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Longtime Wayne County commissioner ‘dedicated crusader’

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Kay Beard was a feisty, formidable force in her 30 years as a Wayne County commissioner.

“She was outspoken. She was those things you wanted in a leader,” said Kevin McNamara, a former commissioner and longtime friend. “She wasn’t afraid to step out front. When she had to do something that was right but unpopular, she did it.”

Mrs. Beard died Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016, after recent health issues. She was 94.

Believed to be the longest-serving commissioner in county history, the staunch Democrat first was appointed in April 1978 and re-elected to a 15th term in 2006.

During her tenure, Beard tenaciously represented residents in her district, which included Inkster, Westland, Garden City and parts of Livonia.

“As a dedicated crusader for the people she served, Kay provided a voice to the voiceless,” said Wayne County Executive Warren C. Evans in a statement. “Her spirit and legacy will live on in Wayne County forever.”

Mrs. Beard’s storied reputation also was rooted in her strong opinions, whether speaking out on a “buy American” ordinance or other issues affecting the county.

“She was very dedicated and very determined to do what was right for the county and people,” said her son, Ron Beard. “If she believed in an issue, you weren’t going to sway her.”

Westland City Clerk Richard LeBlanc, who also served with her on the panel, remembers the commissioner as “tenacious when it came to advocating for the people she served. She was a firecracker — a real pistol when it came to standing up.”

Though that doggedness sometimes meant Mrs. Beard earned opponents, “even they respected her and knew she was a force to be dealt with,” said McNamara, whose father, Edward, was a former Wayne County Executive.

A past president with the Michigan Democratic County Officials, Mrs. Beard also was active with the National Association of Counties as well as other groups, relatives said.

Her stature and affiliations meant she hobnobbed with the likes of former governor Jennifer Granholm and even attended functions at the White House during President Bill Clinton’s administration, her son said. “She knew everybody.”

Born June 7, 1921, in Detroit, Mrs. Beard — known for saying “Be emphatic, vote Democratic!” — long was committed to civic and political affairs.

The mother of five joined Citizens for Educational Freedom, then unsuccessfully sought a seat in the state House of Representatives in the early 1970s, her son said.

While on the county commission, she shared her well-earned insight with other colleagues.

McNamara recalls once considering abstaining on a vote until Mrs. Beard said: “ ‘The people didn’t send you here to abstain. They sent you here to make the right decision and stick by it.’ From that point on, I don’t think I ever abstained.”

Mrs. Beard left a mark elsewhere, as well. In 1997, to honor the commissioner’s service, the “D” building on the grounds of the Eloise Hospital in the Wayne County medical complex in Westland was named after her.

“She was very thrilled to have a building named after her,” Ron Beard said.

Announcing her doctor-ordered retirement in March 2008, Mrs. Beard told The Detroit News: “It amazes me people wanted to vote for me so many times.”

Even when not working, Mrs. Beard still attended “all kinds of political functions,” her son said. “She was all over the place. …She was a pretty strong-willed, determined woman.”

Other survivors include four children: Kerry, Don, Kevin and Vicki; six grandchildren; three great-grandchildren; and a brother, Bill. Her husband, Jerry, died in 1989.

Visitation was Wednesday. Services are 10 a.m. Thursday at Most Holy Trinity Church, 1050 Porter, Detroit.

Memorials may be made to Angela Hospice in Livonia.