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Wednesday, May 2,2012

'I'm a non-fanatic'

Mark Grebner digs the details

by Lawrence Cosentino
Mark Grebner saw the best minds of his generation — but Grebner knows his Allen Ginsberg. He can pick it up from there.

“Consumed by madness, naked, starving, hysterical,” he chanted in a nasal, wonky drone that made Ginsberg’s “Howl” sound like a profile of likely Ingham County voters. 

Last Friday, Grebner was neither naked nor starving. He munched a muffin and sipped an iced skim latte at the MSU Union, sporting a denim shirt and gray beret.

Nor was he hysterical. On the contrary, he was ready to patiently explain, ad infinitum, why Ingham County Drain Commissioner Pat Lindemann should be turned out of office, and why Grebner should replace him.

OK, there’s still the madness part. But if Grebner is mad, he’s taking his time being consumed. For 32 years, he has tinkered happily under the political floorboards as county commissioner, letting others get into a lather about big issues.

“Of course I’m a lefty type. I love civil liberties. I’m pro-environment, but I’m a non-fanatic. I’ll grant to Pat that he’s a fanatic.”

While Lindemann has yoked his power as drain commissioner to a passionate crusade for low-impact development and cleaner water, Grebner wants to pull the plug and drain the drama from the office. 

“The life of the organization is the mundane, technical decisions about permits, petitions, complaints, applications, routine maintenance, extensions and improvements,” he said.

Platitudes are as foreign to Grebner as planetoids. His case centers almost wholly on Lindemann’s alleged mishandling of money, both his own and the county’s. Grebner freely allows that “if all you care about is the environment, Pat’s your man.”

It’s not Grebner’s style to obsess over the turmoil of the 1970s — the decade he famously milked from end to end as an undergraduate at MSU — or the subsequent culture wars. 

“While everybody else was trashing some place, I was trying to register voters,” he said. “I can see the steps necessary to win an election, but I don’t know how to end the war in Vietnam. And I especially don’t understand how you’d end it by chanting at the ROTC building.”

His beloved dog, Babs, and his pet pig, Ruby, no longer walk the Earth, but Grebner abides, unchanged but for age (he is 59). His shoulder-length hair and round glasses have eased gradually from “John Lennon wants them back” to “Ben Franklin said you could keep them.”

What is the secret of his survival?

“One word: Asperger’s.”

He is not joking. 

“It takes me a long time to get a new idea, and I work it deeply,” he said. “Asperger’s is like a predilection for becoming an expert at something. If you don’t know more than everybody else does about it, why think about it?”

Long ago, Grebner nestled in the minutiae of political polls and local government. He seldom moves more than 300 feet from his office.

“I don’t have a personal life,” he said. “My spare time is spent in politics. I’m at work 12 hours a day, seven days a week, but get very little done.”

The 300-foot rule pretty much limits his culinary universe to Noodles ‘R’ Us, Charlie Kang’s and Mumbai. The refried delights of El Azteco, across the street from his office, are now reserved for “splendid occasions,” as his aging stomach can no longer tolerate daily doses of spice and grease.

Grebner’s biggest indulgence is listening to books on tape. Right now he’s about 60 percent of the way through “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” (The endless schisms in the early Christian church almost drove him to quit, but he stuck with it.) Before that, he listened twice through Marcel Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past.” Before that: Thucydides, Heraclitus and Homer.

The heavy reading began when he was 12 years old, baby-sitting for a neighbor, and idly picked up a two-volume set, “The Intelligent Man’s Guide to Science.”

“It kind of changed my life,” he said.

Grebner grew up in rust-belt Kankakee, Ill., famous for being mentioned in the classic folk song “City of New Orleans” (“along the southbound odyssey, the train pulls out of Kankakee”). The town has one other claim to fame. “Fred MacMurray came from there, hated it, and he never went back,” Grebner said sympathetically.

He describes himself as “a hazard to navigation” in high school, challenging a minor point in his molecular biology class one day, returning with a written proof the next.

Soon most teachers streamlined their discourse with Grebner to one question: Have you thought about independent study?

He came to MSU as an Alumni Distinguished Scholar, with a full ride. He loves to nurture his legend as an 11-year undergraduate.

“I really enjoyed school. I didn’t do particularly well, but the stuff I learned, I still know, apply and think about.”

He majored in public policy and sunk his teeth into statistics. His electives included calculus and the entire chemical physics sequence.

When cultural and political upheavals rocked the campus, Grebner aimed for the humble office of county commissioner. He lost his first primary, in 1974, to an incumbent James Heyser, by “a handful of votes.” (Heyser was a hothead, farther left than Grebner, who allegedly got up at a meeting and yelled “Fuck you, you old men” to the other commissioners.) Grebner won in 1976 and again in 1978. His first big political nemesis was Ingham County Sheriff Kenneth Preadmore.

“He was an evil, corrupt and vicious person who had some redeeming characteristics — kind of like Pat and his environmentalism,” Grebner said. (Preadmore was a pioneering prison reformer.) Preadmore compiled files on county commissioners, including Grebner, tracking alleged misuse of travel funds and other abuses. “He openly intimidated the board of commissioners, blackmail, extortion,” Grebner said. Grebner compiled his own file on Preadmore and got the results on the front page of the Lansing State Journal.

When the voters rejected Preadmore in 1980, the next sheriff gave Grebner Preadmore’s original file on him. He handles it like other people handle family Bibles.

Grebner first became known to the MSU community by virtue of “Grading the Profs,” an ambitious faculty rating system (“extremely unpleasant personality” was a frequent descriptor). Students lapped it up; the faculty and administration loathed it. Grebner’s strategy was to collect the surveys on the first day of the term, “because students have nothing to do on the first day and the class lets out early.”

Grebner dropped off the commission to attend law school, but kept in touch with East Lansing by serving on the planning committee. In 1984, he handily won back his seat and settled in for the duration. Self-deprecating campaign slogans like “No worse than the rest” endeared him further to voters.

“Ever since, I’ve been trying to quietly slink away, but it hasn’t really worked,” he said.

As county commissioner, Grebner called the re-organization of the regional bus system “one of the most important things I’ve done in my life.”

Grebner wanted Lansing’s bus system, CATA, to acquire MSU’s bus system (which it did) and form a single service, eliminating inefficiencies.

“It was necessary to destroy the MSU bus system completely,” he declared, his tone as bland as ever. He used his oversight over the county contribution to the bus system to force the issue.

“The CATA-tonics were surprised,” he said. “Either they had to do it my way or better than my way, but not worse.”

Grebner’s warmest memory of county service is of even smaller bore. When courthouse remodeling forced the board out of its permanent offices, some commissioners called for cushy new digs. Grebner asked a small crew to build a set of mock-ironic cubicle walls.

“It was made of curlicued crown molding, plywood and spray paint,” he said. “You could stick it onto banquet tables with Velcro. We met in there for about a year, sitting on folding chairs. That really warmed the cockles of my heart.”

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