Dennis Nagy, July 12th, 2016
WW: Hello, today is July 12th, 2016. My name is William Winkel. I’m here with Giancarlo Stefanutti. We are in Allen Park, Michigan. This interview is for the Detroit 67 Oral History Project put on by the Detroit Historical Society. We are sitting down with Mr. Dennis Nagy. Thank you for sitting down with us today.
DN: Glad to, glad to. But that’s Nagy with a long ‘a.’
WW: Sorry about that.
DN: Well, some people think I’m a naggy person, so it could apply under certain circumstances.
WW: Could you please tell me where and when you were born?
DN: Mt. Clemens, February 23rd, 1940.
WW: Did you grow up in Mt. Clemens?
DN: No, mainly the east side of Detroit.
WW: What brought your family to the east side?
DN: What brought my family to the east side? Okay, my parents lived in the 8 mile/Van Dyke area, in what is now Warren. My grandfather’s house was made available to them in 1941, so they moved to 6407 Sheridan location, which is Harper and Van Dyke.
MN: The highway went through.
DN: What’s that?
MN: The highway went through.
DN: Oh, we’re not to that yet, that’s 1953. I went to a grade school that was one block away: Burroughs intermediate which was about six blocks north, I walked that. Maybe even seven blocks north of Harper and Van Dyke. And then, 1953 the highway came through, I-94. So the folks had to give up their house. At that time, the value of homes was of course a lot less, because you’re talking 1953. The house was valued at $10,000 and the freeway committee was empowered to add 10% to that, to cover a move to somewhere else. So they got a bundle, $1,000. They got $11,000 for a $10,000 house, and then moved to the Moross and Kelly area, where I then finished high school at Denby, which is located on Kelly and Morang, roughly.
WW: The neighborhood that you initially grew up in: was it an integrated neighborhood, or what was the ethnic neighborhood of it?
DN: Okay, Rossiter was the street we’re talking about in the Kelly/Moross/Morang area, from age 1 to age 13.
DN: It was all white. It’s changed to all black, but that’s the way things are. I’m basically liberal, I get along with everybody.
WW: Was it a Polish neighborhood at the time, or Saxon neighborhood?
DN: No specific derivation of European or otherwise. Mixed, but it was all white at that time. That’s 1953.
WW: What about the new neighborhood you moved to?
DN: Well, let’s see now. I stayed with my folks till I was 23, I believe. Then my new neighborhood became Anchorage, Alaska because I was drafted into the army from ’63 to ’65. And of course, the earthquake, March 27th, 1964 was the highlight—or the lowlight, it depends on how you look at that—if you wound up in a crevasse deep in the earth, it was definitely a lowlight. But, if you stand back and say, “I’m witnessing something here that I can tell my friends and neighbors about for many years to come,” then it was a highlight.
WW: Growing up in Detroit in the 1950s, did you notice any tension in the city or tension in the schools while you were in them?
DN: Not exactly, but of course, I was a kind of bookworm. I did not go the usual social route that the average teenager would go, so if there was, I didn’t notice any. I heard of things, yeah, like Black Bottom in Detroit and so on, and racial problems that we have nowadays; we seem not to be able to cure those. We’re not trying hard enough.
WW: Did you feel comfortable moving around in the city while you were growing up?
WW: Did you stick to your neighborhood or did you usually explore?
DN: Well, okay, graduating from high school in 1957. I stayed in the neighborhood. 1958 became a job shop draftsman, at 8 Mile and Schoenherr, for about a year. My dad was a draftsman, so I followed in his footsteps for a while. Then, I read an ad put out by the city of Detroit for Police Cadets in 1958, so they had physical and mental tests, so on and so forth, and I passed those pretty well and became a Police Cadet in 1959. Being a Police Cadet did kind of give you a shoe horn into the next phase, which was a police officer, and so it did. So in ’61, I became a full-fledged police officer: badge, and gun, and training, and all that good stuff. I didn’t spend too much time in precincts because I was looking for something better, and I was qualified because a couple years prior to that, I took the test for Second Class Radio Telephone license, which is hanging on my wall in there right now. There’s a little plaque that says on the police department, another one that says “retired” hanging on the wall in there. So the Second Class license gave me a jump on getting into the radio and dispatch section. The theory that ran until recently, until five years ago, was that communications personnel—whether they’re repairmen, dispatchers, or whatever—have to be police officers. The reasoning behind that—pretty good reasoning—you can order a police officer to come in if there’s a riot or large unrest. You cannot order a civilian. For instance, take the ’67 riots. If communications personnel were civilians, the theory was—and it’s more than a theory—you could call the civilian, Joe, “Joe, there’s riots. Come in and work.” “Sorry, boss.” Clunk. You don’t have to. But a police officer is bound to: “Okay, Sarge, I’m on the way.” That’s how it worked.
WW: What drew you to the police department?
DN: What did I do?
