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NEAL RUBIN

Rubin: Un-caped crusader aids Detroit superheroes

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

So far, this is a video campaign without videos.

It's for a city with firehouses that sometimes don't have trucks, or at least trucks that work.

But superheroes? Yeah, says Catherine Govan, we have plenty.

Govan is the executive director of the Detroit Public Safety Foundation. She's also the only full-time employee, which sounds like a punch line until you realize the DPSF has brought home tens of millions of dollars in grants the past few years.

The foundation has written checks for, been the middleman for or won grants for everything from buying police dogs to feeding horses to keeping 108 firefighters from being laid off. You can make a case that Govan is the superhero.

But no, she says, the Detroit Superheroes Challenge is about first responders — the police officers, firefighters and EMS teams who go headlong into situations everyone else is sprinting away from.

The challenge was inspired by a plaque on the wall of the homicide unit at police headquarters. "Real heroes," it says, "don't wear capes."


A plaque for the Detroit Public Safety Foundation sums up what the nonprofit is all about.

Govan's spin on that is to invite people to make a contribution to the cause, then upload a video clip at detroitsuperheroes.org explaining why.

The only video on the month-old site as of Friday doesn't count. It was produced by Sgt. Alan Quinn, who works in the police graphics department.

Govan is a glass-half-full sort, though, even in a city where the glass hasn't just been half empty, it's been cracked and chipped.

The clips will come, she says. The grants and donations will keep coming. And no, it's not embarrassing that we have to ask in the first place.

No embarrassment

Govan, 61, grew up on the west side near Fenkell and Meyers.

She became a successful political fundraiser, mostly for Republicans, and lived in a nice house on the water in White Lake Township.

A few years ago, "My focus shifted," she says. "I wanted to see what I could do for the city."

She raised money for Dave Bing's mayoral campaign, moved into an apartment in a refurbished downtown hotel, and in 2011, became the head of what was then the Detroit Police Foundation, with annual distributions of maybe $75,000.

With mayoral blessing, she changed "Police" to "Public Safety," commissioned grant writers who've solicited more than $80 million in federal and private money, and earned an office in the new police and fire building — 11 by 20, no windows, candy for the taking in a bowl on the conference table.

"At the core of it," Govan says, "even with all the activity going on, if we didn't get public safety taken care of, all of the investment was not going to matter."

She can't fight fires, though she did respond to a blaze she saw from her high-rise window a few weeks ago. She can't drive a scout car.

What she's good at is being a financial go-getter and go-between. So Strategic Staffing Solutions has adopted the horses from the mounted police squad, DTE bought a truck and a horse trailer, and grants have covered transmissions and engines for aging EMS rigs.

When word spread that a broke city couldn't buy toilet paper for its firefighters, 70,000 rolls of donated Charmin from Procter & Gamble was routed through DPSF.

Again: No embarrassment.

Ready to ask for anything

She understands that some might blush.

"Can you huddle in the corner saying 'woe is me, why is this happening to us?' Absolutely," she says. "On the other hand, it's a great city with great roots."

More than 200 cities have police foundations to help with training, tools or equipment. As far as she knows, we're the only one with a public safety foundation, but we're also the only one to submerge itself in a historic bankruptcy.

The time for embarrassment is long past. She'll ask anyone for anything.

"Batman vs. Superman" was filming in Detroit until a few weeks ago, with Ben Affleck as Batman, and wouldn't he look sharp on the Superheroes Challenge website?

His publicist has been alerted. The worst he can say is no, and we've heard that before.

nrubin@detroitnews.com

@nealrubin_dn