Friday, January 10, 2014

Flint Portraits: Peter Bourque

Peter Bourque on a visit to St. Agnes in August.

Author and educator Peter Bourque grew up in Flint and lived in the Vehicle City from 1954-1971. He attended St. Agnes School, where he also served as an altar boy.

After leaving Flint, Peter eventually joined the Peace Corps. His experiences are recounted in the book Tarnished Ivory: Reflections on Peace Corps and Beyond:
As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ivory Coast (1973-75) and a Peace Corps trainer in Mali (1986), Peter Bourque kept a personal journal and wrote over 55 letters back to the States. In them, he described the satisfactions and frustrations of living, working and traveling in West Africa as well as his reactions to the people he encountered-Ivorian, French, Malian and American. Decades later, he reflects and elaborates on these writings with current-day observations and candid essays about idealism, world poverty, the Peace Corps, the French, and losing his religion.
He settled in Tuscon, where he is now a retired high school teacher and teaches English as a Second Language for Literacy Volunteers of Tucson. He reflected on life in Flint in a 2009 column for the Arizona Daily Star:
At family gatherings, talk among the men, to my disinterest, was invariably about "the shop," "the line" and "tool-and-die makers," a trade which I never understood. One brother-in-law, Art, had gotten a college degree and was white-collar at Buick. Another, Stan, worked for Oldsmobile in Lansing. My brother Jacques chose Ford in Detroit for his lifelong employment, but no one seemed to hold that against him.
Culturally, Flint was sophisticated for a factory town of its size and included the Cultural Center, a large community college named after local philanthropist Charles Stewart Mott (a former GM vice president) and a branch of the University of Michigan, which I attended.
In the '60s and '70s, the stability and continuity of GM families in Flint was remarkable. I went to the same Catholic school for 12 years, as did many of my classmates. College-bound juniors and seniors from the Catholic schools attended monthly presentations at General Motors Institute that covered a variety of topics.
Young adults who weren't going to college or who dropped out could easily get jobs on the assembly line that were well-paying and unionized with amazing benefits — those same benefits that contributed to GM becoming noncompetitive in the auto industry.
In my mind, working for GM was a trap that many 18- to 20-year-olds fell into. Nonskilled workers were lured by the security and financial incentives, which overshadowed what were often mind-numbingly tedious jobs "on the line." "Only 25 more years and I can retire," you too often heard them say.

3 comments:

  1. Thanks for featuring this former Peace Corps volunteer -- I didn't know he was from Flint until I met him in Washington D.C. a few years ago at the PC's 50th anniversary observance. His recollections of Flint suggest why he "wanted out" and pursued adventures elsewhere -- but also point out that in the era when he was growing up in Flint, a certain kind of sophistication and stability existed. I find that poignant and noteworthy. The "sophisticated" part of Flint is rarely mentioned or celebrated, but Peter Bourque is right about it. And remarkably, some of it remains and is proliferating throughout all our struggles. It would be an enjoyable topic to try to define -- without parody…I'm serious.

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    1. Jan, I thought about this a lot while working on Teardown, but didn't really explore it fully in the book. I mention my friend whose grandparents were popular interior decorators who collected art and had a beautiful home. And Mark Brewer, who learned to play the harp at the free "public harps" available in Flint. He played in the youth orchestra with the current lead percussionist of the New York Philharmonic. And then there's all the writers who came out of Flint.

      Some random thoughts: Part of the cultural sophistication, that is almost always overshadowed by Flint's image as a hard-drinking factory town, was probably the result of the money flowing through the city. Regular folks had the income to pursue cultural interests. Then there was the executive class and the other very wealthy people in the city who had cultural interests and a lot of money to pursue them.

      The quality of the school system in the 40s-60s helped as well. I look at my mom's old Central High yearbook and I'm amazed at all the cultural opportunities she had. There are three or four separate theater groups that are packed with members, for example, and same goes for music, art, and a variety of other activities. Kids had tons of options

      And I have numerous friends who remember their parents who worked in the shop telling them you have to go to college because you really don't want to work in the shop like me. There was definitely an ethos that education and the money made in the shop was the way to give your kids a better life outside the factory.

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    2. Jan and Gordie: You both make very good points. Before going to my high school reunion this past August (held way out in Davison) I drove around Flint and made a point of stopping by the Central High School/ main library/ Whiting Auditorium area. People were dressed up and laughing—obviously enjoying themselves at some kind of celebration. The weather was perfect. This lifted my spirits after having just driven around my depressing North Side neighborhood.

      I was reminded of the many positive experiences I had while growing up in Flint and that, especially for a factory town, it was culturally stimulating (not that I was always taking advantage of it by any means), due in large part, as Gordie says, to the money flow generated by GM, which employed my dad for 40 years.

      In another era, another setting, my family’s working-class background might never have given me an opportunity to look beyond my home town. Flint U of M, another wonderful asset and feather in Flint’s cap, contributed a lot to that.

      Jan, I’m glad you’re there in the mix, trying to define Flint’s sophistication and the good things to be optimistic about.

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