Remembering Mayor Somerville: She Was 'Everybody's Neighbor'
Friends and colleagues of former Rochester Hills Mayor Pat Somerville talk about her life and legacy.
When a resident of Rochester Hills had a question, it wasn't unusual for then-Mayor Pat Somerville to pack up a folder full of city ordinances and drive to the resident's house — not necessarily invited — to answer it in person.
On adventures like those, the former mayor was known to stay for hours. And she normally left the home with a newfound friend or two.
Somerville, the city's mayor from 1999 to 2006, died Saturday at her home in Florida after a long illness. She was 80.
As friends and colleagues remembered Somerville this week, they painted a picture of a champion of Rochester Hills: among other achievements, she is credited with helping to create the Clinton River Hike and Bike Trail, and with turning the vision for the Village of Rochester Hills into a reality.
Somerville was also remembered as a leader with a legacy for listening and a friend with a contagious laugh.
"She was 'everybody's neighbor;' the kind that all of us were lucky to have," said Rochester Hills District Court Judge Lisa Asadoorian, a close friend of Somerville's.
"Mayor Somerville is the only person I know who could speak intelligently about the city's multi-million dollar budget and then gardening around her home in the same sentence."
Somerville's life will be celebrated in an 11 a.m. Saturday service at St. Paul's United Methodist Church in Rochester. Visitation will be held from 2:30 to 9 p.m. Friday at Potere-Modetz Funeral Home. Somerville was preceded in death by her husband, Ken. She is survived by four children — Autumn, Cliff, Debbie and David — as well as several grandchildren.
Asadoorian last saw Somerville late last year. This week, she remembered her friend as a "natural." Somerville never took "no" for an answer — largely because she never had to, Asadoorian said.
"Her personality was genuine and magnetic," Asadoorian said. "Her unbridled enthusiasm for our city was undeniable."
Asadoorian met Somerville during the judge's first campaign in the 1990s. She remembers her as petitie and feisty; honest and unassuming.
"Truth be told, she had more energy in her 60's than may people do in their 30's," Asadoorian said. "Sometimes it was a chore to keep pace with her. For those who were able, it was a real treat to see this lady in action."
Friends say Somerville grew up in Detroit and ran a succesful dog-grooming business before moving to her farmhouse on Dequindre Road in Rochester Hills.
She got involved in local government by chance: she was concerned about a paving project in her neighborhood and started attending city council meetings to voice her opinion. Her activism eventually earned her a spot on city council.
Linda Davis-Kirksey met Somerville in early 1999 at Rochester Mills Beer Company, where they formed a quick partnership, with Davis-Kirksey agreeing to manage Somerville's mayoral campaign.
"We campaigned hard throughout the city, knocked on hundreds of doors," said Davis-Kirksey this week. "What I marveled at with Pat was her tenacity and dedication to the residents. She listened and wanted to know their perspective, she cared deeply about their thoughts and considerations."
That November, Somerville won, defeating incumbent Ken Snell. She served almost two full terms as mayor before resigning in 2006 because of her health.
After her resignation, Bryan Barnett was appointed as mayor.
This week, Barnett remembered Somerville as an "amazing, tenderhearted person."
"She had a real passion for the residents of the city; she used to describe projects and areas of the city not by intersections, but by the families who lived in the area," Barnett said.
At a meeting this week, members of City Council expressed their condolences.
"Even though we didn't necessarily see eye-to-eye, she would listen to what I had to say," said Council President Greg Hooper.
Scot Beaton, a former city councilmember who served at the same time as Somerville, called the former mayor an "amazing fighter." "She taught me a very valuable lesson as an elected official: that a good elected officialy knows how to listen to residents first before ever making a decision," Beaton said.
Suzanne White was one of Somerville's closest friends. The two met in the late 1990s after White learned about plans to build a cell phone tower in her neighborhood. White wrote a letter expressing her concerns about the tower to her city council representative: Somerville.
"Two days later, Pat was standing at my door," White said. "She was here for two hours. She walked the property. She heard me out."
The two became friends. Somerville called White "Sue-Sue." White, who didn't care for local politics, soon joined in her new friend's mayoral campaign. "For Pat, you would do anything," she said.
White remembers being out and about in the city with Somerville when Somerville asked her to stop at a resident's home. Somerville had a packet of information with her: turns out, it was a new ordinance that had just been approved. The residents she was visiting couldn't read; their mayor had come to read the ordinance out loud to them.
"She wasn't just the mayor — she was Pat," White said.
Somerville's portrait hangs inside the council chambers at the Rochester Hills Municipal Building. Her farmhouse on Dequindre still stands.
Asadoorian described Somerville as one of those "rare, selfless public servants who toiled to plant the trees, so that we could all enjoy the shade."
"I'm sure that right now, somewhere beyond the clouds, Mayor Somerville is working her way towards that big council meeting in the sky, preparing to make her best case as to why Rochester Hills deserves an extra little piece of sunshine.
"Next time we feel a surge of warmth, we'll know the motion passed."
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