to use new technology and play into Michigan tourism. There are ways to emphasize themes in existing and to-be-developed markers like conservation and civil rights (to name just two). Our partners at the Michigan History Foundation will also play an important role.