By Judi Markowitz / Detroit
MUNICIPAL MEMORIES: Jerry Naftaly served as Mayor of Oak Park, Mich. for 20 years
London has Charles Dickens. Paris has Victor Hugo. Rome has Virgil. And Oak Park has Jerry Naftaly. He has become the personification of this 30,000-citizen suburb of Detroit. If you asked a hundred people, both current residents and expats, who has earned the moniker Mr. Oak Park, a goodly number would answer ‘Jerry Naftaly.” He has given his adult life to the city.
I had the honor of graduating with the future mayor of Oak Park in 1970. Sitting in the auditorium of Detroit’s Masonic Temple, waiting to receive his diploma, did Jerry already know that politics would be in his future? He would soon go on to become a 14-year council member, Then, at the age of 39, he would become the youngest person ever elected to the office of mayor.
Jerry’s long electoral winning streak–20 years, to be exact–couldn’t last forever and it didn’t. But as a result of his tenacity and civic dedication, he has continued to be the face of the city for many people. Through public service, good deeds and creative projects, Jerry has remained the colorful embodiment of his beloved hometown
How much did Jerry love growing up in Oak Park? Let me count the ways. When we got together at Zoe’s House of Pancakes a few weeks ago, Jerry shared fond memories of sledding down Hamilton Hill and ice skating on the outdoor rink in the winter, and playing T-Ball and Little League baseball, and swimming in the community pool when the weather got warm. He also has sharp recollections of the many programs for children and teens offered at the community center as well as at the library. Says Jerry, “There was rarely a time when my friends and I lacked for an activity to join. The sports, the schools, the people—Oak Park was the full package.”
Jerry was on the march early. When he was still in high school, he started a stock club. The members were told by the directors of the National Association of Investment Clubs that they were the youngest stock club in Michigan and beyond. The club was a natural fit as Jerry, at 16 years old, was then employed at the Geller, Naftaly C.P.A. firm in Oak Park. It was his brother Bob and Uncle Sam Geller’s business and Jerry’s interest in finances was becoming serious. He was considering a career in accounting.
Jerry began attending Wayne State University in Detroit in 1970. At the time, there was an energy crisis with gas shortages and soaring prices—like today. Jerry thought there had to be a solution for his immediate problem — commuting back and forth to college without breaking the bank.
That’s when his political interests first surfaced. Jerry contacted Southeast Michigan Transportation Authority (SEMTA) and discussed the idea of making Oak Park a drop-off point, park and ride, so that students could commute to Wayne State for a reasonable fare. But that wasn’t the end of Jerry’s plan. He took it further by contacting WSU officials for support and the Provost appointed Jerry to a transportation committee. After much hard work on Jerry’s part, SEMTA created more pick-up routes and even provided a bus shelter in Oak Park.
Bingo! Jerry was now in his element. He was awarded a certificate by the mayor and council for his efforts.
In 1975, Jerry received a BS in Business Administration, with a major in accounting from Wayne. He was still working at his family’s accounting firm when he decided to apply to several brokerage firms and was hired on the spot by Paine Webber — the firm of his choice. At that point, though, politics was coming to the forefront.
Due to his exemplary work with the transportation project, Jerry was encouraged to run for city council in 1975 at only 23 years old. Unfortunately, he met defeat. Says Jerry, “Even though I lost the election, the mayor and council appointed me to the Bicentennial Commission in 1975. This continued my interest and involvement in the city government.”
Governance was in the genes in the Naftaly family. It began with his grandfather, Emil Kahan, after whom he was named. Says Jerry, “I attribute my career to my grandfather. He was a true leader.” Emil was the president of Congregation Beth Moses, an Orthodox synagogue in Detroit, as well as the treasurer of the Jewish National Fund Council of Detroit.
Jerry’s mother Grace continued in her father’s footsteps. She was elected president of Northern High School, class of 1931, and served on the student council. Jerry’s dad, Bill, was the supervisor for the Dodge truck division. Older brother Bob served as the budget director under Governor Blanchard. Jerry’s sister, Janice, used her managerial skills as an art teacher in Ferndale and West Bloomfield.
Still determined to make his municipal mark, Jerry decided to run again in 1977 after a council member passed away. No one gets to their desired position in the government without help. Jerry had a village of supporters. With friends and family by his side, he was determined to succeed. Jerry’s mother Grace campaigned with her large network of friends from the city, aided by her group of bingo players. His dad Bill was also on Jerry’s team. He was part of the Seniors program at the Community Center and the card players rallied for Jerry.
Bill was well-connected, and friendships became a focal point in support of the campaign. He was also considered a “council watcher.” Bill would sit at the back of the Oak Park council meetings because he was a concerned citizen. Bill wanted to ensure that the best interests of the city were always a priority. Jerry won this time and was the youngest council member elected to this office . Bill passed away in February, 1978, just three months after Jerry’s first election for city council .
