LaVerne and Bill Blickley
(Article in Eastown Access March 2016)
By Amy Walterstorff
LaVerne and Bill Blickley are committed, engaged, Eastown residents who have served our neighborhood for more than 50 years and helped make it the vibrant community it is today. Often at the forefront of social change, they have met the challenges of their neighborhood head-on and have worked tirelessly for social justice and community involvement. They spearheaded neighborhood organization efforts in the 1960s and 1970s, and Bill served on the Eastown Community Association (ECA) Board during the 1980s and 1990s. They have served the city as well—Bill as a city commissioner for eight years and LaVerne as a library commissioner for 20 years.
I was warmly welcomed recently into the Blickleys' cozy home on Dunham Street which they bought in 1963 and where they raised their four children. “We liked the idea that our kids could grow up in an ethnically diverse neighborhood,” Bill explains.
In 1963, that neighborhood was on the brink of huge social changes. The European-Americans, including many old-time Dutch folks, were beginning to abandon the neighborhood, and Calvin College would soon vacate its Franklin Street campus as well. Bill estimates the neighborhood then was 10-25% African-American; during the next few years it became approximately 90% African- American. Along with these changes came conflict. Bill states, “The neighborhood was starting to fall apart socially. Neighbors lost their connections and no longer knew each other.” New and old residents became victims of burglaries, assaults and other crimes.
The Blickleys felt strongly that in order to address these issues, the neighbors would have to work together. Bill began knocking on doors. So began the WEFF (Wealthy-Ethel-Franklin-Fuller) neighborhood group in 1969. Black and white neighbors worked together. They patrolled the neighborhood at night to prevent crime and put out a WEFF newsletter to keep everyone informed. The fledgling group identified four pressing concerns: 1) more street lights, 2) alley lights, 3) playground equipment for Sigsbee School/Park, 4) walking patrolmen. It is a testament to their hard work that they succeeded in all four goals, even in their request for neighbors to pay a special tax to fund the new alley lights.
Their success did not go unnoticed. Aquinas College and other Grand Rapids neighborhood groups asked them for advice which they were happy to give. Spread out on the Blickleys' coffee table are numerous press articles and photographs from that time period, including a photo of a neighborhood carnival held in the parking lot of Calvin Church—the precursor to the Eastown Streetfair! The ECA had its beginnings then as well, formed with funding from various sources with assistance from Aquinas College, concerned about the safety of its students. WEFF joined the Eastown Community Association soon after it was formed.
The Blickleys were aware that they were a part of the social turmoil and racial unrest that was occurring all over the U.S., and they describe those years as difficult but exciting. With a desire for an increased influence on city life, Bill went back to school and earned a degree in city planning from MSU, studying issues like housing, urban organizing, solid waste disposal, and public transportation.
To learn how these concepts were used in other countries, the Blickley family spent eight months traveling by camping through Europe and Africa. Upon their return, LaVerne began teaching at Oakdale Christian School and Bill took a job as a city planner. Frustrated in his efforts to increase citizen input and participation, he resigned after seven months but continued this fight in the neighborhoods as a volunteer. He successfully ran for third-ward city commissioner in 1984, a job he loved, working 50-plus hours a week, becoming familiar with the workings of city government. He saw a need for more people of color in elected office and was one of the founders of the Coalition for Representative Government whose effort proved successful with the election of African-Americans to the Board of Education, Community College, as well as the City and County Commissions. In 1992, Bill returned to school again to earn a master's degree in city management and public administration from Western Michigan University.
The Blickleys have been involved in a wide variety of other ventures as well. For many years, they operated a successful mom-and pop business installing antennas. They owned a popcorn wagon. They still run a snowplowing business and own a motor home they provide free of charge for youth groups to use to travel to service projects all over the country. They own and manage some Eastown residential properties near their home on Dunham Street. When their kids were young, the Blickleys spent summers at their farm and stable near White Cloud where their children worked as trail guides. Since 1994, Eastown Ministries on Benjamin Avenue SE has provided activities and Bible studies to neighborhood children and teens, and the Blickleys are regular program volunteers, in charge of building maintenance while Bill serves as chairperson of the board of directors. LaVerne works part-time as a substitute teacher, and they both volunteer at the Eastern Avenue Church food pantry. In addition, for 20 years they have rebuilt computers—thousands of them—and given them to needy students and nonprofits in exchange for 10 hours of community service. On a timely note, Bill has been actively communicating with city commissioners about replacing the city's old lead water lines WZZM TV 13 news article
Bill sums up their years in Eastown: “We have lived a very interesting life here. I wouldn't want to have been anywhere else.” For more information on the Blickleys and their work, go to their website: www.whereverGodwills.org