In his many years of service to Saginaw, Ruben Daniels excelled at everything he did but he was most successful in working with young people. A tall, quiet, modest and yet forceful man, he turned many of their lives around.
Ruben was born in 1917 and brought to Saginaw by his mother, who desperately wanted more for her family than Broken Bow, Oklahoma, could offer a poor black family. Saginaw in 1929 may have been better than Broken Bow but it was hardly an ideal destination. The city’s African American community was small and living in “row after row of little red houses in northeast Saginaw.” African Americans were not encouraged to go to high school and most dropped out after junior high. Marie Davis, who later served on the Council of Black Officials (yes, the senior center is named for her) remembered Ruben as “someone always anxious to improve things for his people. He was a unique young man,” she added. “Back in those days, there were not many opportunities in school given to blacks. But Ruben would always have encouraging words.” ‘Hang on,’ he would say, ‘things will get better.’”
At Saginaw High, Daniels was a baseball star and first black captain of the basketball team. After graduation in 1936, he worked for the WPA during the Roosevelt administration.
In 1943, he married his high school sweetheart, Elizabeth Chapman and they had one daughter, Lesley Elizabeth. Along with his mother, he credited his wife with being the guiding force in his life. Without his wife’s understanding, he said, he never could have taken the stress involved in his career choices. Of his mother, he said, “People tend to think children of broken homes are at a disadvantage and this is true but my mother raised five good children alone.” The training he received at home also included a deeply religious background that stayed with him all his life. His family attended Bethel AME Church where he was honored as “Layman of the Year.”
During World War II, he served in the U. S. Navy, and was discharged as a petty officer, third class. He then went to work at the Chevrolet Steering Gear plant before joining the Saginaw Police Department. He spent eighteen years as a policeman, ten in the Juvenile Department, where he worked closely with school administrators, teachers, principals, students and parents.
In 1967, he was asked to head up the First Ward Community Center, a place he knew well as he was growing up. It was a tough choice: he would have to forfeit all retirement benefits from his police work. The chief of police, William A. Yule, called Daniels, “The kind of guy who didn’t know when to quit work. He had respect from both blacks and whites. I hated like hell to see him leave the department: you just don’t get too many men like him.” At one point in Daniels’ police career, a desperate criminal held several people hostage in a downtown bar and refused to talk to anyone but Ruben Daniels. Daniels eventually convinced him to surrender, avoiding a bloodbath.
Previously, the First Ward Community Center had been known primarily as a “center for good kids.” Daniels wanted a center “that was for all kids.” He began to counsel the hard core unemployed and to find them jobs. It wasn’t easy. “I was working with people who had never held a job,” he told an interviewer. “They never knew what it was to go to work every day and didn’t even know what an alarm clock is.”
He soon had 13,000 people, including preschool children, ex-offenders, senior citizens and even quite a few “good kids” signed up in various programs at the center. Many community leaders, including Henry G. Marsh, Saginaw’s first black mayor, considered Daniels’ pioneering role in bringing jobs to ex-offenders and the hard core unemployed to be his principal contributions to the community. “He has done more in the area of jobs than everybody else put together,” said Marsh. Employers were equally enthusiastic. Randall Robertson, administrator of salaried personnel at Steering Gear, praised Daniels as “candid, someone we can really trust.”
In 1967, Daniels was elected to the Saginaw School Board. He was elected president in 1971 and again in 1990—the first African American to hold the presidency. In 1981, he was elected to the board of directors of the Michigan Association of School Boards, representing 15 Michigan school districts. Saginaw School Superintendent Foster Gibbs called Daniels “an idealist with the uncommon ability to bring people of diverse interests and backgrounds together to achieve a common goal.”
He was a member of the board of trustees of the Osteopathic Hospital, the board of directors of Michigan National Bank and was a member of many other panels, committees and organizations. He was also the recipient of many awards including the Saginaw Chamber of Commerce’s Robert H. Albert Community Service Award. One honor he especially cherished was a vote by the tenants’ council of the Norman Street Housing Project to rename the project Daniels Heights.
After he retired from the FWCC in 1986, U. S. Representative Bob Traxler asked him to join his staff. Daniels acted as liaison for Saginaw residents needing help from the federal government. Daniels agreed with the congressman that many Saginaw residents—mostly poor—are unaware of the “Congressional avenues open to them.” He also helped to coordinate efforts with area civic leaders to promote economic development in the region.
Ruben Daniels died August 14, 1993. His most prominent memorial is the Ruben Daniels Lifelong Living Center, named in his honor. But his most important memorial is in the hearts and minds of the many people he influenced.
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