TRAVERSE CITY — The tall spires soaring above the Village at Grand Traverse Commons will long stand in tribute to Carol Hale, reminders of the key role she played in saving those buildings from the wrecking ball.
Preserving that heritage was only one of Hale’s many contributions to this community. But that singular achievement well reflects her spirit, one grounded in a deep sense of history and a passion for civic improvement.
Hale, 78, died Jan. 5 after a short illness. She led a varied life, achieving success as an educator, government official, civic activist and historian.
Hale was born and grew up in Ann Arbor, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in education and master’s degree in Russian history from the University of Michigan. After teaching in Livonia, in 1970 she, her husband Jan, and two young sons, David and Matthew, moved to Traverse City.
From 1970 to her retirement in 1998, Hale’s “day job” was teaching humanities in the Traverse City Area Public Schools. In her “off time,” after caring for her family, Hale immediately became involved in many civic activities. Within her first few years in Traverse City she served as president of both the local League of Women Voters and the Central Neighborhood Association. She was also very involved at Central Grade School, which her sons attended.
The abilities revealed while Hale worked with those groups led to her being appointed to various governmental organizations, including the Traverse City Board of Zoning Appeals and Traverse Bay Regional Planning Commission.
Soon Hale decided to run for local office, and in 1977 she won a seat on the Traverse City Board of Commissioners. She was a Commissioner until 1993, serving as Mayor in 1983. These many civic activities led to her being named the Chamber of Commerce’s 1983 Citizen of the Year.
Hale’s public service also quickly revealed her support of strong neighborhoods and local history. Traverse City Planner Russ Soyring recalled that Hale was instrumental in having the Grand Traverse Commons, and the Central and Boardman Neighborhoods, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Soyring arrived in Traverse City in 1986, with Hale already firmly established in the community.
“At first, I was intimidated by her. Her reputation was bigger than life. But soon I learned she was not to be feared. Carol was there to protect what we cherished in the community and to ensure that we took the needed steps to make Traverse City a better place,” said Soyring.
“Throughout my career as city planner, Carol probably called me more than any other resident to give me advice and make sure I fully understood the complexities of the decisions I was about to make. As a former teacher, Carol never let an opportunity for a ‘teachable moment’ pass,” he added.
Eventually, Hale focused much of her civic activities on the redevelopment of the State Hospital grounds. Those efforts had begun in the mid-1970s and ran through the near-demolition of some of the buildings both in 1980, and again in the 1990s.
After thousands of hours of work by concerned citizens like Hale, in 1993 the State sold the State Hospital complex to local government for $1. After several false starts with various developers, in 2000 the Commission signed an agreement with The Minervini Group, which then successfully developed the State Hospital buildings into the Village at Grand Traverse Commons.
Preserving the State Hospital campus was only one of Hale’s many forays into local history. She also served as chair of the Maritime Heritage Alliance, volunteered at the Grand Traverse Heritage Center, and led historic tours. In 2015 she was part of a group that raised money to restore the Grand Traverse Courthouse clock and bell.
“Carol was a Traverse City historic architecture preservation hero. She worked passionately to help save many architectural gifts now repurposed for contemporary use,” said Peg Jonkhoff.
Jonkhoff, co-owner of Reynold’s Jonkhoff Funeral Home, and a noted local historian and preservationist herself, particularly points out Hale’s work on saving the State Hospital complex, and her help in fundraising for the renovation of the City’s Carnegie Library complex on Sixth Street. Since that renovation the Carnegie complex has served as a home for many area organizations, including the Grand Traverse Heritage Center, later known as the History Center. Today it is home to Crooked Tree Arts in Traverse City.
“I admired Carol’s strong voice of representation, calm and reason as she served our community over the decades,” said Jonkhoff.
Dedication to Traverse City’s history, and to its future, were hallmarks of Hale’s life. Her efforts on behalf of both greatly benefited this community.