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Tom Watkins
Tom Watkins

Mike Ilitch and Dr. David Adamany

February 24, 2017 

It’s time to celebrate the passing of lives well-lived.

This past week, Michigan paused to say good-bye to a good and decent man, who through hard work, vision, and tenacity, changed the skyline and character of Detroit – Mike Ilitch.

The man who began with one pizzeria in Garden City, Michigan, was transformed by him and his wife, Marian, into the Little Caeser’s Pizza empire. They also bought and restored historic Fox Theater in downtown Detroit, owned hockey’s Detroit Red Wings, baseball’s Detroit Tigers and invested in the City of Detroit.

I felt a kinship of sorts with the Ilitch family. His nephew, Matt, was a classmate of mine when I attended Bishop Borgess High School in Detroit. I later came to know and respect his daughter, Denise. Through them, I saw the hue of a caring man.

Character is not what one does in the spotlight but how one’s life is conducted when no one is watching. On this score, Mike Ilitch shined brightly.

There were many stories shared after his passing about what he accomplished. But the ones that cut to the core of the man were the stories told that until now never saw the light of the day.

One story that illuminates his compassion and genuineness, was how Mr. Ilitch stepped up and paid the rent of a woman of character and courage: Rosa Parks. He helped her live out her later life in safety, with the dignity and respect she earned and so richly deserved. That is the mark of a good and decent man.

Detroit News Columnist Daniel Howes said pizza mogul Mike Ilitch, who died at 87, leaves a legacy that arguably changed the arc of Detroit in ways he probably never could have imagined.

Crain’s Detroit Business captured the outpouring of tributes for Mike Ilitch.

In a farewell column in The Detroit News, Paul W. Smith, host of The Paul W. Smith Show on WJR-AM (760) captured the essence of the man, quoting his son, Christopher Ilitch, now President and CEO of Ilitch Holdings Inc., the company his father and mother built.

Rest in peace, Mr. Ilitch, knowing you made Detroit and the world a better place. God speed to your family.

Remembering an Academic Leader

The outpouring of love and respect for Mr. Illich made me reflect on another man of character, wisdom, and humility who added value and made a difference to our city, region, state and nation, Mr. David Adamany.

I first met Dr. Adamany, when he was President of Wayne State University. He was a man on a mission to make Wayne State, with its urban core in Detroit to live up to its mission. He promised to help make WSU become the soul of Detroit, lifting people up through quality education. He went on to become the longest-serving WSU president, helping transform both the university and Detroit in the process, leaving behind his name on the Adamany Undergraduate Library on Wayne State’s campus. He also led Temple University as its eighth president.

Adamany passed away after a brief illness on Nov. 10, 2016, at the age of 80.

The Detroit News reported Dr. Adamany “led the university from 1982-97. He launched more than $300 million worth of building projects and helped the university emerge as a top research school, according to a national ranking.”

I worked with and for Dr. David Adamany as his special assistant, 1990-96. After Governor Blanchard’s surprise defeat in 1990 (I was then the State Mental Health Director), Adamany reached out and asked me to join him on his quest to transform the educational landscape and the city he loved that surrounded it. I was glad I did because I learned and grew both as a person and professional under his mentorship.

I had a close-up view of a man of tremendous intellect, drive, tenacity, persistence to accomplish things that would make the world a better place for all. No, he was not universally loved, as he would not back down on his vision to make Wayne State and the city a great place for a quality education and help uplift a struggling city.

He was a scholarly, soft-spoken, tough man who demanded and expected results. He earned both his bachelor’s and law degrees from Harvard University and earned both his master’s and Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin. He confided in me that his experience in politics and government made him a better president as he brought these skills to the President’s role – well beyond the skills of a typical academic scholar. While he knew, appreciated and valued the tradition of “shared governance” within the “academy” he had the drive of a CEO to get things accomplished and not at a snail’s pace either. He worked in grassroots politics and on the Governor’s staff in Wisconsin – a role that demanded action and results.

Long time UAW activist, lobbyist and negotiator Paul Massaron who served 16 years on the WSU Board of Trustee’s and as Board Chair 2003-04, retired from the board at the end of 2016 and stated, “Although David and I had a number of differences, I believe as President of WSU he made a substantial contribution to Wayne and thousands of students by developing a strong relationship with State Representative Morris Hood who chaired the House Appropriations Committee and other legislators so that Wayne got an appropriation large enough each year that tuition could remain low and therefore Wayne could more effectively meet its urban mission. This was not easy and required constant work and building a coalition and then maintaining it.”

Retired CEO of the Henry Ford Health System, Nancy Schlichting, reinforced the value and goodness of the man this way, “David Adamany understood the critical role of education in American cities. We were fortunate to have him lead both Wayne State University and the Detroit Public Schools at a critical time in our history. He clearly preserved and enhanced major assets, affected the lives of countless students, and partnered with community leaders to begin the comeback of our City.”

“I knew David Adamany during my tenure as executive editor, then publisher of The Detroit Free Press Dave Lawrence said, “He comes immediately to mind when I think of the most thoughtful, most dynamic leaders I knew.”

Ilitch Connected With WSU

There is a huge Ilitch connection to WSU. Wayne State University received a $40 million gift from Mike and Marian Ilitch to build a new, state-of-the-art business school facility in Detroit. The gift was the largest in the history of the university and ranks as one of the top ten gifts.

Like Mr. Illitch and other true leaders I have been privileged to know and learn from his compassion and humility and how quietly and without fanfare, he helped people in need because it was the right thing to do, not merely a “photo op.” There are many people who he extended a hand and a ladder to that lives are better because he cared.

Rest in peace, David Adamany. May all the people who knew him, and for those that loved him, know his contributions will not soon be forgotten.

Two good men have passed. The seeds they have planted will bear fruit for generations to come. The City of Detroit and the world is better because these two men forged a relationship that changed lives and produced progress.

Tom Watkins  is President and CEO of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority. ( He has served the citizens of Michigan as state superintendent of schools and state mental health director. He is a prolific writer, a regular contributor to these pages and He can be emailed at:, or followed on twitter at:@tdwatkins88


February 23, 2017 · Filed under Tom Watkins

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Bill Volz // Feb 24, 2017 at 12:57 am

    Well said, Tom.

  • 2 Liz Bauer // Feb 24, 2017 at 5:34 pm

    Your reflections on the lives of two important leaders are welcomed. Many details are included that may not be known to members of younger generations and yet they benefit from the contributions, practices and policies of Mr. Ilitch and Dr Adamany. Your essay will help readers better understand, respect ,and be grateful for the contributions of both men.

  • 3 Michael Warren // Feb 28, 2017 at 8:11 am

    A fitting tribute to two very different but enormously important to Michigan and Detroit.

  • 4 jon // Mar 1, 2017 at 12:50 pm

    Hi Tom,

    A nice article, both men meant a lot to our state as well as their families.
    Tom, a note from one of your old cubicle buddies, what is with the hair? Stress getting to you?



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