William “Bill” Tunnicliff is remembered by many as a big man with a welcoming personality to match. Those who knew him best also knew him as a man with a kind and gentle heart, said his son, Steven Tunnicliff.
William Tunnicliff, a longtime leader in Michigan education and former superintendent of Mt. Morris and Flushing schools, died Thursday, May 14, after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. He was 80.
Those who knew him called him an advocate for children, supporter of leadership and champion of public education.
“I would say he was an icon, not only as a leader but as a person and a father,” Steven Tunnicliff said.
Big Ten honors
Born in Detroit in 1940, Bill Tunnicliff grew up with three brothers in Ferndale and graduated from St. James Catholic High School.
He was a standout football, basketball and baseball player and attended the University of Michigan on a football scholarship.
In 1961, Tunnicliff earned Academic All-Big Ten honors and was selected to play in the Senior Bowl and Blue-Grey Game his final year. After graduating with a degree in education in 1962, he was drafted by the Chicago Bears, but played only briefly, choosing to begin his 45-year career in education instead.
Michigan fullback William Tunnicliff (36) is tackled by an Ohio State player during the college football game between Michigan and Ohio State at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor on November 25, 1961. Ohio State won the game, 50-20. (Photo: Ann Arbor News)
While he excelled in athletics, Tunnicliff’s passion was teaching and meeting the needs of children.
Tunnicliff married his wife Margaret, in 1959, and had two sons, Gregory and Steven.
“Bill set an extraordinary example for his family as a loving husband, father and ‘papa’ up to his last days," his obituary reads.
His career in education
Tunnicliff began his career in education as a social studies teacher at Jackson High School. He then moved into the same role at Bloomfield Hills Andover, where he eventually stepped into administration in his role as high school principal. He served as a high school principal and assistant superintendent in Battle Creek before beginning his career in Genesee County, starting as superintendent of Mt. Morris Consolidated Schools and ending his education career as superintendent of the Flushing Community Schools district.
Tunnicliff retired from Flushing in 2000, after serving the district for 16 years.
He signed his resignation letter to the school board “Bill,” as if addressing a close friend, according to The Flint Journal archives.
“I don’t like to be referred to as Mr. Tunnicliff," Bill said in a 2000 Flint Journal article. “I usually don’t like to go by William. I like it if new teachers and secretaries and staff call me Bill.”
He liked the idea of retiring while at the top of his game, Tunnicliff said in the article.
“Things are in very good shape, and I wanted to make sure I retired before I started not being challenged, and not going out of my way to find something to work on and prove,” he said. “I’m almost at the point where I’ve been there, done that, same old, same old. I’m not burned out. I just want to beat the burnout.”
His son described his father’s leadership style as “old school” in a way that was also ahead of his time. He said his father believed what was best for kids was a solid foundation rather than an easy fix.
“He believed real leaders develop the next leader,” Steven, said.
A leader developing leaders
Early in Steven Tunnicliff’s own career in education and eventually in administration, he said he would “resent it a bit” when people would say, “it looks like you are following in your dad’s footsteps.”
“Because I thought I wanted to stand on my own,” Steven Tunnicliff said. "What I learned over the years and believe now more than ever is how proud I am to be following in his footsteps and hope to make a fraction of the positive impact that he left on others.”
Steven Tunnicliff now serves as assistant superintendent to the Genesee Intermediate School District.
Bill Tunnicliff hired current Flushing schools superintendent Tim Stein in 1997 as a principal.
“Staff were comfortable with him but they also knew he had the expectation that they were working hard,” Stein said.
Tunnicliff believed in the profession, said Bob Burek, former superintendent of Fenton Area Schools
“It’s a great loss," Burek said. "He was a giant in the profession and influenced so many people. His presence will be missed. He was a real force of good.”
While their relationship began as a professional one, Burek said he and Tunnicliff became friends over the years. Burek, now retired as well, would meet with Tunnicliff at least three times a year. He said he last saw him a few months ago before the Michigan stay at home order due to COVID-19.
“He was known statewide, not just in Genesee County, and really was an incredible individual, not just as an educator but as a person,” Burek said.
Mike Newton, a retired superintendent of Grand Blanc Community Schools, said he first saw Tunnicliff as a Battle Creek student when he was watching a Wolverine football game.
“He was one of a kind,” Newton said. “I can remember when I was at Battle Creek Central and Bill was the principal. Hiring Bill Tunnicliff was the best decision the Battle Creek school system ever made. He was just the right person at the right time for that job.”
Newton, born and raised in Battle Creek, was hired by Tunnicliff at the start of his career as a teacher and football coach in the early 80s. At the time, the education field was rocky and Newton said he was eventually laid off.
“Bill was always good in terms of encouraging me not to give up, to always look for that ideal job - it’s going to come,” Newton said.
He first took a job in Illinois, but wanted to go back to Michigan. Tunnicliff would pass on job opportunities and Newton eventually ended up in Grand Blanc.
Newton remembers how Tunnicliff always supported people.
“He was just the ideal person to work with - very organized, very genuine and it was just an honor to know and work with him,” Newton said.
Outside of his career in education
Tunnicliff taught and coached for four years. His golf team won a regional championship and back-to-back league championships, a perfect season. He also received and Coach of the Year accolades in football.
After his retirement, the Flushing school board decided to name the district’s new auditorium the William Tunnicliff Auditorium, Steven Tunnicliff said.
Steven said his father was honored and surprised when found out the board had done this. The board kept it a secret., knowing he would never agree to it if asked. While he had been a longtime athlete and coach, he also worked to provide opportunities to students interested in the arts. The auditorium that was built was a testament to that.
Upon retirement, Bill served urban school districts across Michigan for seven more years as a Legislative Liaison for Middle Cities Education Association. He was inducted into the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators Hall of Fame in 2008, as well as the Battle Creek Central High School Hall of Fame in 2016.
A private funeral will be held at St. Robert Bellarmine Catholic Church in Flushing. A public celebration of life will also be scheduled for a future date due to COVID-19.
Memorial contributions can be made to the William H. Tunnicliff Memorial Scholarship Fund for students with Autism at Flushing Community Schools.