Mike Ilitch was more than just the founder of the Little Caesars pizza chain or owner of the Detroit Tigers and Detroit Red Wings, he was also a beloved member of his community.
The billionaire, who died February 10 at the age of 87, was known to residents of the Michigan metropolis as one of the most philanthropic business owners in the city, often giving back to employees, students, and veterans (starting the Little Caesars Veterans Program).
In the wake of his passing, it’s come to light that for years, a certain civil rights hero was also a major benefactor of Ilitch’s generosity.
Shortly after she refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus in 1955 (an act that sparked the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama), Rosa Parks moved to Detroit.
In 1994, she was robbed and assaulted in her home. Wanting to find a safer place for Parks, Federal Judge Damon Keith called upon his friend, Ilitch, to help her out.
“I said, ‘Mike, I don’t want Rosa Parks going back to that bad neighborhood,’” Keith told CBS News.
Ilitch not only arranged for Parks to move to a nicer apartment but also paid her rent until her death in 2005, without so much as ever mentioning it to the press.
In 2014, Sports Business Daily caught wind of the story and interviewed Keith who shared a copy of the first rent check that Ilitch wrote in 1994.
“It’s for $2,000, dated November the first, 1994. It’s from Little Caesars Enterprises to Riverfront Apartments, and I know it was just one of many,” Keith said.
With Ilitch now gone, the story is gaining new life in mainstream media and catching the attention of Michigan Lt. Governor Brian Calley who shared a link to the original story on his Facebook page along with the caption: “It will give you a sense of the kind of man Mike Ilitch was.”
Keith perhaps best summed up the impact Ilitch made on Detroiters in an interview with WXYZ.
“You’ll never discover new oceans unless you have the courage to lose sight of the shore. Mike and (his wife) Marian had the courage to lose sight of the shore and discover new oceans,” he said.
“They kept pushing Detroit, and had it not been for them, I am saying, Detroit would not be in the renaissance that they’re in now.”
Thousands of citizens showed their appreciation for Ilitch during a public visitation at Detroit’s Fox Theatre on Wednesday (February 15).
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