February 15, 2017; Crain’s Detroit Business

“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,” said [Judge Damon] Keith, 91, who has been a U.S. Court of Appeals judge in Detroit for the last 46 years. “It’s important that people know what Mr. Mike Ilitch did for Ms. Rosa Parks because it’s symbolic of what he has always done for the people of our city.”

—“Ilitch aids civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks, others,” Christopher Botta, Street & Smith’s Sports Business Journal

The fingerprints of Mike and Marian Ilitch can be seen all over Southeast Michigan. From leading the revitalization of the historic Fox Theatre, to building a grand stadium for his Detroit Tigers, to her ownership of the MotorCity Casino, the Ilitches have been enmeshed in Detroit’s ups and downs for decades. Mike Ilitch passed away last week at the age of 87, but he’ll live on in the many gifts his business and philanthropic savvy will continue to give the Detroit community.

The Ilitches’ fairy-tale business story is seasoned with hard work and gusto. Over six decades, they turned a $10,000 investment in a suburban pizza kitchen into a business empire worth $6.1 billion, according to Forbes. The new Little Caesars Arena currently under construction in Detroit is perhaps the crown jewel of the empire; scheduled to open in September 2017, it will be the home base for the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings, which the Ilitch family also own. (The NHL commissioner announced this week that the arena has landed a coveted gig hosting the All-Star Game.)

Though his business accomplishments earned him much approbation, “Mr. I,” as he was affectionately known, also left his mark on the nonprofit community in big and small ways—and always strategically. Herman Gray, head of the United Way for Southeastern Michigan, had the chance to personally observe the impact of the Ilitch family’s charitable gifts and their support of United Way over the years. “He was a great man with the common man’s touch,” Gray said. “His loss will certainly be felt in the nonprofit community, where he gave so much and impacted so many.”

In a nod to Ilitch’s time as a U.S. marine, the Little Caesars pizza chain offers deep discounts to veterans who want to launch a franchise. Knowing that charity begins at home, Ilitch’s philanthropy also included the Little Caesars Love Kitchen, created in 1985 to aid the hungry and people caught up in disasters.

Formalizing their charitable endeavors, the family launched Ilitch Charities in 2000. The charity and its affiliates have given more than $35 million in cash and in-kind donations to various causes since 2005, according to the family.

It seems there was room for everyone in Ilitch’s vision of philanthropy. Matthew Pepper, CEO of the Humane Society of Michigan, saw firsthand how his organization benefited from Mike Ilitch’s charitable leadership, noting that it will be missed.

Mike Ilitch was a passionate supporter of organizations that shared his commitment for a better Detroit for everyone—animals included. Ilitch Charities has been supporting MHS since 1986 and Mr. Ilitch’s amazing legacy will live on in the countless lives he has impacted through services provided at MHS and made possible by his support.

Critics have noted that Ilitch, despite being a billionaire, received taxpayer subsidies for his sports stadiums. Some accused him of allowing some of his real estate properties to crumble. Still, he was also in on the ground floor supporting some of the most pivotal nonprofits to shape the metro-Detroit area. The late Eleanor Josaitis founded Focus: HOPE after feeling powerless while watching the city burn during the Detroit riots in the ’60s, and Mr. I was right there, supporting the burgeoning nonprofit.

“Mike Ilitch was a passionate supporter of Focus: HOPE throughout our inception 49 years ago,” according to Jason D. Lee, the CEO of Focus: HOPE. “He was a leader in reinvesting in his hometown of Detroit which impacted thousands. He will truly be missed.”

The Ilitches weren’t afraid of making a big charitable investment for a big return. Crain’s Detroit reports that Mike and Marian Ilitch have personally gifted nearly $50 million to the Detroit-based Wayne State University. That gift included $40 million in 2015 for what will be the Mike Ilitch School of Business. Wayne State said the donation, which comprises $35 million toward the building construction and $5 million for an endowment, is the largest in the history of the university and ranks as one of the top 10 gifts ever to a public business school in the United States.

The school will be built next to the new Little Caesars arena; if any of the students need a little inspiration, they need only look across the street at the Ilitch legacy. Let’s hope the next generation of business leaders is inspired to follow Mr. I’s philanthropic style as well as his business acumen.—Carrie Collins-Fadell