After 14 years as an Oak Park city councilman, Jerry stepped up his game and decided to run for mayor in 1991. He had the support of the current mayor and the council. His village of supporters was summoned once again— they kicked up their game and it worked.
When Jerry took office as the mayor of Oak Park on November 7 1991, he entered the field with a great deal of knowledge and enthusiasm. After all, he had been on the city council for many years and was aware of the inner workings of the office. Among his many duties were appointing residents to the planning commission, with the approval of the city council, attending planning, recreation, ethnic advisory meetings, and everything in between to ensure the safety and future of the city. As mayor, Jerry was also empowered by the State of Michigan to perform wedding ceremonies — 306 took their vows in Oak Park.
In 1995, the City of Oak Park celebrated its 50th birthday. Jerry wanted a vibrant, fun-filled experience for the citizens, and he barnstormed to get it. To begin with, he approached Mel Farr, the owner of a popular Ford dealership in Oak Park, with a superimposed picture of Farr presenting a $25,000 check to the Oak Park City Council. Farr laughed at the sight of the picture— then he wrote a check for that exact amount for the city’s birthday bash. Plans were underway.
MOTOWN MAGIC: (clockwise from top left) actor/comedian Tim Allen; The Smothers Brothers; Tiger Pitcher Mark Fidrych and Jerry; mega auto dealer Mel Farr and Jerry with Motown stars Martha and the Vandellas; entertainer Tiny Tim and Jerry; President Bill Clinton and Jerry, Tiger Pitcher Mickey Lolich, Jerry and Flutist Alexander Zonjic; Frank Foster, leader of the Count Basie Orchestra; President Clinton and his campaign entourage; President Clinton and Jerry; Jerry and poet Gwendolyn Brooks; signed Gwendolyn Brooks announcement; Tiger legend Willie Horton and announcer Ernie Harwell
As 1994 wound down, Jerry was ramping up the schedule for the coming months. Winterfest was the theme to kick off the party in January 1995. Hayrides, petting farms, reindeer, s’mores over a bonfire, and carriage rides in the snow were just a few of the activities. There were events every month. Jerry worked tirelessly to make it happen along with the help of each city department.
Before the summer bash began, car magnate Farr requested that Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, from Motown, perform for the celebration. Jerry’s magical wand made them appear. The crowd was elated and so was Farr.
Jerry also had the Smothers Brothers at the celebration. The popular comedic duo had a television show from 1967-1969 and were considered controversial at the time. Over 250 of the city’s volunteers came for dinner and a show — there was no charge for this or any other event.
Sha Na Na, a rock ‘n’ roll doo-wop group, performed. So did Tiny Tim, who sang a few high-pitched songs for the crowds. Tim Allen, of Home Improvement fame, was also a part of the festivities, but from a distance. Jerry sent Tim several of the Oak Park 50th birthday T-shirts, with a request that he wear one on his show as a tribute to Oak Park. Tim complied and later appeared on the show with the coveted shirt.
Jerry knew how to engage people and bring them center stage to learn about Oak Park. The key to the city was the ticket. In 1996, Jerry presented a key to candidate Bill Clinton as he made his way on a train through Royal Oak during his second presidential run. Hillary also received a key when speaking at the Yeshiva Beth Yehuda annual fundraiser dinner in Detroit.
Another lucky recipient was Mark Fidrych, a Detroit Tiger, who was famous for talking to the baseball before he pitched. Jerry also presented the key to Willie Horton and Mickey Lolich. Tommy “The Hitman” Hearns, who was known for his boxing prowess, received a key as well. Even award-winning author Mitch Albom was given a key to the city at one of his book signings.
To top off Jerry’s celebrity streak, a noteworthy event occurred when a concert was held in the Oak Park High School auditorium. Frank Foster, the former leader of the Count Basie Orchestra, performed and Jerry introduced the band — the key to the city, of course, was a token of appreciation.
A prestigious Michigan State Police Post came about in 1996 , after five years of hard lobbying by Jerry. Michigan Gov. James Blanchard , a Democrat, was approached and he okayed the post. But when he lost to Republican John Engler in 1991, Jerry reached across the aisle. Visibility was Jerry’s weapon of choice. He went to innumerable meetings and rallies and lobbied for Oak Park . He was determined and Gov. Engler finally knew him by name. They became friendly and the project was awarded to Oak Park — Jerry’s persistence was key.
Next came the new city hall and public safety building. Jerry held 36 town hall and resident meetings explaining the complicated bond issue, which would repair the community center and library, in addition to placing new playground equipment in two parks. The District Court would benefit as well through expansion and as a result security would be improved.
But there was one problem with this plan — it required an additional $6 million to adequately fund the project. Jerry began to plan at warp speed. He lobbied the Obama White House, got the names and numbers of staff who then helped Jerry find the “Build America” bonds for projects that were ready to start. The plan was put in motion. The buildings were constructed some
$400,000-$500,000 under budget and on time.
