In my line of work, it’s very common to speak before various public groups. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been asked this question: “Who is someone you would like to interview but never have?” It’s a tough question, because so many interesting personalities come to mind.
But upon careful reflection, one of them would have been Detroit businessman Mike Ilitch who passed away Friday at age 87. I’ve interviewed more than my fair share of movers and shakers throughout my journalism career but have never sat down one-on-one with man who revolutionized the pizza business, left his indelible marks on Detroit’s sports scene and invested in the Motor City’s future when many other entrepreneurs were running in the opposite direction.
There are many questions I would have posed directly to Ilitch. Obviously, that opportunity has now slipped through my fingers. Such is life. Still, you don’t always have to talk to the person of interest to get to know them. I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing some of Mr. Ilitch’s children and that alone was fascinating insight into a humble, ambitious, visionary and generous man who deeply loved his family.
Ilitch, who grew up in Detroit, didn’t build his food, sports and entertainment empire alone. His kids are the first to tell you that it was a strong partnership with their mother, Marian, who shared a 61 year marriage with Mike. At home and in the rough and tumble business world, they have always been a team.
I remember Denise and Atanas Ilitch telling me in 1996 about their parent’s family influence and serious commitment to the Detroit area. We did the interview inside their new city headquarters next to the historic Fox Theatre their parents purchased and restored to its original grandeur. That conversation centered on the Ilitch’s agreement with former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer, former Wayne County Executive Ed McNamara and the William Clay Ford family to build new side-by-side professional baseball and football stadiums in downtown.
Now, fast track to January of this year and an interview I did with Chris Ilitch, President and CEO of Ilitch Holdings and one of Mike and Marian’s seven children. WXYZ/Channel 7 had just named Chris as one of our two 2016 “Newsmakers of the Year. “
I was talking to Chris about his generational vision for Detroit. We discussed the new Little Caesars Arena under construction and the 40-block area off Woodward Avenue that his business is developing. He could have taken credit for all that he is doing but he said this instead:
“I would start by saying a lot of the credit goes to my parents, Mike and Marian Ilitch. Not only have they been incredible parents for me but they’ve been incredible mentors, they’ve been incredible leaders for our businesses, for our organization (and) for this community. They’ve modeled the way in their leadership and I think in many respects they have modeled me as a person and as a leader.”
My one-on-one interview with Mike Ilitch will never happen but that’s ok. Through his kids, I met the real man. His legacy will live on through his family and his many contributions to Michigan and America.