Willie W. Payne, former mayor of Pontiac, who was greatly admired for his many roles in public service, died Thursday. He was 64.

Payne passed away in his Pontiac home, his family said.

He was born in Spearsville, a village in Union Parish, Louisiana, in 1955.

Payne served more than 20 years on the Pontiac police force. He was elected mayor of Pontiac in 2001 and held office until 2005, surviving a recall attempt in 2003.

Aside from his public service, he was an author, advocate for improving Michigan's communities and police relations, said Carra Payne, his daughter.

Payne created "The Underground Railroad Michigan Connection," a one-man theatrical presentation with the Historical Society of Michigan that he wrote, performed and narrated for audiences in Michigan, Arkansas and his native state of Louisiana since 2006.

He began his research on the Underground Railroad in the early 1980s while writing on black history in Oakland County as a reporter for the Oakland Press.

Payne focused on the small, rural community of Cassopolis which, at that time, contained the highest percentage of mixed ancestry in Michigan.

In the course of his research, Payne learned that the community was Michigan’s first stop on the Underground Railroad and that the intermingling between the slaves, Native Americans, Quakers and other settlers was the reason for town's racial makeup.

That heightened his interest and led Payne, who had slave and Native American descendants, to research other stops, according to the historical society.

Pontiac Mayor Deirdre Waterman issued a statement Friday stating that in honor of Payne, the flags at City Hall will fly at half-mast. 

"Mayor Payne was a hardworking civil servant who diligently served as a former Pontiac Police Officer, School Board Trustee and Mayor of the City of Pontiac," Waterman said in a statement. "On behalf of myself and the entire Pontiac community, our thoughts and prayers are with all of those that knew and loved him."

Payne was a past member of Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum, The Boys and Girls Club of America, Michigan Association for Leadership Development, NAACP, Optimist Club, Rotary Club and Omega Psi Phi Fraternity.

"I can not find the words to express how very sad I feel right now," Michael Williams wrote on Facebook, saying Payne was his friend and mentor. "He appointed me to Library Advisory Board, then appointed me as a Library Board of Trustees. He always had true words of wisdom. A class act. I say thank you for all you have done."

Funeral services for Payne will take place in Louisiana, his family said.

Twitter: @SarahRahal_

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