Mike Ilitch will be remembered this week for his big visions and his even bigger contributions, particularly in Detroit.
Yet, some 600 miles to the southwest, in a little town called Paducah, Kentucky, he’s being remembered for his big heart.
In 2004, Ilitch read an article about a soldier who had lost both of his legs in the Iraq war, and he wanted to do something.
In typical Ilitch style, he did something big — giving U.S. Army veteran Robbie Doughty a Little Caesars franchise, and for free. The store opened in late January 2007, celebrating its 10th anniversary less than two weeks before Ilitch died Friday night at 87.
Son Christopher rises to fill Ilitch’s big shoes
“When you come back home from something like that, and certainly don’t get me wrong, the VA and the military are obviously gonna take care of you,” said Doughty, who was gravely wounded in a roadside bomb attack in Samarra, Iraq, “but you’re kind of forced to move on to the next chapter at that point.”
In 2004, while Doughty was being treated at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, he was profiled in USA Today. Ilitch, long an avid newspaper reader, was touched by
So Ilitch had his people track down Doughty’s family. They found an aunt and uncle, who were confused by the phone call.
“They called me and left a message, ‘I think somebody from Domino’s or something has called,’ ” Doughty said with a chuckle over the phone Monday afternoon. “I was like, I had no idea what that was about until I called back.”
Doughty called and got Ilitch’s associates, who quickly got him right on the phone with Ilitch, who explained what he wanted to do.
Doughty was shocked.
“Disbelief,” he said. “That’s certainly not something that happens every day, every year, even every decade for a person like me. It was amazing.”
Doughty’s story laid the foundation for one of Ilitch’s many charitable endeavors, the Little Caesars Veterans Program. Doughty was given his franchise; those who have come after him have gotten significant franchise-fee discounts as they work to integrate back into society after their military careers have ended. That often can be a very difficult process for veterans, wounded or not.
The following year, in 2005, Doughty traveled to Detroit to meet with Ilitch and discuss the specifics. In early 2007, Ilitch traveled to Kentucky, along with his son, Christopher, to help Doughty officially open the store. It was a life-altering moment, if not a life-saving one.
“Doughty stood strong for our country,” Ilitch said at the time. “I was so impressed by his courage, commitment and upbeat attitude in the face of adversity that I wanted to do something. Offering him a new career path in his hometown seemed like a good transition. Doughty’s ‘can-do’ attitude will make him a strong Little Caesars franchisee.”
Doughty said he would have “found something” to do after the Army, but he had no idea what that would’ve been. He thought he might be an Army lifer. If not, he thought about maybe law enforcement. Of course, those were ideas with the assumption he would leave the Army on his own terms.
He didn’t. A roadside bomb assured that.
“They obviously made it a very easy choice for me to go that route,” said Doughty, now 42 with a 10-year-old son. “When the opportunity presented itself, I jumped on it immediately.”
Ilitch spent four years in the Marines in the late 1940s and early 1950s, returning home to play minor-league baseball before, eventually, opening the first pizza store
that would give rise to a multi-billion-dollar empire. Little Caesars long has given away free pizza to veterans on Veterans Day each November.
While Doughty’s story has been told many times, those charitable tales always take a back seat to Ilitch’s big spotlight deals, like his work with the Red Wings, the Tigers, Comerica Park, Little Caesars Arena, the Fox Theatre, and so on.
But as he became one of the wealthiest men in the world, Ilitch stayed remarkably humble and giving. He once told Fox Sports Detroit that his wife, Marian, came up to him decades ago — well before the billions, or even the millions — and said they had a nice year, revenue-wise, but that all the charity was significantly shrinking the profits. So Ilitch dialed it back for a bit, but not for long.
He famously paid civil-rights icon Rosa Parks’ rent in Detroit when she was on the verge of eviction late in life. Some big guns benefited from his heart, too. In April 2009, with the automobile industry dangerously on the brink of collapse, General Motors no longer could afford to sponsor Comerica Park’s center-field fountain — prime advertising real estate. An unnamed company swooped in with a seven-figure offer, but Ilitch said, “Thanks, but no thanks.” Instead, he added the logos of Chrysler and Ford to the left and right, respectively, of General Motors’, with the tagline, “The Detroit Tigers Support Our Automakers.” Total bill: Not a penny.
Then there was Doughty, whose life nearly ended that day in Iraq. Now, thanks to Ilitch, his life has turned for the better.
“Obviously, he meant a tremendous amount to me,” Doughty said. “It just meant the world to me and my family.”
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