What's in a name?


Law Clinic Center reflects UDM, namesake’s legacy

When the new University of Detroit Mercy George J. Asher Law Clinic Center opens for business in December, it will mark 47 years since the law school’s first urban clinic was founded and nearly 50 years since the passing of its namesake, a man who was known for his service to others during a very short yet extremely meaningful 40 years of life.

The school will be holding an invitation-only ribbon cutting ceremony for donors on Dec. 11.

“The construction and dedication of the George J. Asher Law Clinic Center reflects both George’s and U of D’s legacy of serving others with competence and compassion,” said George’s younger brother, Anthony Asher, managing partner of the law firm of Sullivan, Ward, Asher & Patton, based in Southfield.

In 1965, UDM Law made a commitment to the concept of lawyers learning their craft, in part, by helping the less fortunate. That was the beginning of what would become the explosive growth of the school’s clinic program, leading to today’s 10 clinics serving well over 1,000 needy clients a year. The new center will give those clinics a vastly improved setting.

Anthony, a UDM and UDM School of Law alumnus, made a principle gift for the purchase and renovation of the new facility in memory of his late brother who passed away as a result of complications from hemophilia in 1963. At the time, Anthony was a first-year law student and George was just months shy of graduating from the School of Law. Anthony continued his studies with George’s inspiration spurring him toward success.

As the eldest child of Syrian Catholic immigrants in Detroit, George quit high school at the age of 16 to become head of a large household and support his family after both of his parents passed away. Anthony, then 10 years old, looked to George as his surrogate father, and he was humbled by the sacrifices his older brother made for him and their siblings.

Despite the personal sacrifices he made for his family, George went on to earn his Graduate Equivalency Degree (GED) and became a highly successful non-lawyer union negotiator for a local law firm. At the urging of the attorneys at the firm, he completed high school and began law school at the University of Detroit in the evening program while serving as a defender of workers’ rights as a labor negotiator for the Hotel Bar and Restaurant Union.

It was during this time when he was representing the union’s Local 705 members that he met his future wife, Pearl, who also was raising a younger sibling at the time. They met on the picket line at Richard’s Drive-In in 1951. The Detroit restaurant was the site of a strike over inferior wages in which waitresses were being paid only 25 cents per hour, the equivalent of $1.99 today.  The labor dispute landed the pair in jail for a short time for contempt of court although it only strengthened their budding love affair. Pearl, who passed away in February 2012, is remembered as an “uncompromising union activist,” a label that also fit her late husband.

According to a front page article in the trade publication, Michigan Hotel, Bar, Restaurant Review, “Meeting on the picket line of strike-bound Richard’s Drive-In, the couple managed to keep a romance going in spite of the juvenile antics of irresponsible hot-rodders, a flare up of violence which saw the whole complement of the Shaeffer Police Station converge on the scene and the romance-dampening atmosphere of the Wayne County Jail.”

In 1957, George, by then a veteran of years in the building trades, turned his attention towards service to home owners after becoming the executive secretary of the Better Heating and Cooling Bureau (BHCB), a consumer and customer protection agency for the heating, cooling and ventilating industry. The BHCB protected the public from inadequate installations of unscrupulous, unlicensed heating and cooling contractors by handling inspection requests, addressing consumer complaints and providing information, educational activities and counseling services for home owners.

In a Detroit Free Press obituary titled, “George Asher; A Real Fighter,” which was published shortly after his death in 1963, a local reporter wrote, “Friends of George Asher remember him as a vigorous enemy of the gyp artist. He spent much of his time trying to protect homeowners from shady operators who installed heating equipment in a slipshod way. George and I worked on several articles on these pages, which exposed the gyps who charge fancy prices for heating systems that won’t work right.

“One of his favorite projects was a tough heating code which he had been trying to get Detroit and suburban communities to adopt. Let’s hope the work he has started doesn’t stop now that George is no longer in the fight.”

Shortly after his death, the City of Detroit took action, passing a heating ordinance that protected consumers from inadequate installations. The ordinance required city inspectors to get tough on code violations and forced contractors to follow installation guidelines created by the BHCB. 

Suburban communities soon followed suit, forming the Reciprocal Heating and Refrigeration Council. The watchdog group was formed to protect consumers from improper and possibly dangerous installations, enforcing the use of uniform codes throughout the state that were initially established by George and his BHCB colleagues.

“My brother always promoted the industry and George wanted to protect the consumer and the homeowner,” his younger brother Anthony recalled.

According to the book, Detroit: The First City of the Midwest, published in 2001 in conjunction with the 300th anniversary of the founding of Detroit, “The public introduction of the BHCB was big news in trade circles and positively affected millions of Detroit homeowners. He (George) worked relentlessly to inform the public, lobby for the industry and forge a new relationship with the sheet metal union. Consequently, heating and cooling consumers became secure in the knowledge that they and the industry were made safer.”

Until the opening of the George J. Asher Law Clinic Center, the most recent epitaph to Asher’s lasting legacy was published as the dedication in the 2nd edition printing of the labor negotiations book, Employer’s Handbook for Labor Negotiations, published in 1964. On the first page of the book, which today sits on the shelves of 137 libraries worldwide, Richard J. Fritz and Arthur M. Stringari, authors and former colleagues of George, wrote, “To George J. Asher, a keen student of human behavior, who taught us all many valuable lessons.”

In December, yet another epitaph will emerge with Asher’s name forever chiseled into a law clinic devoted to serving others, much like the life of its namesake.