Enduring spirit Ford dealership chairman saluted at 'Soul Food' event

By Tom Kirvan

Legal News

A man who recognized the importance of "seizing the opportunity" in his life and his automotive career was the recipient of the "Soul and Spirit Humanitarian Award" at the 28th annual Soul Food Luncheon February 12 in Detroit.

Walter E. Douglas Sr., chairman and majority stockholder of Avis Ford in Southfield, was this year's honoree, earning special praise from the founder of the Soul Food event, U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Damon J. Keith.

"Walt has been an activist in the finest sense of the word, and has freely given of his time and talents to many charitable and civic causes in the Detroit area," said Judge Keith. "His willingness to lead and to help out are just part of how his success is measured."

Douglas, former chair of The Auto Club Group, the 9 million-member Michigan based affiliate of AAA, was the third president of New Detroit, the nation's first urban coalition. He served the organization for more than 13 years before beginning his auto dealership career. In his acceptance speech, Douglas recognized pioneers in the African American community who were "trailblazers" in the pursuit of equality, thanking those who "seized an opportunity to make our world more inclusive."

He joins an impressive list of previous winners that includes the likes of Rosa Parks, Coleman Young, Dr. Benjamin Carson, Dennis Archer, Joe Dumars, Dave Bing, Conrad Mallett Jr., Aretha Franklin, Congressman John Conyers Jr., Faye Nelson, Carol Goss, and 2014 honoree Juanita Moore.

The annual luncheon was launched in 1988 to honor exceptional black men and women, many of whom have placed particular value on the importance of community service throughout their professional careers, according to Judge Keith. The event, traditionally held during Black History Month, attracted hundreds of federal, state, and local dignitaries to the United States Courthouse in Detroit for the invitation-only event. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Edsel Ford II were among the VIPs in attendance.

"This is an event that started out as a very small gathering and has just mushroomed over the years," said Keith, who has been recovering from a nasty bout with shingles. "It is an opportunity to pay tribute to a black man or woman from the Detroit area who has achieved greatness and can serve as a role model for others in the black community."

Douglas, who published his autobiography "The Activist Entrepreneur" in 2013, has served for years on various corporate boards, including the Henry Ford Health System and Health Alliance Plan; the Tiger Woods Foundation; the Oakland University Foundation; the Wayne State University Foundation; the Skillman Foundation; and the foundation for his alma mater, North Carolina Central University. He currently serves on the board of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. He and his wife, Reha, have three children.

Gerald Rosen, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, was among the speakers at the luncheon, which featured a menu of fried chicken, black-eyed peas, corn bread, sweet potatoes, collard greens, and other soul food delicacies. The Chief Judge praised Keith for his lifetime commitment to the common good, labeling the 92-year-old jurist an icon, a legend, a mentor, and an inspiration. And with a nod to his late father, Chief Judge Rosen added another term to describe Judge Keith "mensch." In Yiddish, said Rosen, the term befits a man of "integrity and honor" and is the "highest" of compliments.

Rosen, one of the principal architects of the so-called "Grand Bargain" that emerged from the Detroit bankruptcy proceedings, pulled double duty last Thursday, subbing for Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, who recently was hospitalized with a blood clot following an Achilles tendon injury. In the Governor's absence, Rosen read a letter addressed to Judge Keith from Snyder, which said in part:

"This is the first Soul Food Lunch I have missed since becoming governor. I really enjoy the chance to be with you and all your attendees who have done such great work ensuring equality and opportunity for all people. While my mobility is challenged at present, there is nothing wrong with my appetite and I am missing some of the best soul food I have ever tasted!

"I congratulate this year's honoree, Walter Douglas, who personifies a lifetime of selfless humanitarian service and excellence in business," Snyder wrote. "He joins a highly respected group who has been recognized by you over the years."

Snyder also called Keith "an incredible role model to me and to so many people," recognizing his "legacy as a relentless crusader for civil rights."

Keith, in turn, expressed his gratitude for the outpouring of support, reflected in part by the number of his former law clerks who traveled from afar to attend the luncheon. Their "loyalty" and "dedication" serve as daily reminders of their "willingness to do what is right," he proclaimed.

Published: Fri, Feb 20, 2015