Most people familiar with the career of the late Mike Ilitch think about either pizza or sports.
Founder of the Little Caesar’s pizza empire (Pizza! Pizza!), Mr. Ilitch also owned the Detroit Redwings hockey team and the Detroit Tigers baseball team. Although the Tigers never won a World Series during his ownership, he built the Redwings into a powerhouse that won four National Hockey League Stanley Cups.
Still, many people remember Mike for his numerous philanthropic endeavors. A billionaire, the Macedonian-heritage businessman and his wife Marian gave away many millions of dollars. In 1986, they launched Little Caesar’s Love Kitchen, which has served food to more than two million victims and responders to natural disasters.
In 2006, after hearing about a veteran who lost both his legs in combat, Mike created the Little Caesar’s Veterans Program to help veterans with business opportunities. For this he received in 2007 the Secretary’s Award, the highest civilian honor conferred by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“A lot of people seem intent on villainizing businessmen and businesswomen,” said Art Ally, founder and president of the Timothy Plan, a provider of mutual funds and ETFs that pioneered Biblically Responsible Investing. “So, it’s important to highlight those who use their time and resources to help others, as Jesus directed us to do. Mike Ilitch was a fine example of a businessman who cared for his community, including the neediest.”
Over the years, Mike was responsible for many more charitable outreaches, but it was something he did very quietly that best revealed his compassionate side: Without fanfare, he came to the rescue of one of America’s civil rights icons living in Detroit who had fallen on hard times – Rosa Parks.
Rescuing Rosa Parks
Considered “the first lady of civil rights,” Ms. Parks had famously refused to give up her seat in a bus to a white man in Montgomery Alabama on December 1, 1955. She was arrested, sparking a 381-day boycott of Montgomery’s buses that helped launch the civil rights movement. Two years later, she moved to Detroit, but eventually came down with dementia. Living in a high crime neighborhood, she was robbed and beaten in 1994.
Enter attorney Damon Keith, who now serves on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. He told the Washington Post that he had represented Ms. Parks and had called up Mike Ilitch after she was beaten. “I said, ‘Mike, I don’t want Rosa Parks going back into the same neighborhood that she was in when this bum beat her up.’ He said okay.”
Mr. Ilitch responded right away with a check for $2,000 to get Ms. Parks into a home in a safer neighborhood. He continued to be her main financial supporter, sending checks right up until her death at age 92 in October 2005.
In seeking no public recognition for his care of Ms. Parks, Mike lived out Jesus’s advice about doing good works quietly:
“Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2 Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. 3 But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you [a]openly.” (Matthew 6: 1-4)
‘All About Family’
In a colorful tribute to Mike two days after the pizza magnate’s death on February 10, 2017 at age 87, author Mitch Albom summarized his life: “This was a regular guy who happened to get really rich, a guy who was all about family — one wife, seven kids — who didn’t hunger for headlines, didn’t collect expensive toys, and never strayed far from his roots (“I don’t have six houses around the world…” he once told me.”
“Pizza was not a ‘smart’ investment when he got into it in the late 1950s. But something told him to keep digging deeper. The Red Wings were not a smart investment in 1982 (be honest: They were the laughingstock of the NHL), but something told Ilitch there was a treasure under that ice, and his paltry $8-million investment has escalated to a team worth more than $1 billion.
“Certainly, refurbishing the Fox was not a prudent move, not in the 1980s. He did it anyhow, to create a jewel that became a maypole of the surging Woodward Corridor.
“And let’s never forget. For a while, Mike Ilitch kept the lights on in our city. These days it’s vogue to invest in Detroit. Ilitch did it when it was not. He did it when it was crazy. There were years when it felt as if Ilitch were lighting candles in a graveyard.”
The much-quoted saying, “It’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness” probably arose from a Chinese proverb, but the Bible contains a more sweeping sentiment embodied in the words of the Apostle Paul:
“The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light.” (Romans 13:12)
In quietly aiding a desperate woman and not expecting anything in return, Mike Ilitch gave us a wonderful example of light in a dark world – and the Power of One.
A writer for Timothy Partners, Ltd. He is a regular weekly columnist for The Washington Times and Townhall.com and is frequently published by AmericanThinker.com, DailyCaller.com, OneNewsNow.com, and others. He has authored the following books: “A Strong Constitution: What Would America Look Like If We Followed the Law” (D. James Kennedy Ministries, 2018), Invested with Purpose: The Birth of the Biblically-Responsible Investment Movement, and A Nation Worth Fighting For: 10 Steps to Restore Freedom.