Mike Ilitch's death is being mourned by so many, because he gave so many people opportunities. He used his franchise to give hard working people a process that helped them realize their full potential in business and make dreams a reality.
Little Caesar's started as just a job in high school for Brent Armstrong, who describes his younger self as “just a Detroit City kid, eastside.”
He advanced in the company, then one day Mike Ilitch asked to speak with him.
“When he said he wanted to do something for me I thought he wanted to give me a bonus, $100 or something like that,” said Armstrong.
Instead Mike Ilitch said he noticed how hard Armstrong worked to provide for his five children and asked if he would like to own his own franchise.
Now Mr. Armstrong’s children work at Little Caesar's restaurants he owns in Detroit and Highland Park.
“So when I think about the possibilities he has given me, it is not just me. I am the beginning of possibilities for my children,” said Armstrong.
Mike Shaub drove in from out of state to pay respects to Mr. Ilitch. He was in his twenties and just home from serving in the military when he started working for Little Caesar's. He put in notice he would be leaving his job there. Mike Ilitch asked to speak to him.
“He said, I hear you are leaving. You have my blessing to do that, but let me ask you a question…” said Shaub.
Mike Ilitch, who is also a veteran, offered him the opportunity to own his own stores. He took that opportunity.
He eventually would help Mr. Ilitch start the Little Caesar's Veterans Program, which helps all veterans, but especially disabled veterans buy a restaurant.
Shaub now owns Little Caesar’s restaurants in Ohio, South Carolina, and North Carolina.
Mike Ilitch didn’t just exhibit generosity that helped him grow his business. He built a powerhouse of philanthropy. Many of the good deeds done by he and his wife Marian were done quietly with no expectation of recognition.
It is only recently we have learned what they did for civil rights icon Rosa Parks. When she was beaten and robbed in 1994 Judge Daman Keith called on the community to raise money to help her move to another neighborhood. Mike and Marian Ilitch stepped up. They paid her rent for the rest of her life.
In 1985 Mr. Ilitch made a restaurant on wheels called the Little Caesar's Love Kitchen.
It travels the country. For example, earlier this month it stopped in Dougherty County, Georgia to give meals to more than 200 people affected by the storms and tornadoes.
Mike Ilitch is behind charity work around the nation, but his heart is in Detroit. He has helped fight poverty, improve the lives of veterans and invested in education.
“Think of the largest idea you can and go from there,” said Allison, a student at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit.
That is the message Mike Ilitch and Ilitch Charities gave students last month. They invested $800,000 in an innovative class. Students in the class will create sculptures that will surround the Little Caesar's Arena.
“It is a visionary gesture that is consistent with this very grand vision for Detroit,” said Rick Rogers, President of College of Creative Studies. "They are really thinking big. They are thinking in a transformational way.”
In October 2015 Mike and Marian Ilitch gifted $40 million, plus use of land, to build the new Wayne State University Mike Ilitch School of Business.
“I tell you what, I think it is the thrill of my life I really do,” said Mike Ilitch in an interview with Seven Action News after the announcement. “I love the city so much. To see my name on that building, I feel like my life is starting all over again.”
“To see what they felt and their dream come to fruition, it really was a meaningful experience,” said April Jones, an MBA student at WSU who was at the announcement event.
Jones and Professor Attila Yaprak say they are heartbroken he passed before construction was completed.
“It is such a big loss for our community our school and our state,” said Yaprak.