Those who knew Robert Busby tell of a man who would ride his bike through Lansing’s Old Town 30 years ago. While others would see boarded up buildings, violent bars and a porno shop, Busby saw something else–an artist’s community.
And he didn’t just dream it, he made it happen. Lansing’sOld Town has become a center for arts and cultural activities, as well as a safe space for people of all walks of life, particularly the LBGT community.
Sadly, Old Town lost their honorary mayor, Robert Busby, last week in a brutal murder. The gallery owner was found bludgeoned to death and buried in construction debris in the basement of his active Creole Gallery. Police say his killer, a 55-year-old handyman named Elio Ramon Garcia, took his life early Wednesday morning on a dark country road in rural Clinton county. They have not released a motive, although neighbors have told media outlets that Garcia was living in the basement of one of Busby’s buildings, and Busby was trying to evict him.
But his memory, his spirit and his vision are what those who survive him are remembering. Jamie Shriner Hooper, executive director of the Old Town Commercial Association, says when she first moved to the “big city” of Lansing after graduating from Central Michigan University she discovered Old Town and fell in love. That love was in part a reflection of what Busby, through dreams, had built. A few businesses were open, including the now defunct Real World Emporium, the first lesbian/gay bookstore in Lansing.
“Robert made them (business owners) see what a beautiful community we have,” Shriner-Hooper said Friday.
Meegan Holland, Busby’s life partner and business partner,says the community he helped build reflected him greatly. “He was the most open-minded person I ever met,” the capital bureau chief for Booth Newspapers said. “He related so well to so many people from so many walks of life.”
Cheryl Vanderkerkhove, former co-owner of Real World Emporium, says that openness is what drew she and her partner to Old Town. “I never sensed the least bit of resistance or concern that, that (the bookstore) wouldn’t be a welcome addition to the community.”
Vanderkerkhove rented from Busby for the entire length of the Real World’s existence.
On Wednesday night, as word spread through Lansing the beloved “gentle soul” of Old Town was dead, the victim of murder, the community organized an impromptu candlelight vigil. About 350 people attended that night, milling around, crying softly, sharing stories, holding each other. Strangers hugged each other, and the crowd gathered to sing “Imagine” by John Lennon.
Busby is survived by his life partner Holland, a daughter Ena, and two grandchildren. But Old Town community is also reaching out and embracing a world without their visionary.
While Busby is gone, his Creole Gallery known for hosting LBGT artists and experimental art will continue and Mayor Virgil Bernero has asked the city’s memorial commission to rename the bridge on Grand River The Robert Busby Bridge.
Holland says the family is honored by the naming, and Vanderkerkhove says it’s a great memorial. “I like the idea of renaming the bridge, he was the bridge to many communities.”
“He was always even, steady as a rock but a nice fluffy warm rock,” Vanderkerkhove said. “I loved him dearly. It is a horrible loss for the LBGT community, the Lansing Community, the arts community globally.”