BY SHARON GITTLEMAN
FERNDALE – When Tom Barwin finishes his last day of work as Ferndale’s city manager this month after nearly nine years on the job, many lesbian and gay residents will be sorry to see him go.
Barwin is leaving his post to become city manager of Oak Park, Ill. in August.
“He’s a man of vision. He has a ton of ideas,” said Ferndale resident Ann Heler, who is gay.
She served as the last president of the now defunct community organization Friends and Neighbors of Ferndale.
“He’s always respectful to everybody and always willing to listen – whether you had an idea, complaint or suggestion,” she said.
Barwin made LGBT residents feel they were a vital part of the city, said Heler.
“He never separated them out,” she said. “He considered them the equal of any citizen of Ferndale.”
Barwin said he accepted his new job for two reasons.
A generous pay hike will increase his base salary from $101,000 to $152,000, just when his four sons are making their way through college.
His fears for the area’s future also played a role in his decision.
“I am just deeply, personally, professionally disturbed and troubled that we allow communities and neighborhoods to decline and fall into despair,” said Barwin.
Adding a rapid transit system to the area could stimulate new jobs, improve the tax base and clean up neighborhoods, he said.
“You’ll really improve the quality of life for lots of families and change metro Detroit’s image,” he said.
When Barwin started working as Ferndale’s City Manager, his compassion for the LGBT community grew as he saw gay men and women strive to make a difference in the city, he said.
“I said to myself, these are wonderful folks and they are working as hard as they can to make Ferndale a beautiful place,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, we’re partners.”
The second factor that drew him closer to LGBT residents was his realization that one of his sons was gay.
With the help of Affirmations Lesbian and Gay Community Center, he said his son was able to overcome feelings of depression and despair and come to grips with his sexual orientation.
“He was a changed kid,” said Barwin. “He had some acceptance and a pride in who he was.”
Barwin’s son recently graduated with honors from Fordham University in NY and now works for a fashion corporation.
“It gave me great insights into gay people’s struggles and joy in achievement including their political activity – to try to open minds to educate people,” he said.
While it may take three months or more for a permanent replacement to be selected, Barwin said he expects to see an interim city manager appointed in Ferndale soon.
The fondest memory he’ll carry away from the job was watching a diverse community work together to improve their lives, he said.
“In the end it was magical,” he said. “We did that together.”