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New book showcases dozens of notable Grosse Pointe residents

GROSSE POINTES — What do 1980s teen movie director John Hughes, six-term Michigan Gov. G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams and former Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Dorothy Comstock Riley all have in common?

All lived in the Pointes at some time in their lives.

Those are the kinds of tidbits and revelations readers will find in “Legendary Locals of Grosse Pointe,” a new pictorial history book by Ann Marie Aliotta and Suzy Berschback. The book was just released by Arcadia Publishing, and the authors will hold a book signing at 2 p.m. Dec. 21 at the offices of the Grosse Pointe Historical Society, 381 Kercheval in Grosse Pointe Farms.

Dozens of figures in sports, business and entertainment are featured in the book.

Aliotta said “Legendary Locals” started out as a project about Grosse Pointe South High School, which was once just Grosse Pointe High School — back in the days before Grosse Pointe North High School was built. But when Arcadia ceased its local campus series and launched one about notable people, the publisher invited the authors to shift their focus, and they began to come up with the people who would populate this volume instead.

“We really got to do a bunch of fun things that you might not get to do in a typical history book,” Aliotta said. That means that besides writing about the Fords and the Dodges, she said they were also able to cover equally interesting but lesser-known figures like strongman/resort owner Harry Blondell and the legends once shared by the French habitants. Aliotta was excited about sharing tales from veterans, as well.

With only about six months to research and assemble the book, Berschback said one of the challenges became deciding whom to include.

“Definitely we’ve left some people out — not intentionally,” she said. “There are great stories and there are great people, but (because of the format of the book), we had to have great photos, too.”

The Pointes can lay claim to more than a few famous folks — late comedian Gilda Radner, for example, studied at what is now University Liggett School.

“You think it’s just a small, sleepy community (until) you realize all of the luminaries” who’ve called the Pointes home, Aliotta said.

Both women relied heavily on the wealth of material available in the Grosse Pointe Historical Society archives, and Berschback said a portion of the proceeds of books sold at the GPHS and its store at the Provencal-Weir House would benefit the GPHS.

“Local Legends” also shines a spotlight on the philanthropic efforts of residents past and present, from Pierre and Euphemia Provencal — who took in 24 orphans from the cholera epidemic in the 1800s, caring for them and educating them — to modern residents like Gretchen Valade and John and Marlene Boll, who’ve supported arts and cultural institutions, hospital programs and much more.

“When you think of Grosse Pointe, you think of the auto barons … but I think we tried to capture the whole personality of Grosse Pointe, which is multidimensional,” said Aliotta, adding that the trend of “hardworking, civic-minded” people in the area dates back to “the early settlers.”

“My goal was connecting people to their local history,” Berschback said. “People need to know about the layers of people who came before them in their community. There were other hard times, and people overcame them.”

This is the third local history volume Aliotta and Berschback have co-written. Their last book, also for Arcadia Publishing, was a history of the Grosse Pointe War Memorial that came out in 2010. Both women have a passion for history. Aliotta, who grew up on Detroit’s east side and has lived in the Pointes since 1991, is a former editor for the GPHS’ quarterly newsletter, The Moorings. Berschback is a third-generation Grosse Pointer and lifelong resident who’s the former executive director of the GPHS. They both now live in the Farms with their families.

For now, at least, there are no plans for a second volume of “Legendary Locals” — Aliotta laughingly admits that after the breakneck pace she and Berschback kept to get this book to the publisher on time, “I am perfectly content with my publishing career right now, so I don’t know about a sequel.” Still, the authors concede that there are enough stories for future volumes.

For Berschback, some of the surprises while working on “Legendary Locals” included learning that a lifelong Grosse Pointe Woods woman was one of the survivors of the Titanic, and that George and Penny Simon “were very, very involved with getting St. Jude (Children’s Research Hospital) off of the ground” with their close family friend, famed entertainer Danny Thomas. The Simon family remains heavily involved in supporting the groundbreaking nonprofit medical facility.

With Christmas just around the corner, “Legendary Locals” makes “a perfect stocking stuffer,” Berschback said.

For residents of all ages, the book instills a sense of pride in the Pointes.

“It’s a wonderful way to celebrate the community,” Aliotta said.

And for Berschback, this is a way to share accounts of the past “with the next generation and keep those stories alive.”

“Legendary Locals” is available from the Grosse Pointe Historical Society and at a number of local retailers, as well as online from Amazon.com. For more about the Dec. 21 book signing, contact the GPHS at (313) 884-7010 or visit www.gphistorical.org. For more about the book and where to buy a copy, visit www.legendarylocals.com or call (888) 313-2665 toll-free.