Classic Kowall: For the love of family, cars and hockey

 

In this series of one-of-a-kind interviews, the Michigan Republican Senate Blog will be taking a nonpolitical glimpse into the lives of our members — outside of public office.

On a cold Detroit winter day in 1962, a young Mike Kowall entered the ice arena for hockey practice. After catching up to one of his teammates walking with his dad, he said, “Hello, Mr. Howe. Good luck with Toronto tonight.” The man we know today as “Mr. Hockey” gave him a rare smile.

“Gordie was an intimidating guy,” recalled Kowall. “The guy was big and imposing and had hands the size of hams. When he gave you that patented ‘Howe glare’ your blood ran a little bit colder. Funny thing was he was a sweet guy off the ice and really funny. I played peewee hockey with his son Mark who was a couple of years younger than me, and man that kid could play. I don’t think he ever missed an opportunity to turn me inside out on the ice, but that was hockey.

“My dad was Canadian and hockey ran in our blood. He had a choice between playing professional hockey and paying his bills. He was both stubborn and practical, so work won out. But it was cool growing up around hockey in Detroit in the late 50s and early 60s.”

Serving his second term, Sen. Mike Kowall, R-White Lake, was elected to the Michigan Senate in November 2010. He previously served as White Lake Township supervisor and state representative.

Mike was the oldest of Richard and Doris Kowall’s four children and grew up in Detroit after the family moved from a farm in Manitoba, Canada. His father landed a job with Dodge Truck on the assembly line and moved into skilled trades, where he apprenticed and became a carpenter. He eventually made the decision to start his own carpentry/woodworking business due to the demand for his services. Kowall recalls there was no shortage of fellow Polish families in the area in need of home repairs.

“Dad was fluent in five different languages and with Detroit being such a melting pot in the 1950s, there were so many different and diverse communities he could work in,” said Kowall. “He was never shy about taking us along to help, but more importantly, learn about the business, the art of the deal and following through on your word. He stressed honesty to us kids and to this day people remember him that way.”

Mike attended Henry Ford High School in Detroit and was active in sports. “I grew up like any kid playing baseball and swimming, but my first love was always hockey. My mom thought football was too rough, but hockey was okay!” Kowall laughed. “I played hockey whenever I could, but I wasn’t good enough to go pro. I figured I better hit the books and learn a trade.”

In the summer Mike headed north by train to his grandfather’s farm in Manitoba. It was a memorable time and one that allowed him to get to know his heritage.

“Can you imagine putting your 10-year-old on a train all by themselves bound for Manitoba today? You’d probably get arrested,” Kowall said. “Times were different back then, and we got to learn responsibility and how to keep our wits about us earlier then kids do today. Spending those summers with my Polish grandparents taught me a lot about who my dad was and why we had such strong values. I got to know my grandparents and how to run a business and balance the books – skills that I use to this day. I worked hard, but had a lot of freedom to experience things on the farm that many of my friends back home couldn’t imagine.”

After graduating in 1970, Kowall went to Oakland University and decided to go into an apprenticeship program to become a cabinet maker and work in his family’s business. Mike now lives in White Lake with his wife Eileen, who currently serves as an Oakland County commissioner and was a former state representative. The couple has two daughters, Marissa and Stephanie, and two grandchildren.

“A lot of people don’t realize this, but Eileen and I have known each other since second grade,” Kowall admitted. “We both attended the same Catholic grade school when we were growing up but didn’t really hang out. We dated my last year of high school and ended up getting married a few years later. During the past 36 years we have always been a team and couldn’t imagine going through life with anyone else.”

The second love of Mike’s life – although Eileen will argue that rank – is his classic car collection. If he is ever missing for an extended period of time, she knows right where she can find him. A pole barn on his property houses his beloved 1927 Model T, a 1928 Essex, a 1936 Plymouth, 1985 BMW convertible, his original 1967 Triumph motorcycle and a 1950 Studebaker. He also has the original John Deere tractor his grandfather used on his farm in Manitoba.

“I love to drive my 50 Studebaker down the street and watch heads turn,” said Kowall. “I don’t have a ton of time to dedicate to restoring them, but this is where you will find me when I have an afternoon or evening free.”