In the late 1920s, Flint was hoppin’. The automobile industry was driving population, production, innovation and expansion. The city as we know it today was mainly shaped during this time period. In 1928, Hurley Hospital was built, the Kearsley Dam was installed forming the Kearsley Reservoir, the Flint Institute of Arts was founded by George Crapo Wilson, Northern High School was opened on McClellan Avenue (the first Central-Northern football game was held as a result), the Capitol Theatre opened its doors and the C.S. Mott Foundation bestowed its first grants. General Motors was in the middle of record-breaking success and, in 1928, built its 5 millionth car. They were the law of the land and employed nearly 80% of all working men in the area. Flint was a GM town and, with a change in public charter, ruled it from the top down … that is until a little event that happened in 1936 changed the public support to that of the working man.
This series has tracked each of Flint’s mayor’s throughout history, providing short accounts of their professions, lives and decisions made during their terms (if known). Some mayors were men/women of great deeds or of great controversy; some simply acted as placeholders in time. Each of them, however, chaired a city important to the country and its citizens on its path through triumph and heartbreak, and toward its revitalization.
For Part 1 of this series, see the 2022 January issue of MCM!
Ray A. Brownell – 1929-30, 1933-34
Born in 1876, Brownell was a member of the Dort Motor Car Co. and director of the Worker’s Bank in Flint. During the 1929 election, plans were in the works in Flint to change the charter and the position of mayor. In response to the scandal-plagued early terms of Mayor William H. McKeighan, the city’s answer to his alleged bribery and vote-rigging was to do away with the process of citizen selection in lieu of a council-manager form of government in which the “mayor” was chosen from the elected city council. (Still, William H. McKeighan found a way to rig the system and get himself “chosen” as mayor during this time by installing cronies on the city council.) In this system, the mayor acted as more of a figurehead or “weak” mayor. Ray A. Brownell would be the last elected or “strong” mayor until the election system resumed in 1975. Before his first term in office, Brownell worked hard to build a stadium in the city that would be the largest “west of Harvard University” and, during his elected term, saw his dream fulfilled when he opened Atwood Stadium on June 8, 1929. Brownell was selected as mayor (this time by the city council) for a second term. He died in 1954 and was buried in Avondale Cemetery.
Harvey J. Mallery – 1930-31
The council’s first choice as mayor, Mallery was one of the first official “company men” (those with direct ties to General Motors) chosen to take the reins of the city. He was born in Flint in 1882 to James G. Mallery, president and operator of the Castree-Mallery Co., a maker of agricultural implements. Harvey J. Mallery was educated in the city and started his career with the Weston-Mott Corporation, sticking with the company’s absorption into General Motors where he assumed the job of accountant with the GM inspection and production branch until 1918. The next year, Mallery joined Harry H. Basset, Walter P. Chrysler, Albert Champion and others as principal investors in the Flint branch of the Reynolds-Chrysler Co., dealing in investments, insurance and real estate. In 1924, Mallery was named comptroller of the Buick Motor Co. In October 1924, he was chosen by Gov. Alex J. Groesbeck as Michigan’s official delegate at the Southern Commercial Congress held in Atlanta, GA. There, he welcomed representatives of Latin American countries to discuss, identify and solve international trade problems. During his term in office, the Industrial Bank Building (Mott Foundation Building) was erected as Flint’s tallest structure. Mallery died in 1970 and was buried in Glenwood Cemetery. The Harvey J. Mallery Charitable Trust was established upon his death.
