2010-05-22 / News

Straits Area and State Lose a Friend With Passing of Larry Rubin

By Ellen Paquin

Lawrence Rubin at the Mackinac Bridge, October 2009. (Photograph by David Rubin) Lawrence Rubin at the Mackinac Bridge, October 2009. (Photograph by David Rubin) Lawrence A. Rubin, known to the people of Michigan as an instrumental figure in the construction and leadership of the Mackinac Bridge, and to hundreds of thousands of bridge walkers as the author who tirelessly signed his books for waiting crowds at the end of the bridge walk each year, was known best to his friends in St. Ignace as a determined optimist who could help accomplish any goal that would benefit his community. His skills in promotion, his genuine warmth toward people, and his indefatigable enthusiasm were the traits mentioned most often by his colleagues this week, following Mr. Rubin's death at age 97 Tuesday, May 11, 2010, in St. Ignace.

An athlete, an influential community booster, and a friend to many in the town, Mr. Rubin was also the only person to cross-country ski across the Mackinac Bridge.

He was its top supervisor at the time.

“There was a certain day, around 1980, when he says to his supervisor on duty, 'Make a note in your log book that for the next hour, the Mackinac Bridge is open to cross-country skiing,'” recalls David Rubin, Mr. Rubin's son. “And then he strapped on his skis and skied across. That's the kind of guy he was; very fun-loving.”

An avid skier all of his life – Mr. Rubin learned the sport at a young age in his home state of Massachusetts on barrel-stave skis, his son says, and continued to enjoy downhill skiing into his 90s – he also loved boating all around the Straits area in the family's Chris Craft. He enjoyed golfing and was a member of the St. Ignace Golf Club. He was a fan of University of Michigan athletics.

“He was very physical and loved to ride his bike. He liked to build a fire in the fireplace and he loved his happy hour at 4 o'clock,” his son said. “He was a great poker player and, all of his life, noted all of his wins and losses, going back to his college days in the '30s.”

At the University of Michigan, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree, Mr. Rubin was a back-up for Gerald Ford on the Wolverines football team, and the two men remained lifelong friends, even after Mr. Ford became President of the United States. The two families often skied together and owned property together at a ski club near Cadillac.

Mr. Rubin is best known throughout the state for his professional accomplishments at the Mackinac Bridge, where he served as the executive secretary for the Mackinac Bridge Authority for 32 years, since its inception in 1950 until his retirement in 1983. After pushing for the funding and construction of the bridge across the Straits, Mr. Rubin spent three decades in charge of its day-to-day operation, implementing the policies of the Mackinac Bridge Authority. He played a leading role in organizing the building of the bridge and was singled out by its designer, David B. Steinman, as its “guiding spirit.” Bridge supporter W. Stewart Woodfill, the owner of Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island who established a citizens committee to push the plan, credited Mr. Rubin with closing the deal to build the bridge in a 1975 letter: “...when it came to the final financing of the bridge it was you alone and no other who got that through the Legislature ...Neither Prentiss Brown nor I had the clout to finish off the deal. It was only you.”

Mr. Rubin worked closely on the project with Senator Prentiss M. Brown, regarded as the “father of the Mackinac Bridge,” who called Mr. Rubin “always cheerful, a gentleman, well educated, and an excellent judge of human nature.”

The self-effacing Mr. Rubin had that ability, his colleagues noted, to make social and political connections to promote a cause, without being promotional of himself or his own efforts.

After his retirement from the bridge authority, Mr. Rubin turned his attention to writing, producing two books, “Mighty Mac: The Official Picture History of the Mackinac Bridge,” and “Bridging the Straits.” Mr. Rubin donated the publishing rights to the pictorial history book to the St. Ignace Kiwanis Club, and its sales continue to produce thousands of dollars each year for local scholarships granted by the club. At each Mackinac Bridge walk, and at many other community events throughout the year, Mr. Rubin enjoyed signing his books for waiting readers, a practice he continued through last year.

“Mr. Rubin was not only financially generous, but he was also wonderfully generous with his time,” said Michael Lane, president of the Kiwanis Club. “Each year at the Labor Day Bridge Walk, Kiwanis members sell Mighty Mac books near the finish line at the south end of the bridge. Mr. Rubin has been there with us every year greeting walkers and signing books. Even with declining health the last few years, he would graciously stay until the last book was sold. I am usually far out in front of the book table hawking books and regularly get asked, 'Is the author here again this year?' It will be sad this coming Labor Day to have to answer, 'No, I’m sorry he is not.' In 2007, the 50th anniversary of the bridge brought renewed interest in the book and we had scores of people standing in line to meet Mr. Rubin. He warmly greeted them all with genuine interest in their remembrances and stories. Even as a relative newcomer to both St. Ignace and Kiwanis, I can say Mr. Rubin made me feel as a sincere friend. On behalf of the St. Ignace Kiwanis Club, we are deeply grateful for all his kind and faithful support and will miss him dearly.”

Mr. Rubin was a strong supporter of the community's hospital and its library. He served 27 years on the board of directors of Mackinac Straits Hospital, nine years as its chairman, and is credited with spurring the grassroots campaign to build a new library in the town, a plan accomplished in 2005 wholly by donations and grants.

Architect A. Richard Williams said he and Mr. Rubin worked closely together on the project and shared a vision of the new library's function and design.

