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Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch remembered as great man

Mourners say goodbye inside Detroit theater he restored to glory

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

DETROIT -- The mourners lined up on the street in the biting cold, the length of a city block, some in dark suits and dresses, others in Detroit Red Wings and Detroit Tigers gear. When Mike Ilitch's public visitation began Wednesday, they entered a side door of the Fox Theatre.

The lavish palace opened on Woodward Avenue in 1928 when Detroit was a boomtown. It fell into disrepair along with the city in later years. But then Ilitch bought it in 1987 and restored it to gilded glory.

There could be no more appropriate place to pay respects to Ilitch, who died Friday at age 87. He did more than build a business empire that included Little Caesars Pizza, the Red Wings and the Tigers. He helped rebuild his hometown.

"He probably means everything," said Bob Yeomans, 76, of suburban Commerce Township. "He did things here before anybody even thought of doing them or had the courage to do them."

Once mourners entered the Fox, they saw flowers and a portrait of Ilitch and his wife, Marian. They walked down an aisle of the theater, gazed at the ornate décor and sat in seats in front of the stage where Shirley Temple, Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra once performed.

To the left was a huge photo of Ilitch, his wife and the Stanley Cup. To the right was a huge photo of Ilitch as a United States Marine. In the center was a movie screen and a slideshow set to music. Had it been fiction, it would have seemed unrealistic, just a movie. But it was fact, the story of Ilitch's life, a story of the American dream.

There were photos of Ilitch growing up on Detroit's west side, the son of Macedonian immigrants, serving in the Marines, playing minor-league baseball for the Tigers, turning Little Caesars from one store in the suburbs into a national chain, sponsoring amateur hockey.

There were photos of Ilitch buying the Red Wings in 1982 when they were known as the "Dead Things," renovating the Fox and moving Little Caesars headquarters into the building in 1989, buying the Tigers in 1992, kissing the Stanley Cup one of the four times his Red Wings won it, opening Comerica Park across Woodward in 2000, being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2003, giving millions to charities.

There were Ilitch quotes:

"I don't like the word 'can't.' To be successful, you have to believe that you can."

"You need a playful mind willing to entertain even the most ridiculous idea."

"It's always been my dream to see a vibrant and energized downtown Detroit."

"I look at me and Detroit as one. The city is like a family member to me."

There also were personal photos, of baptisms, Halloweens, birthdays. Mike was married to Marian for 61 years. They had seven children, 22 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

"The fact that he was such a real person I think is the thing that always sticks with you, that he never forgot where he came from, that he was such a regular human being and he could relate to anybody," said Tom Wilson, president and CEO of Olympia Entertainment. "Even if you didn't know him that well, it still feels like a little part of you is not with us today."

Olympia Entertainment runs the Fox, City Theatre, the Red Wings and the Tigers. It is building Little Caesars Arena, where the Red Wings and Detroit Pistons will play next season, anchoring The District Detroit, a $1.2 billion development that will include office, retail and residential spaces.

"It takes a special person to go in and say, 'You know what? This is important to me. This is important to the city. This is important to the citizens of the city,'" Wilson said. "To take all those projects on, to make them all roaring successes, I think all of us -- all of us -- are affected by that emotionally and personally."

After the slideshow, the mourners walked up another aisle, past more flowers and photos, and into the Grand Lobby. Ilitch lay in a closed casket draped with an American flag, a U.S. Marine standing sentry. The mourners paid respects to Ilitch and then gave condolences to his family, including his son Chris Ilitch, who now runs the empire as president and CEO of Ilitch Holdings.

Diana Simmons, 41, of suburban Southfield, introduced herself and her son, Isaiah, 7. Chris Ilitch bent down, smiled and spoke to Isaiah.

"You aren't missing school, are you?" Chris Ilitch asked.

Isaiah had the day off because of parent-teacher conferences. After meeting with his teacher, his mother brought him downtown. She is a tax preparer and author, but she grew up in Detroit and worked at a Little Caesars store at Wayne State University for a couple of years in high school, making pizza, working the register.

"I just felt this was important for him to come," she said, looking at her son, "because he's going to be someone like Mr. Ilitch. So I want him to be exposed to all of that and know that great men come from Detroit. No matter what's being said about Detroit, great men do come from Detroit, great people."

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