Jerry was honored when the city council named the project after him — the Gerald E. Naftaly Municipal Complex in 2013. The dedication ceremony was emotional — it was standing room only. Jerry was clearly moved by this honor, and his mother, who at 100 years old was often referred to locally as “the First Mom,” watched the dedication from her home on cable. It was a triumphant moment for the Naftaly family, Jerry’s friends, and work associates
One of the continual sources of annoyance in Michigan is the deteriorating roads. In Oak Park, one of the main thoroughfares was in dire need of repair. The city’s voters approved of the road project, but there was a problem — finances. The road was shared by the city of Berkley and Huntington Woods. Jerry talked to the mayors of both cities, and asked for their cooperation. Jerry then called Senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow. As a consequence, Congress allocated $4 million. But it still fell short. Jerry then spoke with Governor Jennifer Granholm. Through a Build Michigan Bond, another $1 million was secured. The roads were repaired in three cities —it was a win-win.
I asked Jerry about his most difficult times while in the office. One incident stood out. The Nazi Party demonstrated on Hamilton Hill when Jerry was a councilman. They didn’t obtain a permit and timed their appearance during a Yiddish concert in the park. Residents began to throw rocks and shouting matches ensued. The Nazis were then surrounded by public safety officers who were trying to preserve the peace. At this point, the group took off in an awaiting van. Antisemitic literature was tossed at a local resident.
When Jerry walked back to the concert, he received plenty of flack for allowing the Nazis to be at the hill — but Jerry says he had no prior knowledge of their intentions.
Jerry wore many hats but his devotion to his aging mother Grace took center stage. He was her companion and made sure her life was full. Jerry reflected on the times he would take her to the Greektown Casino. He said, “my mom loved to play the slot machines and we had VIP parking..” He added that when shopping at Meijer, a well known Michigan chain market, he would pull up to the front of the store where his mom was greeted by employees. They would routinely bring out an electric cart for her to shop. Grace was an active woman. She passed away in 2015, just 22 days short of her 102 birthday.
Jerry is like the Energizer Bunny. After serving 20 years as mayor, Jerry lost the race in 2011 to Marian McClellan. But he didn’t falter -—he kept going and has shown no signs of slowing down.
Jerry’s next step was into authorship. His first book, Images of America: Oak Park was published in 2012. It chronicles seven decades of photographs and personal recollections. Next, he published Images of Modern America: Northland Mall in 2016. This book discusses the rise and fall of Northland — one of the world’s largest shopping centers, built in 1954. It’s filled with photographs and memories of this historic mall and a second edition was published as well.
Then Jerry resurrected and updated a childhood favorite — The Hill That Grew by Esther K. Meeks. It was originally published in 1959 and tells the story of how Hamilton Hill came to be a source of enjoyment for the city of Oak Park. Jerry gave the book to Oak Park alumni at our 50-year reunion last summer (held two years late due to Covid).
Jerry had thought about this idea for 30 years, originally at the behest of a local citizen, Harriet Rich. It was finally time to dig in and create a Monopoly-like game of Oak Park. Jerry told the DJN, “I created Oak Park Opoly to pay tribute to businesses, people and activities and memories of cool stores and hundreds of others.” At that time, I contacted Jerry and bought the game. It’s truly a walk down memory lane and brings back fond remembrances of my childhood.
Jerry continues with charitable work by sponsoring and supporting recreational activities. library concerts, visiting authors and youth sports are on his to-do list. Jerry was recently honored for his continued contribution to the Norup International School March Madness basketball tournament.
When I reflect on those treasured days attending Oak Park High School, I can honestly say that I am proud of its No. 1 citizen from the graduating class of 1970 — Mayor Jerry Naftaly. He is a true superstar for all he accomplished during his 34 years of service to the city. Jerry’s term as an advocate for Oak Park has never truly ended, as he continues to preserve the memories of the city. Even though many from our graduating class are scattered around the globe, their attachment to the city is profound. As Jerry is fond of saying, “Once an Oak Parker, always an Oak Parker!”
If you're interested in purchasing any of Jerry's books or Opoly game, please contact JerryNaftaly@gmail.com for details.
Judi Markowitz is a retired high school English teacher of 34 years. She primarily taught 12th grade and had the pleasure of her three sons gracing her classes. In addition, she taught debate, forensics, and Detroit film. Judi has four adult children and seven wonderful grandchildren. She is married to Jeffrey Markowitz, whom she met in high school.
Judi grew up in Oak Park, Mich. which had a stellar school district, with excellent teachers. The city provided activities for all–and there were even sidewalks. Judi moved to Huntington Woods as an adult, which is a half mile from her childhood home. She wanted the same experience for her children as she had growing up, and Huntington Woods provided that. The View from Four Foot Two is Judi’s first book.