“It was a treasure in my experience to work with Larry and his dedication to the cause of the St. Ignace Public Library,” Mr. Williams said Thursday, May 13. “We both wanted a fresh start that would be reflective of our history and our local materials in the design of the library.”

Mr. Rubin was widely regarded as the person to turn to when it was time to get something accomplished, several of his friends pointed out upon his retirement in 1982. That drive for communitybuilding projects stayed with him throughout his life.

“Larry always had a positive and upbeat enthusiasm in his life,” said longtime friend Prentiss “Moie” Brown, Jr., last week. “He was very enthusiastic about community development, above and beyond what he did for the bridge, which was very important. He was a good public person, both politically and socially. He enjoyed talking about politics and development. He was an excellent person.”

His skill at promoting an idea or cause was also at the foundation of Mr. Rubin's accomplishments.

“Larry was always a very promotion-minded individual,” said Walt North, who worked as comptroller under Mr. Rubin at the bridge and then succeeded him as executive secretary of the Mackinac Bridge Authority. “He knew if you promoted tourism, it also served to increase traffic.”

Mr. Rubin saw the bridge not only as infrastructure, but as an attraction in its own right. In the years following its construction, mindful that the project had been considered a wildly speculative venture from the start, Mr. North said, Mr. Rubin worked hard to promote tourism in this area, which would also increase traffic and revenue on the tolldependent bridge.

That passion for promotion started early in his career, his son pointed out.

“One thing not well known about him is that he was a radio pioneer in Detroit in political coverage,” David Rubin said. “Back then, usually the disc jockeys read the copy. My dad did political commentary. In his early 20s he was campaign manager for Murray Van Wagoner. One thing instrumental in electing him governor was my dad staged a rally for Van Wagoner. He hired a gym full of extras, a crowd, to scream and shout for Van Wagoner and then he bought a half hour of radio air time to cover the rally. He had staged it. He sent out a press release to announce it and he had this big crowd. That wasn't done at that time.”

Mr. Rubin worked in intelligence gathering in factories in Detroit for awhile before serving in the Philippines in World War II. Essentially, he was a spy, a job Mr. Rubin called the “most boring” he ever had, his son said.

“It wasn't glamorous. You observed what you observed and went back and wrote a report,” David Rubin explained. “He said it was dull.”

Once the bridge was built, Mr. Rubin was instrumental in launching the annual walk across the span. The Labor Day walk draws tens of thousands of people to the Straits each year.

“When the bridge opened up, people had all sorts of hare-brained ideas about it,” said David Rubin. “One guy wanted to be rolled across sealed in an apple barrel, and my dad was having none of that. Then a walking association wanted to have a walking race across, and that sparked the bridge walk idea.”

And this is where hundreds of thousands of people will remember meeting Mr. Rubin, at his book signing table on the Mackinac Bridge.

“Larry Rubin was synonymous with the Mackinac Bridge,” said Governor Jennifer Granholm in a statement. “You cannot think of one without the other, and with good reason. As the first executive secretary of the Mackinac Bridge Authority, Larry was an advocate for the Mighty Mac before it was built, and he spent a lifetime committed to its enduring legacy as an icon for the state of Michigan...the state of Michigan has lost a dear friend.”

Barbara Brown, a member of the Mackinac Bridge Authority and a granddaughter of Senator Prentiss Brown, said last week that Mr. Rubin's enthusiasm has made a lasting impression on people who are interested in the suspension bridge.

"Larry Rubin's abilities and talents were recognized early on by my grandfather when he wisely hired Larry as the first executive secretary to the Mackinac Bridge Authority,” Ms. Brown said. “Larry was a tireless supporter and promoter of the Mackinac Bridge throughout his life and always took time to share his knowledge and love of the bridge with others. The Labor Day walk will not be the same without him."

After owning and operating his own advertising agency, Mr. Rubin served as executive director of the Michigan Good Roads Federation from 1947 to 1952. He worked as assistant director of public relations for the Michigan State Highway Department. He was secretarytreasurer of the International Bridge Authority from 1954 to 1960. A prominent figure in the travel and transportation fields, he was a past president of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association and of the Upper Peninsula Travel and Recreation Association.

Mr. Rubin married Olga Koran of Detroit, a secretary with the state highway department, on New Year's Eve, 1960. The couple had one son, David Rubin. She died in 1990.

Mr. Rubin remarried at age 82 to his second wife, Elma (nee Beamish) Malnar, at a “surprise wedding,” his son said, held before a circle of some 30 friends who gathered for happy hour once each week at the lakeside St. Ignace home of Fern Barrett. One week, Mr. Rubin invited then-mayor Bruce Dodson to attend the gathering, and the couple surprised their friends by exchanging marriage vows.

They lived in St. Ignace in a home he had built overlooking the Mackinac Bridge.

Mr. Rubin is survived by his wife and son, both of St. Ignace. He is also survived by a nephew, Richard Rubin of Hawaii, and a niece, Davida Rubin of San Francisco, California.

He was preceded in death by his parents, David M. and Rose Rubin, and two brothers, Samuel Rubin and Meyer Rubin, both of Detroit.

Flags were flown at half staff and decorative cable lighting turned off at the Mackinac Bridge in Mr. Rubin's memory for one week following his death. A memorial service for Mr. Rubin will be held in St. Ignace, with the date to be announced in coming weeks. Interment will be private.

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