An Interview with Jack Dempsey

Apr 7, 2018 by

EdNews recently talked with Jack Dempsey, executive director of Heritage Michigan. A lawyer by profession and historian by passion, Jack has led the organization since February 2017 after serving on its board for the prior decade. Heritage Michigan ( is the new tradename for the Michigan History Foundation, which in conjunction with the Michigan History Center of the Department of Natural Resources has helped educate hundreds of thousands of school children about Michigan history over the past three decades. Jack has many publications and two Michigan Notable Book awards to his credit.

1. How does Heritage Michigan help educate Michigan’s school children?

We support various history education programs at the Michigan History Museum in Lansing, where annually more than 55,000 students visit with their classrooms, and at other State museum sites (Hartwick Pines, Grayling; Michigan Iron Industry Museum, Negaunee; Fayette Historic Townsite, Garden). Michigan history teacher resources are made available on the “Seeking Michigan” website we facilitate. The Governor’s Decision Room made possible by a generous donor provides an intensive problem-based learning program enabling high school students to work collaboratively with primary documentation and multi-media resources to study choices of action during historic crises. Programming includes homeschool families. We’ve made grants available to assist with expenses and contribute to online media and a dedicated website: Our support for the State’s history field sites enhanced the experience for some 400,000 visitors, including many families, in 2016.

2. What other programs does Heritage Michigan sponsor?

We have undertaken to make major contributions to Southeast Michigan’s cultural fabric, including the following:

  • Partnering with veterans organizations in the project to relocate and restore the Michigan War Veterans Memorial currently at the shuttered State Fairgrounds by acting as the fiduciary
  • Contributing in the ongoing effort to revision Capitol Park in the role of participant in the Downtown Detroit Partnership Steering Committee
  • Supporting a ground-breaking “Fresh Water Project”, a visionary effort to make Detroit a Global Capital of Fresh Water Research and Innovation
  • Serving as a resource on heritage to other nonprofits and partner organizations

3. What is behind the name change?

With a number of organizations in the Michigan history field, the Board wanted to distinguish ourselves while remaining authentic to the cause of promoting our State’s heritage. We know we must present a compelling case to donors, grantors, and partners. To do this, we needed to reinvigorate our brand identity. Heritage Michigan breaks through to create a memorable, fresh identity with traditional overtones yet without being stodgy.

4. What do you see is the role of heritage in our modern society?

It’s critically important. Our heritage is a precious common link that can bind us together, provide us with a sense of community, build shared experiences, and strengthen our ties as citizens. A new Michigan law says it well: “The preservation of history, culture, and related public education are declared to be public purposes.” Organizations like Heritage Michigan can help build a more informed and educated citizenry and thereby help preserve and perpetuate our American democracy. Understanding our history gives us a portal to the future, showing us how our current environment has been shaped by the decisions and events of the past and providing a starting point for shaping what is to come.

5. What does the recent controversy over historical monuments mean?

It’s a powerful demonstration that history is dynamic and always capable of being revisited. Moreover, our democracy depends upon the free opportunity for public debate as people interact with their government and with institutions that seek to interpret our past. We have always been diverse, but we have not always embraced diversity. I believe the current debate should lead us to a better comprehension of existing monuments and the commitment to erect new markers and monuments in order to tell a more complete story about who we are as a people.

6. What is the state of heritage in Michigan?

It has improved since the Great Recession, when history programs and grants were slashed and donors had major financial challenges. But obstacles remain. Unlike other nations and other U.S. jurisdictions, Michigan does not fully capitalize on its history in seeking to build a better quality of life. Studies prove that heritage tourism produces more economic benefits than any other element. We need to value our heritage assets, restore those that are at risk, and make greater investment in teaching today’s and future generations.

7. Can you tell us more about yourself?

I was raised in a family that prized American history, visited historic sites on vacation, and gifted many history books – some previewed before the wrapping went on! I have a political/social science degree from James Madison College at Michigan State University, where I took history courses, and a law degree from George Washington University. I’ve been privileged to serve on the Michigan Historical Commission since 2007 and also serve on the Michigan World War I Centennial Commission. Heritage is in my blood.

8. What future do you envision for Heritage Michigan?

We’re passionate about preserving and promoting our heritage as Michiganders. We’re seeking to achieve sustainability in order to continue our contributions to the fabric of life here. I see us building more partnerships and working together with willing allies for the betterment of our cultural profile. We are promoting knowledge in order to build a better future for Michigan.

9. How can someone who believes in the importance of Michigan heritage help out?

We invest 85% of every gift dollar into programing. Donations can be made through our website ( or by mail to P.O. Box 12331, Lansing MI 48901.

10. Is there anything else you want to add?

Yes, I am proud that the Board has made a special effort recently togrow in diversity. Our stories here in Michigan reach back centuries and are diverse and fascinating. We want to be representative of all components of our amazing heritage.


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