Musician who rode wrecking ball in Old City Hall protest dies at 80
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on July 16, 2015 at 8:30 AM, updated July 16, 2015 at 8:32 AM
Mary Stiles Kimmell, a talented local artist and musician who was known for her protests on behalf of historic preservation during Grand Rapids urban renewal, died on July 10, 2015 at age 80. (MLive file photos)
GRAND RAPIDS, MI — The year was 1977 and Mary Stiles Kimmell wasn’t about to let her daughter Kathy ride in a Massachusetts horse show without a properly laced helmet. After searching around, Kimmell found a piece of blue bailing twine and silenced her daughter Kathy’s complaints about the aesthetics of the harness substitute with one of those steely looks that only mothers can give.
About 20 minutes later, Kathy lay on the frozen New England rock with a broken back after the horse bucked her off. Kimmell’s insistence on the twine kept the helmet on and likely helped her daughter avoid a fractured skull.
“I realized later that her one small action had probably saved my life,” wrote Kathy Stiles Hatsell online this Mother’s Day.
Hatsell and family are mourning the loss of Mary Stiles Kimmell, who died at age 80 on Friday, July 10, after suffering a stroke this year.
Kimmell, a talented artist and self-taught musician who sang, played piano and bass, was well known in Grand Rapids for her local activism in the late 1960s, when she threw herself into the historic preservation cause and became famous for handcuffing herself to the wrecking ball that took down Old City Hall.
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The protest was immortalized in a famous Oct. 27, 1969 photo of Stiles sporting an orange snowmobile suit and a wide grin, straddling the wrecking ball while clutching a sign that read “Save Our Tower.”
The famous moment, reprinted in newspapers around the globe, became a symbol of the fledging historic preservation movement that helped turn the tide against the wave of urban renewal demolitions sweeping through U.S. cities in the 1960s.
“If jail was what was in store for me, I would do it and accept it,” she said during a 2014 interview with the Grand Rapids Press.
“I felt that if you went to jail, you were showing that you were earnest about what you were doing and not just putting on a show,” she said. “I didn’t want to go, but felt it would show that I wasn’t just doing it to get in the paper, but because we all believed in it.”
Mary Stiles avoided jail that day thanks to a deal her late husband Jack Stiles made with the police and wrecking crews, who hoisted her up in the air for the photo opportunity if Stiles agreed to un-shackle his wife from the equipment.
Her son, Michael Powell of Pierson, remembers roaming Old City Hall as a young teen with his parents, whom he helped hang a “Save Me” banner from the building clock tower in the days leading up to the demolition.
“She was always very loving and had a warm touch,” he said.
Kimmell was born June 12, 1935 as Mary Crane to parents Ethyl Mary and Charles Crane. She spent most of her childhood in Comstock Park and attended Creston High School in Grand Rapids. She battled some health problems as a child, struggles that her daughter said “made her scrappy and
resilient — traits that really carried though her whole life.”
“She was sort of larger than life,” said Hatsell. “People who knew Mom were always taken by her warmth. She had an intensity, but it was also this caring that emanated from her. She was truly interested in how others were doing.”
Having learned to sing and play music, Kimmell developed for passion for theater in high school and was a part of many productions at the Civic Theatre and other stages around town. Being on stage helped her overcome shyness as a child.
She had acting and singing roles in plays like “Guys & Dolls,” “Kiss Me Kate,” “Bye Bye Birdie,” “Magic in the Heart of the Universe” and “Grass Green, Sky Blue,” the last two of which were co-written by husband of 42 years Jack N. Kimmell.
After getting married, the two developed a following for their jazz duo, Kimmell and MacLean, in Arizona, where the couple lived for more than 20 years after leaving Grand Rapids in the early 1970s. Kimmell sang and played upright bass.
“She’s the most magnificent singer I’ve ever heard, as far as being able to deliver emotion in a song,” said friend Jill Marrese of Traverse City.
Mary and Jack returned to Grand Rapids in 2000 to be closer to the wide array of friends the two had missed while living out west.
Longtime friend Carolyn Heines recalled the days when she, Kimmell, and friend Joanne McElwee would gather at mutual friend Kathi Swets’ house. The four women were close and consistently celebrated each other’s birthdays together.
“She was a lovely person and a loyal friend,” said Heines, who attended Fountain Street Church with Kimmell for many years.
“She had a great sense of humor.”
Kimmell is survived by husband Jack Kimmell; four children, Chris Powell, Mimi Powell, Mike Powell and Kathy Stiles Hatsell; five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
A memorial service will take place at 11 a.m. on Monday, July 27 at Fountain Street Church in downtown Grand Rapids.