WW: What drew you to the police department?
DN: What drew me to the police department? Probably a steady job, a career with retirement, and that worked out well. It was 25 and out at the time, so I did spend the 25 years, and in 1986 retired on October 2nd. I had the bad decision making of, Den, you could live off this, the money you’re making for retirement. Unfortunately, it was only 40% of your pay, so I went from job to job for six years. Job to job to job. Maybe somewhere between 25 and 30 jobs in six years. So, eventually I read an ad—there goes that ad again—for the US Government: “Drug Enforcement Administration needs clerical personnel.” Applied for that, passed with flying colors, spent 11 years with the Drug Enforcement Administration in downtown Detroit as a mail clerk. Nice and safe, you know, mail comes in, divvy it out. Much safer than the police officer job.
WW: Going back to the ‘60s, you said you joined—you became a member of the US Army in ’63?
WW: Were you drafted?
DN: I was drafted. There were twenty-some draft boards, and each draft board had a clerk. Police officers were deferred by every draft board except the draft board that I was a member of! Looking back on that, I had thought, oh my gosh, poor baby, now you have to go into the army for two years. And it turned out to be a marvelous experience. Isn’t that amazing how things can happen in life? I won’t say it was enjoyable, but it was a marvelous experience with maybe one hitch: having an 8.8 earthquake halfway through; that was the only hitch.
WW: Becoming a police officer, did that change the way you saw the city at all? Because as a police officer, you’re confronted with crime, and stuff like that.
DN: In a way, yeah. Frankly, I became a bit of a coward. When I got into communications, we had other personnel, other officers, with stories about what they had done on the street and what they had not done. And being a fairly liberal thinker, believing that all people are equal, I had to keep my mouth shut a lot of times when there were epithets against certain races frequently because practically speaking, I was not interested in being thrown out of the sixth floor window, because I don’t think I would’ve bounced when I hit the concrete. I kept my mouth shut, pretty much through the entire career. I saw and heard a lot of racism and racist comments. I’m hearing them now. It’s like history repeating itself. History does repeat itself, you guys know that. What’s next now?
WW: When you came back to the city after being in the army, did you see it any differently? Did you notice any increased tensions in the city then?
DN: Somewhat. Somewhat. There were little skirmishes here and there. I won’t say I was totally prepared for the ’67 riots, but I had an idea that there would be a large flare-up. As big as it was, I think it was 23 days. I wasn’t ready for that, but nobody on the department was. Being a communications personnel, the only time that I had a dangerous moment was heading west on East Jefferson with radios to drop off at the various places that were involved in this riot. There were various places that we had to drop off portable radios and pick up other ones to repair them. We had a driver, me on the passenger seat, another officer in back. The officer in back looked up and he said, “Duck! Somebody is up there with a rifle!” Now picture this: We had to act—we were traveling west at about 40mph on Jefferson, and we are ducking so that we do not get shot by this person with a rifle standing on top of this building. All of us ducked—including the driver! We’re still traveling at 40mph but the driver is operating the brake with his left hand, the gas with his right hand, and grabbing the steering wheel every now and then to hypothetically stay in the middle of Jefferson. Everything worked out well, we stayed in the middle of Jefferson, we went a couple more blocks, everybody got up into their normal position that you’re in when you’re in a car. That was exciting.
WW: Where were you living in 1967?
DN: Let’s see, ’67. Got married in ’67. East side of Detroit in ’67…it wasn’t Rossiter…there were several places. I got married, and then we went to the Houston/Woodier/Hayes area. My wife got pregnant, we moved to Conningham, then we moved to Eastburn. We spent the most time on a street called Eastburn, 13919 Eastburn. Corner of Hoight. Roughly in the 8 Mile/Schoenherr area.
WW: What precinct were you working in then?
DN: This was still communications. I retired out of communications.
WW: Gotcha. You said you anticipated violence, though you didn’t know when. Did the rest of the police department feel that way?
DN: About—say again?
WW: You said you anticipated violence, you didn’t know when or how big, but you expected a flare-up.
DN: I think so.
WW: Was it a common belief in the police department?
DN: I think there was a feeling that everything was going to come to a head because it had in other places such as L.A. and so on. You probably read about it. It was Detroit’s time. I don’t know, we brought blacks over here from Africa as slaves, and we should’ve foreseen that these were actual human beings and that this was going to occur. A lot of blame goes back to the founding fathers; I’m not that happy with the founding fathers. I know that you’re going to have people, for instance, that run the National Rifle Association that are very fond of the founding fathers. These founding fathers were wrong in a lot of cases, and so is the NRA. We do not need this weaponry in this country. Little politics on the side there.
WW: How did you first hear what was going on on that Sunday? Early Sunday morning?
DN: Got a call from the boss: “Get your butt in here, we’ve got big problems.”
WW: When was that, like early Sunday morning or Sunday afternoon?
