Melissa Walsh

Melissa Walsh

Woods author uncovers secret Detroit

Grosse Pointe News | January 4th, 2018 | Pointer of Interest


Woods author uncovers secret Detroit By Melissa Walsh

Curiosity has led Grosse Pointe Woods resident Karen Dybis, pen and notepad in hand, all over Detroit and deep into its past.

The Detroit business reporter and city-beat blogger took the journalistic skills and habits she’s honed over the past 20-plus years, covering all 139 square miles of Detroit, to author a book on Detroit’s little-known and most unusual sites – “Secret Detroit,” available this April by Reedy Press and Dybis’ fourth book on Detroit history.

“If I hadn’t been a reporter myself and hadn’t that education and background,” Dybis said. “I couldn’t have written these books and I wouldn’t have fulfilled my own dream of being an author.”

Each day last summer, Dybis, with her son, Pete, 12, and daughter, Robin, 10, visited a different site in Detroit, exploring 120 of the city’s historic and unique buildings, landmarks and works of art.

“There’s nothing they haven’t seen or done in Detroit,” Dybis said.

Developing the scope of “Secret Detroit” began with a list of 200 sites Dybis noted as a reporter in the city and others she discovered from diving into history books and solicited from social media. Thinning the list to 120, she and her kids explored all, Dybis capturing photos and writing a 200-word description for each. For the final scope, she weeded the site entries down to 90.

This project wasn’t the beginning of Dybis’ quest to discover Detroit. From 2009 to 2010, Dybis served as “Assignment: Detroit” blogger for “Time.” Calling herself the Suburban Mom, her beat covered all of Detroit on any topic.

“It reintroduced me to Detroit,” she said. “This really forced me to invest in the city and to invest in writing every single day.”

Dybis’ fixed, daily writing routine and thorough knowledge of the city brought her assignments with other Detroit news sites, including “Detroit Unspun” and “Daily Detroit,” as well, as “Corp!” and “TBD” magazines.

Originally from Bad Axe, Mich., Dybis moved to Romeo in fourth grade. By this age she was reading newspapers and sensing a call to become a journalist.

“I was like, ‘What is this by-line? How do I become this person?’” she recalled of how she felt reading news as a child.

Dybis worked for her high school and college newspapers. After graduating from the University of Michigan with a journalism degree, Dybis became a staff writer with “The Daily Telegram.” She later covered business news for “The Oakland Press” and “The Detroit News.” She said her experience at the business desk was “lucky” in teaching her how to tell a story and verify information.

“I stumbled into these wonderful jobs with great editors,” Dybis said. “I remember going into journalism thinking it would teach me how to write a book. It doesn’t, but it gave me the experience and background to do the research that leads to a book.”

Dybis first moved to the Pointes in 2002, renting in the Park with husband Mark. The couple bought their Woods home in 2003.

“I love the big community that is Grosse Pointe,” she said. “I could not find a more beautiful community to live in.”

Enjoying Grosse Pointers – especially the supportive community of her mom’s club – and awed by the variety of architecture in the Pointes, Dybis said, “I love getting lost in Grosse Pointe.”

The research for her four books about Detroit introduced her got her happily lost in Detroit, as well, where she uncovered fascinating Detroiters and their wilder-than-fiction true stories.

“I always had people I didn’t expect to show up show up in the stories,” she said.

After writing an article about a drive-in, Arcadia Publishing contacted Dybis about authoring her first book, “The Ford-Wyoming Drive-in: Cars, Candy & Canoodling in the Motor City.” A larger-than-life character Dybis discovered researching the drive-in’s history was, among others, Dearborn’s controversial mayor from 1942 to 1978, Orville Hubbard, who fought against the Ford-Wyoming’s founding and operation with zoning violations, packing city meetings with his supporters and even running whole-page newspaper ads opposing the drive-in.

Arcadia then commissioned Dybis to write the history of a Detroit family business mainstay, Better Made. Her research for “Better Made in Michigan: The Salty Story of Detroit’s Best Chip” led her to the company’s owners, the Cipriano family, whom Dybis said “couldn’t have more pleasant.” The book describes Better Made’s rather clandestine operations due to its fierce competition with New Era early on and later with Lays and speaks to “the highs and lows of running a small business in Detroit.”

“It’s nice to secure all that history,” Dybis said.

Research for her third book, “The Witch of Delray: Rose Veres & Detroit’s Infamous 1930s Murder Mystery,” released Halloween 2017 by Arcadia, introduced her to interesting characters involved in the 1931 true-crime trial of Delray boarding-house proprietor Rose Veres and her 18-year old son, Bill.

Veres and her son were prosecuted by Detroit’s Duncan McCrea, known as “Dynamic Duncan McCrea” for his courtroom theatrics. Veres, an immigrant from Sarud, Hungary, dubbed “the witch of Delray,” stood trial for murdering a boarder and pushing him out of an upper-story window. The prosecution alleged she killed as many as 11 other men since 1923. Her son bill was tried as an accomplice.

Dybis read more than 300 pages of court documents from the 1931 trial convicting Veres and her son and the 1945 re-trial leading to Veres’ acquittal and all of the articles from the three Detroit newspapers – “The Detroit News,” “The Free Press” and “The Detroit Times.” Dybis also interviewed Delray residents – some in their 90s – who remembered the Delray “witch.”

Records show Veres as silent during the trial. Not proficient in English, she could not speak in her own defense.

“Everything that could go wrong for this woman in 1931 more or less went wrong,” Dybis said. “She already had the negative stigma of the witch of Delray by her neighbors. The newspapers all ran with that. All that pre-trial publicity every single day, from August when she was arrested to October when she was convicted.”

Veres and her son, Bill, were convicted and sent to prison until being acquitted – the son in 1944 and the mother in 1945. McCrea, who, convicted of racketeering in 1940, found himself in prison with Bill and offered him coaching for securing a re-trial.

Another character in this Detroit true-crime drama Dybis was impressed by was “The Detroit Times” reporter Vera Brown, who, Dybis said, put on the news record thorough coverage of the trial with fine detail about the courtroom and people in it.

“It was really nice to see a woman mentor from 1931 that you could admire. So Vera Brown to me was a kind a hero,” Dybis said.

Dybis said the books she’s authored feel like long journalism. Going forward, she plans to write longer non-fiction related to her favorite topic — Detroit history.

“Detroit is such a conundrum,” she said. “Every time I think I understand it, my mind opens up to a new place.”