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Mike Ilitch mourned, thanked by Detroit residents

At makeshift memorial, late Red Wings owner praised for rejuvenating city's downtown

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

DETROIT -- While Detroit mourns Mike Ilitch, his legacy continues to be built.

Fans, employees and neighbors lined up outside the main gate of Comerica Park on Monday to pay respects to Ilitch, the Detroit business and sports icon who died Friday at age 87. The sound was silence, except for the pounding, grinding, beeping and rumbling of construction.

People laid flowers at the base of the big tiger statue. They wrote messages on temporary white boards featuring pictures of Ilitch as founder of Little Caesars, owner of the Detroit Red Wings and owner of the Detroit Tigers. Everyone is welcome day and night through Thursday, and a public visitation will be held at the Fox Theatre from noon to 8 p.m. Wednesday.

Standing at the makeshift memorial at the stadium Ilitch built, you can see across Woodward Avenue, Detroit's main street, where Ilitch moved Little Caesars headquarters and renovated the Fox long before it was trendy to invest in the city. You can see the steel skeleton of a new building for the expansion of Little Caesars headquarters.

To the right, you can see the City Theatre, Hockeytown Cafe and part of Little Caesars Arena, the anchor of a mixed-used development called The District Detroit, where the Red Wings and Detroit Pistons will play starting next season. Walk up a block or two, and you can see cranes, diggers, cherry-pickers and workers with Winged Wheel logos on their hard hats.

Video: Teams around the NHL honor Mike Ilitch

"This is Mike Ilitch," said Bud Somerville, 61, a retired factory worker from suburban Westland. "This right here, Ilitch has done this. If you had ever seen the Fox before they fixed it, it was a wreck. When he got in there, he had that thing …"

Somerville paused.

"Wow," he continued. "It was breathtaking. It was awesome."

Wow, indeed. Ilitch grew up on Detroit's west side, served in the Marine Corps and played in the minor leagues for the Tigers. He worked as a door-to-door salesman until he and his wife, Marian, saved up enough to open Little Caesars Pizza Treat in suburban Garden City in 1959.

Somerville lived so close growing up that he and his friends used to ride their bikes there.

"Marian would wait on us, and he would cook pizzas," he said. "He used to come out and sit with us. He would sneak us free pizza."

Somerville had no idea what Ilitch would cook up in the future.

Ilitch started sponsoring youth hockey. That lone store became a national chain. It snowballed into an empire, but Ilitch never forgot where he came from or changed his blue-collar, giving attitude. Though he made lots of money and did some controversial deals, he also reinvested and donated lots of money with visions of championship teams and a vibrant Detroit.

Think of how many workers he employed. Think of how many fans he thrilled when the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup four times and the Tigers made the World Series twice. Think of how many people he impacted directly and indirectly.

Read the messages on those boards:

"Thank you, Mr. I …"

"Detroit will miss you …"

"Thank you for your love of the city of Detroit …"

"Detroit lost a great man …"

"Thank you for the employment and success …"

"We will always remember you …"

Somerville was the first in line for Gordie Howe's visitation in June and first at Comerica Park on Monday, wearing a Red Wings cap and a Tigers jacket, clutching a camera. He studied the pictures of Ilitch and his wife on their wedding day, Ilitch and his wife at a championship parade going down Woodward, Ilitch giving two thumbs up with the mark of a Stanley Cup champion.

"Look at that ring on his hand," Somerville said.

Duke Foote, 46, a construction worker from Detroit, came even though he had never met Ilitch.

"He helped out everybody, more people than I know," Foote said. "It's a city that's coming back, a city that's rebuilding. They're showing love, and they want to put it back into the city, and Ilitch definitely did that. I truly appreciate it. I really do. I appreciate everything he's done."

Toni Speir, 44, of suburban Sterling Heights, came because she had worked with Ilitch and the Make-A-Wish Foundation in the mid-2000s.

"He would go around with the kids and just play around with them and talk to them," Speir said. "He was never above anybody. He showed the same respect for everybody, whether you were a janitor or one of the [executives of] his company."

Donna Anderson, 52, a hairdresser from Detroit, came because of what Ilitch had done for her neighborhood. She lives, works and owns a building in the Cass Corridor. The area has been bleak for ages but has started to show life again with The District Detroit rising nearby. She said she never met Ilitch but credited him for raising her property value.

"I feel like we really lost somebody special for Detroit," Anderson said, sniffling, wiping away tears. "I'm really grateful for everything he's done for Detroit. He really made it happen again, woke the city up.

"I'm just happy that somebody stayed with the city and made it happen. I'm just happy for that. And I hope that his family can continue what he started."

While she spoke, the mourners kept lining up, and the hammers kept banging away.

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