Howard J. Clifford – 1934-35
Born in Oxford, MI in 1875, Rev. Howard J. Clifford came from a family of faith and ministry. As he became older, Clifford joined the church as well, serving as pastor and founder of the Parkland Presbyterian Church in Flint from 1915-17 and, shortly before his time as mayor, as pastor of the First Church of Saginaw. As a young man, he joined the Salvation Army Corps., rising to the rank of captain in the City of Flint chapter. As a member of the Corps, Clifford worked with auto workers and helped to alleviate their needs. His work caught the eye of W. C. Durant and he was brought aboard GM in charge of welfare work for Buick employees. In 1920, he was tapped to lead GM’s new department of personal relations, overseeing employees and plants in more than 60 cities while working on Durant’s personal staff. After Durant lost General Motors, Clifford resigned his position. Rev. Clifford was a much-loved person among the city’s industrial workers and described by newcomers and citizens alike as “the man who loved humans.” He went out of his way to help those with a need or dream. When a Greek Orthodox priest came to town and wanted to establish a church, Clifford, even though it wasn’t his own religion, helped him raise funds to build it. During a short-lived “ice” famine in the city, Clifford rounded up as much ice as he could and delivered it to families in need. He was urged by many citizens to run for mayor and the city council listened. It was something that Clifford never wanted but the city council chose him over nine others in 1934 and he accepted. While mayor, Bishop Airport opened for its first flight. He was a member of the Genesee Masons and his wife, Marian, was instrumental in the continued success of the Salvation Army Flint Citadel Band. Howard J. Clifford died in 1940.
George E. Boysen – 1935-36
A long-time member of the Freemasons and Order of the Elks, Boysen came in as the exact opposite of his predecessor Howard J. Clifford. He was born in 1890 in Port Clinton, OH and first worked as vice president of the CVS Manufacturing company from 1917-1932 before joining the General Motors Corp. as paymaster when he came to Flint. He was boisterous and often unruly and many claimed him nothing more than a crackpot. Tensions were high between the city’s workers and GM leading up to and during his tenure as mayor and, due to his ties to the company, the majority of autoworkers in the city regarded him as a “plant” by GM to gain a political upper-hand. Indeed, Boysen took the company line after his stint as mayor when, during the Sit-Down Strike, he organized the GM Flint Alliance, a collection of autoworkers pushing for the end of the strike and an opportunity to “get back to work.” He claimed a membership of over 25,000 workers and citizens and scheduled a parade during the strike which he canceled (due to lack of actual members). He then pushed the notion to the press that 82% of the city was against the strike with no evidence to back his claims. When pressed about his ties to the company, Boysen claimed that the alliance was financed by him alone; but his membership numbers were tied to signed affidavits distributed by GM to its workers. The unions (and workers themselves) claimed that the affidavits were signed under threat of job loss. Boysen was villainized by the Flint autoworkers and immortalized in a well-known city strike song. The verse reads, “Now the strike is over and our song is nearly through. So is George E. Boysen and the Flint Alliance too.” Boysen thrice again tried his hand at politics, running in the Republican Primary for U. S. Representative in 1932 and 1936 and for state senate in 1938. Boysen died in 1967. While he was mayor, Ballenger Park was established, the Community Schools Program began operating and the Golden Leaf club opened its doors for the first time.
Harold E. Bradshaw – 1936-38
Born in 1898 in Davison, MI Bradshaw enlisted and fought with the U.S. Army in World War I, rising to the rank of corporal. Upon returning to his home, he joined General Motors. In Flint, he was very engaged socially as a member of the American Legion, The Forty and Eight, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Freemasons, and Elks. Bradshaw was chosen mayor by the city council at perhaps the most tumultuous time in Flint history. The city was in an uproar. The United Auto Workers Union (UAW) had entered the city and its attempts to unionize the Flint autoworkers (and others) were being met with stiff resistance from GM, Flint Police and the city council. Bradshaw’s tenure as mayor started off on a high note when Franklin Delano Roosevelt visited the city on his campaign trail meeting with Bradshaw. Next, the summer continued with the “Progress of Transportation” parade down Main Street. In December, however, the confrontation between the city and its workers began to come to the surface. First, the workers of the Flint Trolley Co. went on strike, shutting down transportation in the city and the Sit-Down Strike began soon after. As the strike continued to put pressure on GM, Bradshaw and the council continued to voice their opposition to the strikers with Bradshaw being accused of arming “gangs of vigilantes” to attack strikers. After the “Battle of the Running Bulls” the National Guard was called in and Governor Frank Murphy stepped in to forge a truce between the two warring entities. Subsequently, the city council declared Bradshaw “dictator of Flint” giving him command of all aspects of government including the police. It was at this time that Bradshaw negotiated for the National Guard to remain in Flint until the strike had officially ended. Bradshaw was chosen to carry a second term to see the strike through. Once it ended, Bradshaw, with Ed Bacon and Elroy Guckert, addressed the problem of public housing in the city by creating the Flint Housing Commission and appointing its five-member board. Bradshaw died in 1975 and was buried in Deepdale Memorial Park in Eaton County.
