Last July 4th, Ned Fenlon led a parade. It went down Mitchell Street, right past his house draped with red-white-and-blue, and on to Pennsylvania Park. As grand marshal, he rode in a 1941 Buick convertible ahead of the floats and the bands and the cheerleaders and, at the very end, the Petoskey High School Steel Drum Band, which stayed on to perform at the waterfront until it was too dark for face painting any more and just dark enough for the fireworks to begin.
It was the first time the Michigan town of Petoskey had asked Ned Fenlon to lead the Independence Day parade, and he had to wait 99 years for the invitation. He considered the parade a warm-up for the open house on August 10 in celebration of his approaching 100th birthday, an event that drew 400 friends, admirers and political chums and featured a drum chant by a group of Odawa Native Americans, the release of 100 doves, and a Yooper procession (Yooper: noun, a resident of Michigan’s UP, or Upper Peninsula).All told, it was quite a summer for the Honorable Edward H. Fenlon, retired judge of Michigan’s 33rd Circuit Court and one of Notre Dame’s oldest alumni. For that matter, it was quite a century.
A Yooper himself, Fenlon was born in Saint Ignace and grew up in nearby Hessel, where his father and uncle operated a grocery store. He received a bachelor of law degree from Notre Dame in 1927 and went on to read law in Saint Ignace at the Prentiss Brown law firm, in which he later became a partner. While attending Notre Dame, he lived over a garage belonging to a Mishawaka family and earned his keep as one of two family chauffeurs. The job provided him with the distinctive gauntlets that automobile drivers wore in those days, and when he flamboyantly stripped them from his arms at dances, girls would take notice.
Despite pulling a 79 in his politics course at Notre Dame, Fenlon made a run for the Michigan legislature in 1933 and won, making him one of only two Democrats in the 100-member House of Representatives. He endeared himself to a lot of Yoopers by sponsoring the legislation that led to the construction of the Mackinac Bridge, although it took nearly two decades before the bridge opened and cars could finally cross the Straits without a 30-minute ferry ride.
After leaving the legislature in 1939, he served three terms as prosecuting attorney of Mackinac County, then devoted his energies to expanding the Saint Ignace law firm of Brown, Fenlon, Murray, Lund and Babcock, opening offices in Detroit and Washington. When a young attorney named G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams applied to join the firm, Fenlon turned him down — he didn’t think it was a good idea to have too many Democrats on the firm’s letterhead. Williams was not one to hold a grudge: In 1951, Governor Williams appointed Fenlon to the Circuit Court bench, where he presided until 1974.
Music and boats have been the chief passions of Fenlon’s life, not counting his wife Jane, whom he married in 1939 and who died in 2001. The couple had one son, two granddaughters and six great-grandchildren.
Fenlon has been a banjo player since childhood, when his grandmother started funneling him $10 out of her $30-a-month Civil War pension so he could take lessons. His son Michael, a physician in Long Beach, California, remembers the jazz sessions in the Fenlon home — his father on banjo, his mother playing piano, and two musical friends adding trumpet and saxophone. “It would be snowing outside and we’d have all this music in the living room,” he recalls, still warmed by the memory.
The banjo continues to be part of the retired judge’s life. He sits in occasionally with a group called Bait Shop Boys, based in Cedarville across the Straits, and he recently ripped off a spirited rendition of “Dueling Banjos” with his friend and fellow banjo player, Don Oedekerk.
Boats, too, were always part of his life. As a young man he had a job of daily running the Chicago papers out to the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island by speedboat. Later he served as commodore of the Mackinac Island Yacht Club. Son Michael remembers one stormy night when his father spotted a cruiser from Mackinac Island heading for the Saint Ignace dock on a dangerous trajectory. Judge Fenlon signaled the boat to stand into the wind, hopped in his speedboat and raced out to board the cruiser and bring it in. “All that,” says Michael, “after a full day on the bench.”
The centenarian comes by his longevity honestly. Although his father died when Ned was only 7, the culprit was tuberculosis. His grandfather lived to 98; his sister is going strong at 97.
The August birthday celebration in Petoskey was a few weeks premature. Fenlon wouldn’t cross the century mark until October 7. By then he would be far away from the chill of a northern Michigan fall on a visit with his son and daughter-in-law in Long Beach, where he would be the toast of still another birthday party.
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Walt Collins, editor emeritus of this magazine, teaches in the American studies department at Notre Dame.