DN: Oh, I don’t remember.
WW: No worries. What was the atmosphere like when you went into the office that day for work? Was it hectic? Was everybody surprisingly calm?
DN: It was hectic. We were assigned 12 hour shifts and worked 12 hours for something like two weeks, 14 days in a row. That can take a toll after a while. But, under emergency circumstances, almost any municipality has the power to order their police and fire on special shifts, so it was not unexpected.
WW: What was some of the work that you carried out during that week? You spoke about running radios?
DN: Some regular dispatching, some taking calls from the public, and running radios.
WW: Did anything else happen to you during that week?
DN: Other than the excitement of getting on the floor of a car going 40mph?
DN: No, that was enough.
WW: How do you believe the police department handled themselves that week?
DN: They killed too many people; they didn’t really need to do that. Racial harmony, striving to get racial harmony was in its infancy at that time. Like I said, I had to keep quiet. If they want to use brute force, fine, just don’t tell me about it, because I’ve got my own job to do. I was a chicken.
WW: What was the mood like within the police department as the week dragged on? Were officers getting increasingly frustrated during the week?
DN: That’s a good question. What did they feel? I think it was about 17 days, the extent of those riots. I think probably, When will this end? Mainly. I was wondering when it would end. And maybe more importantly, when this ends, are you folks going to sit down and act like intelligent people and discuss this and find ways to prevent this from happening? And this does happen. Maybe it doesn’t happen as thoroughly as it should, and maybe it doesn’t stick with people as long as it should. Because that’s what happened. It didn’t stick with people as long as it should.
WW: When you say “you folks,” do you mean the police department and the community?
DN: Right, right.
WW: Did you see an effort by the police department afterwards to increase community interaction? Or did the status quo remain unchanged?
DN: For a while, they did improve in terms of community reaction, but like I said, it becomes cyclical. You have a turnover: officers retire, new ones are hired, and it did not seem that a permanence was produced. Like I said, it comes in cycles. Eventually, there would be racial disharmony, and then there would be somebody thoughtful like our police chief right now that comes along. He’s one of the best choices they could have made to help the situation along, as far as I can see. We’ll see how that pans out.
WW: Did you see the city any differently after that week in July?
DN: See it differently? See it differently?
WW: Did you still feel as comfortable as you used to walking through the city?
DN: Well, at that time we were required to have residency, and although I did not live in an integrated neighborhood, I don’t think I would have minded. That’s a hard one to answer.
DN: Eventually, I did move out, of course; I retired.
WW: Did you move out when you retired?
DN: Moved out when I retired and eventually settled in Mt. Clemens. Got divorced from the first wife, met the second wife, which happens to be a much better model by the way; she’s back there. This happens sometimes; you get a better model the second time around. My daughter’s going through that now.
WW: Going throughout the ‘70s and the ‘80s, do you see those decades as having been affected by the events of ’67?
DN: Yeah. But, where is the permanence and understanding that we have many races? We have more colored people in the world than white people, by three-to-one! They’re brown, they’re black, they’re red, they’re all these different colors, but there doesn’t seem to be an understanding of this. And knowing human nature the way I do, there probably never will. It’s a deep subject, isn’t it? We need you guys to help with this subject. You’ve got a lot more time than I do to help straighten things out.
WW: You mentioned, you spoke briefly, positively, about Police Chief Craig. How do you feel about the state of the city today? Do you still think it’s affected by the events of ’67?
DN: Yes, it’s the cyclical thing. It’s the moving on of the officers when they retire, and the moving in of rookies when they got on the job. I don’t think enough is being taught in the police academy to straighten out people’s heads. But then again, you do have 98% of your officers that are straightforward, intelligent, fair, and even kind. I think this is reflected in every facet of every human endeavor. You’ve got your 2%, and you’re going to have your 2% because we’re human beings. Right?
MN: I don’t know what you’re talking about.
DN: She’s a fellow liberal. I was lucky. The first wife was conservative, and when I look at that right now, I say, “Oh, my god, why did I marry her?” But that’s another story.
WW: Is there anything else you’d like to say about the events of ’67, your experiences in them?
MN: Scared the patootsey out of him.
DN: Yeah, it did. About equally, as much as the earthquake. When you’re experiencing an earthquake, and you’re only 24 years old—earthquake history and the scientific theories behind earthquakes is not something you have fundamentally studied as a young person. I don’t know anybody that did. So, I’m unaware of the fact that when this is over with, there were many aftershocks, there were aftershocks for 12 hours. When this was over with, I walked around and see crevasses in the earth, and thought, gee, you know, I could’ve been down there somewhere—and it’s awful hard to climb back up when you’re down there. It doesn’t come to you. The seriousness of it, and the manner in which nature can foist themselves upon you.
WW: Well, thank you very much for sitting down with us today, we greatly appreciate it.
DN: Okay, I appreciate you fellas coming.