Welcome friends, grab yourself a cup of Joe and pull up and chair and let’s chat about one of Detroit’s true heroes . . .Mike Ilitch
Part of me seems to have died February 10, 2017, and a great part of Detroit and Windsor went into mourning that day with the death of one of Detroit’s quiet, and unassuming legendary heroes – Mike Ilitch, at the age of 87.
Over the decades, the rebirth of Detroit’s downtown has been the result of visionary and committed investors. It was the Ford family who financed the construction of the Renaissance Centre in the mid 1970’s. Peter Stroh contributed to the riverfront development east of the Ren Cen and Peter Karmonos Jr. put his signature on the Compuware Building near Campus Martius. Race Car Hall of Famer, Roger Penske, also brought a Super Bowl and Grand Prix racing to the “D”.
But the past few decades will long be remembered for the investment and commitment by Dan Gilbert of Quicken Loans fame, and the late Mike Ilitch.
Some investors put their money where their mouth is. Other investors put their money where their heart is. It would be the latter category that Mike Ilitch should be placed.
Some wealthy billionaire investors are floated $1 million by their dad with the mandate to create their empire in whatever means possible, including screwing the little man, declaring bankruptcy and leaving creditors hung out to dry, and using every tax loophole there is to avoid paying taxes. Other wealthy billionaire investors come from modest backgrounds and invent themselves. Such is the case with Mike Ilitch. Born of Macedonian immigrant parents – his father was a tool and die maker – Mike built his billion-dollar Empire through hard work and respect for the little man.
While many people were escaping from Detroit’s deteriorating downtown core years ago, Mike and his corporate staff left the suburbs and ran to the heart of the city. They brought their corporate headquarters for Little Caesars Pizza to the historic Fox Theater Building.
He invested millions of dollars in the restoration of the Fox Theater, restoring it to a beauty that it hadn’t seen in 60 years. He bought the Detroit Red Wings of the NHL in the 1970s and turned a fledgling franchise into one of the top tier organizations, winning four Stanley Cups during his tenure. He also purchased the Detroit Tigers and finance 60 % of the cost of their new home at Comerica Park.
Ilitch’s first love with respect to sports was always baseball. A graduate of Cooley High School in Detroit, he was signed to a $5000 bonus to the Detroit Tigers minor league system as a second baseman. Before signing with them. he served four years in the Marines and afterwards rejoined the Detroit Tigers system where he sustained a knee injury which ended his career.
He and his wife, Marian, started their first Little Caesars Pizza store in Garden City, Michigan in 1959 with the savings he had amassed from his baseball signing. By 1999 he had grown the business to more than 4000 stores and was listed as one of the 400 wealthiest persons in the USA. On the success of Little Caesars, he was financially able to purchase both the Tigers and the Red Wings sports franchises, and transform a section of the urban core into a vibrant entertainment area.
I had the good fortune to meet Mr. Ilitch over the years on several occasions. He was one of those unique individuals that when you met him you felt like he elevated you to celebrity status, and not the reverse. A plainspoken and focused man, he was as real as real can be. There was little pretense or celebrity air about him. He never forgot his roots and treated everyone he met with respect and dignity.
The concessionaires at Comerica Park, the maintenance men and women, the grounds crew, all new Mike as Mr. I. And Mr. I knew many of them by their first names and took the time to stop and chat with them.
Stories abound about how charitable Mr. I was. He paid Rosa Parks’ rent in the Riverfront Apartments until she died, after she was victimized by a home invasion in a dangerous Detroit neighbourhood. His care and concern for Service Veterans is heralded throughout the country and he has established a charity to provide honourably discharged vets with business opportunities. And the list of his ‘below the radar’ charity goes on and on.
He and Marian have seven children who will carry his torch and pay tribute to their father’s legacy and his enormous impact on the city he so loved.
After 25 consecutive playoff appearances, 2017 will mark the first year the Detroit Red Wings have failed to make the playoffs. It seems fitting that streak would end the same year that Mr. Ilitch’s life here on earth would end.
It is unfortunate that Mr. Ilitch did not live long enough to see his new Little Caesars Arena to completion. Somehow, I wish they could rename the arena in his honor. I think it would be so cool to refer to the new arena as the “ I ” – with that letter emblazoned on the top of the roof. That way we would have our very own “I from the sky” …
Feature photo: (L-R) Ken Holland, Mike Ilitch, Marion Ilitch, Gordie Howe and Nick Lidstrom, November 22, 2006 at the ribbon cutting ceremony to dedicate the Gordie Howe entrance. Photo In Play! magazine