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Kevin Dietz: How John Dingell was more like a college professor to me

Usually when I think of a politician I also immediately think of what political party they are affiliated with, but not with John Dingell. 

I have always thought of Congressman Dingell more like a college professor, someone you could learn from and if you showed interest in politics, someone he would reward with a generous amount of his valuable time.  

I first met him when I was in my early 20s  working as a cub reporter in Traverse City. I was a political science major in college and was always fascinated with government, but by no means an expert. Early in my career, I had always leaned on state senator and Lt. Governor Connie Binsfeld. The Republican from northern Michigan walked me through and explained political minefields that I did not fully understand.

One day I found myself in the presence of John Dingell, the Democrat from Dearborn, and I wanted to know what he thought about the governor's race between incumbent Jim Blanchard and challenger John Engler. What I thought would be a 15-second soundbite turned into a nearly hourlong conversation about campaign strategies and the importance of being in touch with and responsible to the people you represent.

Like Republican Binsfeld always had, Dingell gave no spin to favor his political party. The two of them simply explained that politics is not about the party but rather the people. I thanked Congressman Dingell for his time and asked him if I had more questions in the future could I call his office. He said "of course" as he headed out the door and into a new conversation with a concerned citizen.

I never thought I could actually get one of the most powerful people in all of Washington on the phone whenever I wanted, but I found out time and again over the next 25 years that a phone message to Congressman Dingell always led to a returned call. More often than not the call led to a lengthy conversation that lasted as long as it took for me to understand the issue at hand.

Sometimes I would bother the congressman with the simplest questions -- this was of course before Google had been invented. He did not embarrass me by pointing out the simplicity of my question or tell me to take a trip to the library and do a little homework. Instead, Congressman Dingell would walk me through the answer to my question all while understanding my reporting in smaller cities like Lansing and Battle Creek was not specialized in politics but also included regular reporting on crime, education, and other issues in those communities.

I will never forget the important lessons Congressman Dingell taught me as a reporter in Detroit. Most notable was in 2000 when he helped me understand the unpredictable court battles that would take place as I spent a month in Florida covering hanging chads and constitutional challenges for the presidential election race between George W. Bush and Al Gore. The next year, he was equally helpful in explaining the complexity of securing the country on the local, state, and federal level following the terrorist attacks of 911.

John Dingell was always there for any issue -- small or large -- and never with an agenda other than helping a reporter responsible for communicating information to the community better understand the issues of the day.

Today with his passing, I feel much the way I did when Binsfeld passed away in 2014. We lost a great American. Many people may see John Dingell as a great Democrat, but I see him as a great person and a gentleman. 

Full coverage: John Dingell dies at 92