Former mayor to receive DMBA's Frank Murphy Award Roman Gribbs led Detroit in the aftermath of the 1967 riots

By Steve Thorpe

Legal News

Former Detroit Mayor, Appeals Court Judge and Wayne County Sheriff Roman S. Gribbs has done it all in public service, on the bench, in law enforcement and in executive offices.

"It's been a wonderful career," the 86-year-old Gribbs says.

The Detroit Metropolitan Bar Association will be hosting its Raising the Bar annual meeting on May 31 at the Gem Theater in Detroit. Among the awards the organization will present that evening is the Frank Murphy Award, considered to be its highest honor, and Gribbs will be this year's recipient. He was elected to the Michigan Court of Appeals in 1982, where he served until retiring in 2001.

The annual award honors an attorney who has exemplified the profession's highest ideals and demonstrated distinguished service. It is named for the legendary Frank Murphy, who served as a U.S. District Attorney, Recorder's Court Judge, 35th Governor of Michigan, U.S. Attorney General and eventually United States Supreme Court Associate Justice.

Judge William Giovan, himself a veteran of decades on the bench, nominated Gribbs for the award and will introduce him at the event.

"I first met Roman Gribbs when he was an assistant prosecutor and I was still a college student, little suspecting that some day I'd be a friend and colleague of his on the Circuit Court," Giovan said. "I feel as if I've had a ringside seat to his career of public service and it will be my great honor to introduce him to receive the Frank Murphy award."

Giovan's nomination of Gribbs was enthusiastically received by the DMBA and the committee vote was unanimous.

"Here's a man who's done everything, with a long distinguished career of public service," Giovan said. "It seemed to me he was a natural. I wasn't sure what reception my suggestion would get but, naturally, I was pleased."

Gribbs knew nothing of the effort, but was thrilled to learn of the award.

"It's an absolute surprise and a great delight," he said in an interview.

Although he was born in Detroit in 1925, Gribbs grew up on a family farm in Capac, which his parents lost when the Depression arrived. His father then worked on the assembly line at an auto plant.

"I didn't think I would even go to college," he says. "I was raised on a farm in the 1930s and I went to a one-room schoolhouse. There were two of us in my class and one teacher taught all eight grades."

The friendly nagging of his brother played a role in Gribbs deciding to give higher education a try.

"Jobs were plentiful when I got out of the service, so I almost didn't take advantage of the GI Bill," Gribbs says. "But my brother said, 'Go to college! You've got to try it and see if you like it.' I did try it and I did like it."

Gribbs completed his undergrad and law degrees at the University of Detroit. His first stop in a prominent public office was when he was appointed Wayne County Sheriff in 1968.

Gribbs became the mayor of Detroit in 1969 by beating Richard Austin by 1 percentage point. As the first new mayor after the devastating riot of 1967, he helped get the city moving again, working with the Ford family and a coalition of business leaders to begin the Renaissance Center and other projects. The Renaissance Center was then the largest privately financed project ever with world famous architect John Portman creating the design. Portman had created the Peachtree Centre in Atlanta as well as the Embarcadero Center in San Francisco. At the time, Gribbs said he hoped for "a complete rebuilding from bridge to bridge," a reference to the area between the Ambassador and Belle Isle bridges.

Never flashy or slick, Gribbs acted as a calming influence when the city was still dealing with the rocky aftermath of the riot.

"That was the challenge ... to bring the people back together," he says.

Gribbs was proud of balancing the budget, a feat that his predecessor wasn't able to accomplish. He prided himself on being a frugal cost cutter. Rather than live in the Manoogian Mansion, he chose to live in a relatively modest house in Rosedale Park.

"I had to lay people off the first year because we were determined to balance the budget and we did," Gribbs says. "The headlines said 'First layoffs since the Depression.' But it was a great four years and I worked with great people."

When he decided not to seek reelection, Gribbs was succeeded by Coleman Young. He then became a circuit court judge in 1975 and was elected to the Michigan Court of Appeals in 1982, serving there until his retirement in 2001.

Since his retirement, Gribbs conducts private practice in mediation, arbitration and case evaluations. He also is a member of the Board of Directors of the Piast Institute, a local research center devoted to Polish American issues. His commitment to the Detroit area hasn't flagged over the decades.

Giovan, an amateur actor, has portrayed Frank Murphy on stage and is known to be an admirer. If he, Roman Gribbs and Murphy's ghost went out to dinner, what does he think they would talk about?

"We would talk about the history and the prospects of a great American city," said Giovan.

Published: Tue, May 29, 2012