Nancy Haynes has directed the Fair Housing Center of West Michigan for the past 11 years, but her first chosen career track would have taken her into a totally different field — from housing to home plate and onto a baseball diamond.
As a young girl, Haynes wanted to be Joe Morgan, a hall-of-fame second baseman who won two World Series rings and five gold gloves as a member of Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine and who twice was voted the National League’s Most Valuable Player.
“I wanted to be the first female major league baseball player. My dad had four daughters — no sons — and we all tried to outdo each other by being tomboys. We lived in Cincinnati and we had season tickets to the Reds games. I played Little League baseball — my dad coached — and I loved baseball. I was really good at baseball until the boys caught up with girls,” said Haynes with a laugh, adding that she was her league’s MVP one season.
“My career hit its high point in the fourth grade. But until then, I was a second baseman and I wanted to play for the Cincinnati Reds. … I wanted to be Joe Morgan. I either wanted to be him or I wanted to marry him, I just wasn’t so sure at that age,” she said with another laugh.
Although she wasn’t able to do either, Haynes was able to get close to Morgan when she was given access to the Reds’ dugout and playing field at Riverfront Stadium. It’s a memory she will never forget.
“Because I was the Most Valuable Player, I got to be the honorary batboy of Forest Park, which was my little community in Cincinnati. But because I was a girl they didn’t know what to do with me, so they made me the honorary princess of Forest Park instead. But I still got to sit in the dugout with the team during the game and play catch before the game,” she said.
“My mom wanted me to wear a dress and I refused. Instead, I had my tube socks pulled up to my knees, my polyester baseball pants, my Cincinnati Reds jersey and my cap pulled down, and I was missing teeth. I looked like such a dork, but I was living the high life.”
Haynes turned her attention to law after reading Harper Lee’s 1960 novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” in the fifth grade.
“I decided I wanted to be Atticus Finch. I wanted to be a lawyer and I never really thought about what that meant. I didn’t have any lawyers in my family; I just knew that’s what I wanted to be. So I went to law school and got a great job. I worked for Buchanan and Bos right out of school. It was a great firm,” she said, while adding that she also did litigation work for another “great firm,” Mika Meyers.
“But it wasn’t that ‘noble profession’ that I had imagined. I thought it was going to be really different. It had nothing to do with the firms — I probably worked at the two best firms in town. But I wasn’t finding it very fulfilling.”
So Haynes underwent career testing and found out that her skills and mindset were best suited to direct a nonprofit. In the meantime, she had represented a few individuals who felt they had been discriminated against while searching for housing. Then she got a seat on the Fair Housing Center’s board. She said she loved her involvement with the panel, but hadn’t seriously thought about pursuing a career in the nonprofit realm. Then the center’s director, Lee Nelson Weber, announced she was leaving to join the Dyer Ives Foundation, and suddenly a light bulb clicked on in Haynes’ head.
“I just felt like the earth moved and a light was shinning down. Everything was falling into place because I’d just gotten those results in December about being a director of a nonprofit. So I interviewed in January of 1999 and I got the job. I started in April and I have never looked back. It’s been the perfect fit for me,” she said.
“I feel like the luckiest person in the world every day when I go to work. I really do. I would have to love what I do to leave my three boys and not be a full-time, stay-at-home mom. I feel like we make a difference every day. We really work proactively to stop problems before they happen.”
David Bulkowski, executive director of Disability Advocates of Kent County, got to know Haynes when both served on the Fair Housing board, and that was before she was hired to direct the organization.
“Back then, she was her energetic and passionate self about the cause,” he said.
Bulkowski said he was “greatly pleased” when he first learned that Haynes was going to apply for the center’s director’s post, and he still feels the same about her today.
“She continues to blow away my expectations. The Fair Housing Center continues to have a huge impact locally and now along the lakeshore over in Holland and also nationally. I’m still on the board there and proud to be a part of that organization, but Nancy does the heavy lifting,” said Bulkowski, who has been a board member since 1996.
“Just watching her challenges me in my own job of running another nonprofit that’s about justice issues. I get a lot of good challenges from her.”
Grand Rapids Planning Director Suzanne Schulz has served on the same board for the past five years and, like Bulkowski, has seen Haynes in action. She knew Haynes, though, before joining the board, as their children attended the same day-care center.
“Nancy lives what she believes in. And being director of the Fair Housing Center, she is so passionate about the cause and making sure that everyone has equal access to housing. With her legal background, combined with her passion, she does a wonderful job with the center. She is also so caring too. She is fabulous,” said Schulz.
Haynes was born in Detroit while her father was away at basic training. She said he got word of her birth while he was crawling under chicken wire through a muddy field. Today, she lives in Grand Rapids “as a proud resident” with her husband, Bryan, and their sons: 7-year-old Bodie and 5-year-old twins Tuck and Tybee. She calls the boys the shining beacons in her house.
“They’re named after lighthouses. Bryan and I used to kayak on the East Coast before we had kids and they’ve all seen their lighthouses. They think it’s really neat they’re named after lighthouses,” she said.
Haynes said the family seldom misses a GVSU football game. She also loves to read, travel, meet with friends and chase after her three sports-minded sons who just may follow in their mom’s footsteps.
“They’re all baseball fans. They love baseball. Right now, they’re still infatuated with the equipment, so they all tend to want to be the catcher. But, yes, they’re all infielders.”
Nancy said Bryan loves his job as much as she loves hers. He directs institutional communications and advertising for Grand Valley State University. “His last name is Bickford, and I let him keep his last name when we got married,” she said with a chuckle.
According to Nancy, there are two versions of how she and Bryan met. Bryan claims they met at a downtown bar one Friday night. Nancy, though, offered a more interesting story.
“I went snowboarding with a friend of mine and her boyfriend at Cannonsburg. They had borrowed the snowboarding equipment from her boyfriend’s roommate for me to use. I was trying to learn how to snowboard and had fallen a million times. I was on the ground, and some guy came snowboarding up to me and sprayed snow in my face, and he said, ‘Nice boots,'” she said.
“I looked up and it was Bryan, and the boots were his. Bryan helped me up and taught me how to snowboard, and that’s how we met.”
They dated for about a year and a half before they tied the knot. And even though August will mark their 14th wedding anniversary, they still go out on dates.
“We go out on one date a month. It’s the first Friday. We have a babysitter that we schedule in advance. She knows when, and we don’t even have to coordinate it. That’s about it. Everything else is about our kids,” she said.
Haynes graduated from Hanover College, a small liberal arts school in southern Indiana on the Ohio River, with a dual degree in political science and international studies. She earned her law degree from Indiana University.
She is vice president of the parent-teacher group at C.A. Frost Environmental Science Academy, and also of the National Fair Housing Alliance. NFHA represents fair housing centers nationwide, and she is climbing the organization’s leadership ladder. Last year, she was treasurer; next year, she may run for the top spot.
“I’m contemplating taking over as president or chair of the National Fair Housing Alliance. That would involve a little more travel to D.C. and working a little bit more closely with the current Obama administration and HUD,” she said.
“Our center is emerging as one of the national leaders in fair housing. We’re on the cutting edge of discrimination advertising and we’re kind of looked to as a leader.”
But reaching new career marks isn’t the only thing Haynes has her sights set on for the future. Much of her life is rooted in Bryan and the boys, and that’s something she doesn’t want to change in the coming years.
“I would feel blessed if it would continue,” she said. “I want to get more involved with my kids as they get more involved in sports and school. Next year, I’ll have two more in kindergarten at C.A. Frost, so I also want to get more involved in C.A. Frost. It’s an incredible school.”