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Chippewas abound on Mackinac Island

Michigan’s tourism gem is packed with fired-up Central grads

Contact: Heather Smith


​​​By Betsy Miner-Swartz, '86 and Robin Miner-Swartz​
Reprinted from Centralight Spring 2016

It turns out there are more than just a whole lot of beautiful hotels, work horses, bicycles, happy tourists and fudge shops on Mackinac Island.

Michigan's historic place that time forgot also is teeming with Central Michigan University alums.

Dozens live there year-round. In fact, more than 30 of the approximately 240 homes are occupied by a Central grad.  Even more commute or live there in the summer, working at or running everything from pubs and hotels to the arts council, the schools, the medical center and the town's government.

Even Mackinac Island's mayor, Margaret Doud, is a Chippewa and a lifelong resident of the 3.8-square-mile jewel that attracts a million tourists annually.

"Yes, it's true. There are a lot of people on Mackinac who've gone to Central," says Doud, one of roughly 500 permanent residents. "CMU has always had a great reputation and fits nicely with the people of Mackinac."

She believes there are so many CMU alums on the island because the school is relatively close, relatively large, yet relatively small.

CMU is about 160 miles from the island – the closest college or university with more than 20,000 students, according to city-data.com.

Mayor Doud, who lived in Calkins Hall all four years before earning a bachelor's in education, owns the stately yellow Windermere Hotel, built in 1887. She more than once hosted CMU's 12th president, Michael Rao, at the hotel.  "He stayed with us a few times for conventions, and I talked with him quite a bit."

Mackinac's top promoter

Tim Hygh, '82, is a commuter.

By ferry or by plane, either one gets the broadcast alumnus from his home in Mackinaw City to the island, where he's executive director of both the tourism bureau and the convention and visitors bureau. 

"That seven-minute plane ride is a pretty great value," he says. "You get to see two Great Lakes, the bridge and the island."

Hygh is one of many there who are slowly realizing they are living and working among dozens of CMU grads. "It's a pleasant surprise to find out that the people you're surrounded by have this in common."

'It's the best place to live'

If you head three miles up into the heart of the island, you might eventually find the home of Joan Barch, '67. You'll see her CMU flag flying on her porch, overlooking the Mackinac Bridge and St. Ignace from her bluff.

"I'm way back in the woods, so nobody sees it, but I fly it proudly," she says. "We really had no idea there were this many Chippewas – it's kind of a surprise."

Barch and her late husband built their home on the island 35 years ago; eight years ago they began living there year-round to be closer to their children. Now she works with her son at Mackinac Mud Pottery. "I just couldn't leave. It's the best place to live on Earth."

A retirement job in paradise

You could call Peg Largo an accidental Mackinac Islander. Largo, '80, grew up in metro Detroit and worked for 30 years in human resources in Ann Arbor.

In 2005, she married Tom Largo, who had been visiting his family's home on the island since he was 6. Their wedding was in the island's Little Stone Church; soon after that, the church's director of weddings retired.

So Largo, who studied interior design and business at CMU, took what she calls her "retirement job."

Proceeds from weddings and vow renewals go to community outreach on the island. In fact, it's taken in enough money over the years that the church has established a scholarship fund with the help of the Mackinac Island Community Foundation. Each year, up to two students on the island can receive a scholarship toward their two- or four-year college education. At least two of those students have gone on to attend CMU.

From fudge shop to full-time RN

A connection to the island started for Nicole Riccinto, '98, back in​​ 1995 and 1996 with two summertime gigs at Ryba's Fudge Shop – which the Harper Woods native loved.

More than a decade later in 2013, her husband, Brett, was hired as the island's police chief. They moved their four young children to the tourism mecca, and Riccinto – now a nurse – began as one of the mere two full-time RNs working at the Mackinac Island Medical Center.

The child development major has a pager when she's on call. "When it goes off, we have 15 minutes to get there by snowmobile or bike. With a snowmobile, I can be there in four minutes."

The consummate host

Todd Callewaert's family started Ryba's Fudge in 1951 in Detroit and in 1960 expanded the business to Mackinac Island, where he also owns the stately Island House Hotel.

Callewaert, '84, who studied industrial supervision and management, welcomed dozens of Chippewas last fall as he hosted CMU's first alumni weekend at the end of the tourist season in October.

"Central is well-represented here. During the summer, we have approximately 20 students working here, some doing internship with the hotel," Callewaert says. "It's a great experience for them."

Arts advocate for the island

When Jenny Moiles was at CMU, she saw an ad in CM Life for jobs on the island. Moiles spent her college summers working at Fort Mackinac as a park interpreter, sharing stories of life at the fort, including some of the grimmer and entertaining anecdotes recounted after dark on the Ghastly Mackinac tours.

She returned for one last summer after earning her degree in political science in 2014, and at the end of the summer was offered a job as an executive assistant at Mission Point Resort. A year later, she became program director for the Mackinac Arts Council.

Growing up in Saginaw, she never imagined she'd live on the island one day.

"All I knew was I wanted to work for a nonprofit," she says. "I wouldn't have seen myself having to ride around on a snowmobile to get to work or take a boat to go to 'the mainland.'"

Moiles is heavily involved in the arts on the island. She oversees programming for the arts council, including summer art workshops, the Music in the Park series and the programs at Mackinac Island Public School.

"The music and art teacher (in the Mackinac Island school) also graduated from CMU," Moiles said. "We bond over our campus experience, the residence halls we lived in."

Moiles likes to wear her CMU gear as she walks around the island during the tourist season. "I meet a lot of people that way and hear a lot of, 'Fire Up Chips!'" 


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