Harry M. Comins – 1938-40
Comins was born in 1882 in Saginaw, MI the son of a lumber scaler who died when Harry was two years old. After his father’s death, the family moved to Buena Vista. Comins graduated from the Saginaw school and then attended the University of Michigan where he pursued and obtained a literary degree. He then moved to Wisconsin and began teaching high school until 1910, when he took the job of superintendent of schools in Ripon, WI. He next moved to Oshkosh, WI to work for the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company. When Northwestern opened an office in Flint in 1920, Comins took the job. In 1923, he switched allegiance to the Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company. While in the city, Comins was a member of the Flint Board of Education and state officer of the Parent-Teacher Association. Socially, he was a member of the Odd Fellows, the Flint Kiwanis Club, and the Chamber of Commerce. He was a ranking member of the National Life Underwriter’s Association Flint Chapter. As mayor, he neglected to support the prior administration’s Flint Housing Commission, instead siding with local real estate developers. Despite gaining $3.5 million from the federal government in support of the project, Comins and the council refused to allocate the money to the commission. The newly-elected housing board resigned in protest, officially ending the project before it truly started. Comins died in 1962. While he was mayor, the Mott Children’s Health Center was established at Hurley Hospital.
Oliver Ransom Tappin – 1940
Little is known about Tappin except that he was born in (oddly enough) Flintville, WI in 1893 and was a full-fledged UAW supporter. He was a worker at Chevrolet and as part of the city council, he, along with fellow supporter Joe Shears, convinced the council to adopt a pro-union stance. After being chosen mayor in 1940, Tappin immediately pushed to replace City Manager John Barringer and Police Chief Jim Wills, both of whom were company men. They were replaced by William Findlater and Captain Twohey, respectively. Tappin never served his full mayoral term, leaving as winter began. He died tragically just five years later in 1945.
William Osmund Kelly – 1940-44
Born in Flint in 1909, William Osmund Kelly, or “Oz” as he was locally known, was a Flintstone through and through. In 1928, he graduated from Flint St. Matthew High School and then attended Flint Junior College. During his time in college, he formed a band called “Oz Kelly and his Orchestra.” The band experienced some success touring Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan including a show at Flint’s IMA Auditorium. He was selected as mayor by the city council in 1940 and re-selected for three subsequent terms. In 1944, Kelly resigned to join the Navy during World War II, serving until the end of the war and into 1946. Upon his return to the states, he was the Democratic candidate for Lieutenant Governor but lost the election. In 1949, he was appointed postmaster and joined the National Association of Postmasters. In 1956, he became the executive director of the Flint Manufacturer’s Association. Kelly played a big role in the city both socially and politically with numerous ties to local programs and events. In 1971, he wrote and published a paper in the American Water Works Association Journal stating the need for the city to pipe in additional water from Lake Huron to help reserves during drought years, starting in motion the planned switch to the new pipeline (that never materialized). Also during the early 70s, Kelly was part of the Democratic party’s efforts to put an end to Jimmy Hoffa’s bid for control of the party by appealing to the more liberal viewpoints of the day. While mayor, Kelly stewarded the city through the initial war effort and pushed through more liberal policies. The Flint Urban League began operation, the NAACP became more active in city politics, and Flint Community Schools hired their first black teacher, Marion Coates. Kelly died in 1974.