November 21, 2012 - Two days before Thanksgiving, Orion Township Supervisor JoAnn Van Tassel stepped down from public service, closing a 52-year long chapter in the life of someone Orion Township has come to look on as an institution.
Van Tassel, in a 1977 Lake Orion Review photo lugs two tires out of a Joslyn Road ditch. She was among volunteers from Keep Orion Beautiful and Junior High West who gave the area a clean sweep. (click for larger version)
From her time as a precinct delegate in the first Nixon presidential campaign to now, she's been an ever-present force in all Lake Orion matters. Van Tassel grew up in Pontiac the daughter of a school teacher in a neighborhood of all boys. Her father owned a vacant lot and informed the boys they could play ball on his lot if would let his daughter play—without special rules.
Sport was an early love for Van Tassel, but as a youngster in the 1950s she was also transfixed by political conventions on television. Between her love of sport and electoral politics, she found sustaining passions.
"I know two things: politics and sports. Don't come to me for a gourmet dinner—ain't gonna happen," she quipped.
She went on to graduate from Pontiac High School and then from the University of Alabama with a B.A. in broadcasting. While at UAB, she distinguished herself as the second woman to rise to the level of station manager.
After returning from Alabama, she moved to Lake Orion where she has resided since 1974.
Throughout her lengthy tenure, she has stewarded Orion through many changes. From an outlying destination community to its current state as bustling urban bedroom community, Van Tassel has been a steady presence at the Orion helm.
Chief among her accomplishments is the work she did with the Orion/GM committee to rezone Township land back in 1981. Her efforts brought jobs to Orion.
Due to the auto giant's interest in Orion, studies were done which indicated water depletion was expected. To clear this hurdle, Van Tassel played a central part in convincing GM to bring sewage and water lines out from Detroit.
Van Tassel was also instrumental in helping the region in the Chrysler bailout. Thanks to her leadership, the township received much of the holdings west of M-24 that would eventually become the Bald Mountain recreation area.
Perhaps one of the most important contributions is not what she brought but what she blocked from coming to Orion. Van Tassel is proud to have been a part of the effort to defeat the initiative to bring a prison to Orion.
The correctional facility was originally slated for construction on the southwest corner of M-24 and Scripps Rd. She didn't think the project was in the best interest of Lake Orion, so Van Tassel, in the words of former Congressman Bill Broomfield, presented the "best address he'd ever seen" to the State legislature.
Van Tassel said she did her homework and used the State's criteria to show how the project didn't meet their standards. Van Tassel prevailed in her battle and as a result the prison was kept away.
Throughout the many victories she's brought home for Orion, the guiding principle has been to take care of her community, she said. But as she looks back, she is quick to acknowledge some regrets as well.
Chief among these was her inability to convey the need for reassessments when the State required reappraisal for all properties in the township. Her efforts brought Orion assessment records in line with State standards, which resulted in increases mostly around the lakes.
As a result of the unpopular measure, she was subjected to an unsuccessful recall bid.
Van Tassel sees many opportunities for growth. Four developers are now actively submitting plans for new residential developments. Baldwin Road below Waldon will see a road widening project which should enhance traffic flow to businesses in that region.
Alongside business development in Orion, citizens must lead the township forward, Van Tassel said.. To be sure, administrators are essential and help bring forth long-term agreements, funding, and facilities. Yet it is the citizens who should provide the management of these facilities and organizations, she said.
She points to sports and recreation groups as prime examples of good citizen involvement. "All through summer and fall, you'll see parents out supporting the kids. It's a labor of love, and as a result the community is richer because of it."
Van Tassel prefers community-led initiatives, seeing them as more successful because they arise from citizen desire. Whether it is parents involved with schools, friends of the library involved with fundraisers, the Lions Club's work with efforts to meet the needs of the underprivileged or art-lovers who are involved with the Orion Arts Center, Van Tassel lauds the efforts of the people in Orion Twp.
Though she doesn't consider herself as one, it is clear that she has been a trailblazer. When Van Tassel took up her gavel, she was only the second female supervisor in Oakland County history.
Never a women's rights activist, she agrees that it's "up to women to step forward [and] to offer their talents." Since women are more nurturing than their male counterparts, Van Tassel argued, they "don't go into [public service] looking at it as a stepping stone. They tend to look at it as a way to help the community," she said.
But we don't just need more women in public office, Van Tassel stressed. "What we need are people in political office who care for the community—whether they are male or female—and who do things to benefit the community."
She insists she's not sacrificed anything by devoting her life to serving the public. Other than not keeping her house as tidy as she would like, she feels nothing has been lacking. In sardonic fashion, she asked "what did I miss: a few episodes of Dallas or Falcon Crest?"
On the contrary, she insists she has received more than she has lost in giving her life to Orion Twp. "You gain so much by being involved and helping people accomplish what they would like for the community good."
She looks back with fondness at times gone by, and remembers Orion before all the development and growth came. "America isn't the big cities, it isn't the assaultive crimes, it isn't the drug problems and things like that— it's neighbor helping neighbor. And even though we're a community of 35,000, in many respects it's still small town America—people coming together for the community good, to have a good time."
Now that she's stepping down from office, she has many options. She said her dog will definitely be happy that she's staying home, as he'll finally receive attention.
"I've enjoyed serving the people of Orion Township, and I'm not going to stop now. To continue to be active, to continue to help the community—that's just me, that's the way I am."