DETROIT (WWJ) – Brimming with memories and emotion, thousands of fans turned out for a visitation at Detroit’s Fox Theatre for the late Mike Ilitch.
Nancy Brown of Lincoln Park said she stopped by to show her appreciation for a man whom she says “brought the life back” to the city of Detroit.
“I come down here very often, and I enjoy enjoy all the things that he’s done for us,” she told WWJ’s Sandra McNeil.
Ilitch, who founded the Little Caesars pizza empire before buying the Detroit Red Wings and Tigers, died Friday at age 87. Wednesday, fans in team gear stood in line for up to an hour to pass by his casket.
Among them was Bob Wilson of Pickney, who said he worked for Little Caesars in the late 1970s. He remembers Ilitch as a down-to-earth and kind man.
“It’s funny, when I worked for him I sent him an invitation — him and Mrs. Ilitch — to our wedding. And, you know, everybody said did you send Mr. and Mrs. Ilitch an invitation to your wedding? I said yeah, and they said, oh, he probably won’t come,” Wilson said.
“Sure enough he showed up, and I never forgot that. As long as I live, I’ll never forget that.”
Wilson went on to own eight rival pizza franchises. He said he owes it all to “Mr. I.”
“He was the nicest man I know. One nice thing…I think he taught me how to treat people.”
Trevor Hawkins drove in from Willis, Michigan, near Ann Arbor, to pay his respects. “Even though I’m just 22, Mike Illitch meant a lot to me,” Hawkins said.
He added that it’s especially heartbreaking because of the recent struggles of the Tigers and the Wings; but he’s grateful for the legacy Ilitch has left behind.
“Look at the Fox Theatre, look at the Grand Lobby, look at what he did with Comerica Park, look at what he did with Joe Louis (Arena). It’s just, it’s just great to see all these people down here.”
David Agius, a personal assistant to the Ilitch family for the past 45 years, believes the billionaire businessman’s hopes and vision for the city of Detroit will live on.
“They have seven children and 22 grandchildren and three great grandchildren, and everything was always done as a family. Anytime any major decisions were made or any thoughts on anything, both he and Mrs. Ilitch would have a family meeting with their seven children,” Agius said. “And it sort of carried over to our businesses as we started to grow.”
As for his reputation as a charitable man, Agius said Ilitch supported many causes, and would often give small gifts, like t-shirts or autographed baseballs, to total strangers.
Public visitation at the Fox concluded at 8 p.m. The family will honor Ilitch at a private funeral service.