Hero: Michael Iilitch
Hero Essay: Michael Ilitch Sr.
Superman, Spiderman & Batman ultimately saving the world from mayhem and destruction. These are the heroes we’ve grown up to know and admire from generation to generation. What purpose do they bring to our lives? Why do we need heroes anyway? I’ll tell you why. Heroes give us a sense of hope. Hope, I believe, to be one of the essential needs for the human existence to carry on with day-to-day life. The common need we share to feel protected. Protection that we can inevitably be saved from ourselves, the evil-doing of others, and simply the reassuring thought of knowing someone (or something) stronger than us is watching from afar. Whether the individual is literally saving the world or unmasking a new hope to a broken establishment, modern heroism is still alive to this present day.
On July 20, 1927, Michael Ilitch Sr. was born to become a prime example of leading the citizens of Metro Detroit into good hands after proving his soon-to-be restless efforts towards benefiting the community in major ways. After graduating from Cooley High School in Detroit, Michigan, he served in the marines for 4 years where he would eventually find himself being pulled away by his general from the front line of duty to be further evaluated for a ‘special operation’ in Hawaii. “He took me off the ship so I could play for a (military) baseball team in Pearl Harbor,” recalled Ilitch. “I finished my service there.” Upon his arrival home, he was offered a contract with the Detroit Tigers from 1952-1955 playing minor league baseball. During this time, his parents didn’t approve of the career choice, but like every hero, heroes have dreams and he worked hard to fulfill them. Ilitch brought the idea to a nightclub owner that he should be serving pizzas. The Detroit-based club owner hired Mike Ilitch Sr. on staff to make pizzas in a back room of a west-side nightclub. People loved the new addition, and Mike had seemed to have stumbled onto an idea that was about to make him an amount of money he had never fully dreamed of. “I was fascinated by water and flour,” he told the New York Times. “You knead it into dough, put it in the oven, and it comes out baked. Wow!” all this seemed like a fantastic way to gain extra spending money until a tragedy soon would come to strike our hero.
A broken knee injury soon ended Ilitch’s baseball career and extinguished his dream of playing ball for the rest of his life. After going on a blind date in 1954, our hero had met a beautiful reservation clerk from Delta Airlines. He eventually married Marian Bayoff in 1955, and in their marriage they raised seven children: Denise, Ron, Michael Jr., Lisa, Atanas, Christopher and Carole. To support his large family, Ilitch took a job with a cement company, later selling dinnerware & aluminum siding door-to-door. Using the pizza idea as a last resort, Mike and Marian decided to open a pizza parlor business of their own. Not actually having the cash yet, they invested the $10,000 in life savings they shared & with an additional $15,000 loan; the Ilitch’s were able to open their own business. The first Little Caesars Pizza Treat we all know so well held its grand opening during 1959 in Garden City, Michigan.
After making well-over a billion dollars from his developing franchise, he soon ventured into sports ownership. In 1982, Ilitch was presented with the opportunity to purchase the hometown Detroit Red Wings, a struggling franchise, for a reported $8 million as the Wings finished dead last in their division during four consecutive seasons, coining the term “Dead Wings.” As one of the NHL’s ‘Original Six’ hockey teams, the Detroit Red Wings had not generated much interest when Bruce Norris first put the team on the market, but Mike saw the team’s potential. “This franchise is a sleeping giant waiting for someone to do something with it,” he had told Sports Illustrated. Taking the time & pouring money into assembling a winning roster he loved dearly, the 1987-88 Red Wings had won their division championship and were contenders for the Stanley Cup, giving the hockey fans of Detroit a new hope of pride. In 1991, Mike Ilitch was awarded the Lester Patrick Trophy for his outstanding contributions to hockey in the United States. The Detroit Red Wings repeated 15 divisional championships, 6 presidents trophies, 6 Campbell bowls & 4 Stanley cups (1997, 1998, 2002, 2008) generating the $8 million team into a $250+ million franchise. This was simply not enough. To make the purchasing of the Major League Baseball team of his youth even sweeter, Ilitch bought the team for a reported $85 million from Tom Monaghan, his rival from Domino’s Pizza in 1992. Just as he did with the Red Wings, Mike used clever marketing and extraordinary business practices to revive the Detroit Tigers. In 2006, the Detroit’s Tigers made the playoffs for the first time in nineteen years, and advanced on to the World Series.
The revival of Detroit sports teams seemed to have brought an entire community back together with a new sense of pride but that wasn’t the beginning of what was held for the city of Detroit. Having lived in the local area his entire life, he loved his hometown & wanted to see it prosper as he had always envisioned. “I was raised in Detroit,” Mike began, in an interview with the Detroit Free Press. “I came from zero. This community helped make me. It’s nice to give something back.” In 1987, the Ilitches purchased the neglected Fox Theatre and restored it back to its roots. Many investors thought it was impossible to revive a business in downtown Detroit, but after the theatre’s re-opening, it has still been rated as one of the top grossing theatres of its size. Upon many of Ilitch’s philanthropy efforts was the first Little Caesars Love Kitchen. Established in 1985, the traveling restaurant was formed to feed the hungry and assist with food provisions during national disasters which was admired by U.S Presidents in term & served over 2 million people in need of help. During 2006, he found himself inspired by a veteran returning to civilian life after losing both of legs in the war. Ilitch then founded the Little Caesars Veterans Program to provide honorably discharged veterans with business opportunities when they transitioned from service to home, receiving the Secretary’s Award from the U.S. Department of Veterans affairs for this program in 2007 (highest honor given to a civilian by the department.)
Mike Ilitch Sr. has proven himself time and time again that valiant efforts with a pure heart can really stir a broken city into a new direction. He was presented a key to the city of Detroit by Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick in 2008 (only 1 of 5 to be awarded.) From reaching out to the die-hard sports fans, giving thousands of Detroit citizens local job opportunities, & putting food into the hands of the hungry, I believe it is my conclusion to say that a cape is not required to protect your city as long as a big heart with a big wallet is reconstructing hope into the city of Detroit one purchase at a time.