After a Detroit icon dies, a hidden good deed comes to light

DETROIT -- A funeral was held Thursday for hometown hero Mike Ilitch. “Mr. I,” as he was known, died last week at the age of 87.

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Detroit Tigers owner Mike Ilitch in 2014.

Carlos Osorio, AP

He was a billionaire who gave a lot to his city -- sometimes in ways no one knew.

As the line of mourners in downtown Detroit made perfectly clear, the city just lost someone very special.

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Mike Ilitch, the owner of the Detroit Red Wings and the Detroit Tigers, was beloved his city.

CBS News

“I think Mr. Ilitch was the most significant person in Detroit,” said one resident. “He was Detroit.”

Mike Ilitch built a billion-dollar pizza empire with Little Caesar’s. He owned the Detroit Tigers and won 4 Stanley Cups with the Red Wings. And by all accounts kind and philanthropic -- it turns out as good as Ilitch was, he was actually even better.

“Well its certainly an unpleasant experience and something I didn’t expect,” said Rosa Parks -- yes the Rosa Parks -- an American icon. After the bus boycott in Montgomery, she moved to Detroit, where in 1994, a man broke into her home, beat and robbed her. 

Damon Keith is a federal judge who knew both Mike Ilitch and Rosa Parks. “I said, ‘Mike, I don’t want Rosa Parks going back to that bad neighborhood,’” Keith says.

So Ilitch arranged for her to move to a much nicer apartment. Then he sent checks for the next 11 years, paying her rent for the rest of her life.

“He just believed in helping people,” Keith says. 

It’s only coming to light now after his death because Mike Ilitch never said a word about it when he was still alive.

“It’s important to know that there are people of wealth in this country who are still concerned with the underprivileged and those who are deprived,” Keith says. 

Rosa Parks taught us all about dignity and resolve.  When she needed help, along came another teacher with a powerful lesson of his own: The purest form of giving is when no one knows your name.  

  • Jim Axelrod

    Jim Axelrod is the anchor of the Saturday edition of the "CBS Evening News" and a national correspondent for CBS News, reporting for the "CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley" and other CBS News broadcasts.