United Auto Workers founder, longtime Hubbardston resident dies

By Elisabeth Waldon • Last Updated 11:19 am on Thursday, August 09, 2012

Francis McKenna

HUBBARDSTON — Jill McKenna believes her uncle was the last great Irishman.

Francis McKenna, a longtime Hubbardston resident, died Aug. 2. He was 98 years old.

Jill McKenna of Suttons Bay, formerly of Carson City, was so affected by her uncle’s colorful life that she wrote some prose about him, titled, “The Last Great Irishman.”

“He was proud to be Irish and from Hubbardston,” she said. “If you want to celebrate his wonderful life, have a Manhattan or a piece of pie. If you want to say a prayer, do so for those of us who remain on this earth, which will be so much sadder and lonlier without the presence of my dear uncle.”

Francis McKenna was born on March 4, 1914, in Hubbardston, the son of Peter and Alice Cusack McKenna. He was baptized in and attended St. John the Baptist Church in Hubbardston and was a charter member of St. Therese Church in Lansing and the Catholic Community of St. Jude in DeWitt.

A skilled trade machinist at Fisher Body for more than 46 years, McKenna was a founding member of United Auto Workers Local 602. He was present during the Battle of the Overpass on May 26, 1937, an incident in which United Auto Workers clashed with Ford Motor Co. security guards.

The United Auto Workers were asking for an $8 six-hour workday, instead of their $6 eight-hour work day. The planned to protest during shift change time, with an expected 9,000 workers both entering and leaving the plant.

According to Wikipedia, at approximately 2 p.m., several of the United Auto Workers organizers were asked by a Detroit News photographer to pose for a picture on the overpass with the Ford sign in the background. While they were posing, men from Ford’s security force came from behind and began to beat the organizers. The group also beat some of the women arriving to pass out pamphlets, along with some reporters and photographers.

The incident increased support for United Auto Workers and hurt Ford’s reputation. Ford signed a contract with United Auto Workers three years later.

McKenna marched at the Lansing Capitol with a group aiming for recognition for United Auto Workers. Among those he marched with was Father William Flanagan, who was the pastor at St. John the Baptist Church in Hubbardston at that time.

McKenna was honored as Fisher Body’s oldest seniority employee in Lansing with 45 years of service in 1979. He had been hired in 1934 at 50 cents an hour.

McKenna was also a farmer. When his daughter, Jeanne, asked him in the spring of 1960 what kind of wedding she would have that autumn, he replied, “It will depend on the soybeans.”

Jeanne O’Brien said the words most often used to describe her father were “humble, gentle and a good listener.” Her father had many losses in his life, including his mother when he was only 2 years old, his father when he was 12 years old, two wives, two daughters, a granddaughter and five brothers (in five years).

“In spite of many losses, he was grateful for the life he was living, looked forward to every day and was a joy to be around,” O’Brien said. “Once, when I experienced a significant loss, I asked him how he continued on after so much loss. His reply was, ‘Life is for the living.’”

Karen Jallos said her father loved to hear stories of other people’s lives.

“Dad would ply you with a question to tell him about somewhere you had traveled, someone you had seen, always hoping to glean some new knowledge,” she said. “He found every life interesting. Dad was both a legend and a good and simple man.”

McKenna was preceded in death by two wives, Gladys Kavanagh and Catherine Kavanagh, two daughters, Kathleen and Joann, and six brothers, William Ferris, Matthew Mark, Thomas Merle, Nicholas Royal, Peter Clare and Peter Benedict.

McKenna is survived by six children, Patricia, Jeanne, Karen, Brian, Kristine and Kevin, along with 18 grandchildren, 33 great-grandchildren and one great-great-granddaughter.

A funeral Mass took place Aug. 6 at the Catholic Community of St. Jude in DeWitt, with visitation Aug. 5 at Gorsline Runciman Funeral Home in DeWitt.

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