A 'Dream' deferred and a 'deadly' switch

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By Tom Kirvan

By all official accounts, the 19th annual Woodward Dream Cruise on August 17 was a monumental success, offering compelling testimony of the power still present under the Motor City’s hood.

An estimated 1.3 million spectators reportedly lined the 16-mile route between Pontiac and Ferndale, the city on the northern edge of Detroit that gave birth to the Dream Cruise festivities.

Attorney Lyle Russell, a man who played a supporting role in launching the rolling classic car festival nearly two decades ago, was not present for this year’s version of the event. He was some 265 miles away in the wilds of Leelanau County, perhaps enjoying thoughts of what might have been.

The backstory to the Dream Cruise could pain Russell, a Waterford-based attorney specializing in business, business litigation, and white-collar criminal defense work. He was, after all, one of the “founders” of the event, although he prefers to heap the lion’s share of the credit on the late Nelson House.

“I was the attorney for a small group of individuals who were invited by Nelson House, a Ferndale plumber, to discuss and, if agreed, to organize a fund-raising event to take place only in Ferndale,” recalls Russell, who graduated from the University of Detroit School of Law. “We met at the old Elks Club on Woodward and 9 Mile Road, sipped a beer or two, and commenced to discuss an idea that Nelson had.

“I’m a bit uncertain about the year, but believe it was in the early ‘90s,” says Russell. “Nelson’s idea was to parade vintage cars up Woodward Avenue, and use proceeds from entry fees and sales to rebuild city parks so that the local kids would benefit from them. We discussed the possibility that the parade of cars might generate enough enthusiasm to get all the way to Royal Oak, maybe 11 and Woodward, but were somewhat skeptical that it would amount to much due to liability concerns by the City of Ferndale.”

House, according to Russell, was a “community activist in the finest sense of the term,” whose sole motivation in organizing the original meeting was for the “betterment of Ferndale.” Another key player in the organizational efforts, Russell says, was Robert Turner, a district court judge in Madison Heights.

The Dream Cruise seed, watered by the small band of organizers at meetings in various “local establishments,” quickly germinated, turning into a made-in-America phenomenon that serves as a mid-August reminder of the best in automotive ingenuity, design, and engineering. For the past 19 years, it has brought car-lovers by the hundreds of thousands to a weekend place of worship, fueled in part by various high-octane brews.

Historically speaking, that’s the good news. The flip side, Russell admits, is like “finding a winning lottery ticket a year after it has expired,” the promise of untold riches painfully slipping away.

“Had any of us had the foresight to consider what the event might turn into, we could easily have licensed it and used the proceeds to benefit many kids in southern Oakland County,” Russell reflects.  “We were all thinking small and local, and failed to see the unbelievably deep vein of nostalgia, nationalism, and capitalism that seems to have propelled the event into something no one could have imagined. 

“I am also very glad to see it showcase U.S. cars in the aftermath of the recent bankruptcies of GM and Chrysler,” he adds. “If Nelson House had lived to see it, I think it would have thrilled him to realize the positive impact this has had on the Detroit Metro area.  Of course, he would also have had a few words about the people who set up lawn chairs along Woodward Avenue starting about Memorial Day, and appear to stay there until the Cruise is finally over, but basically, he was a modest guy who set in motion something that was initially a completely unanticipated success for the Detroit area.  He never sought credit for originating the idea, and I never heard him express regret for our lack of foresight. 
He just wanted to help his community.”

Much like Russell, whose good nature could well be judged in a case he once handled for the family of a deceased Wayne County man. In local legal lore, it was labeled “The Wrong Body Case,” or better yet, “The Case of the Confused Caskets.”

“Too bad about the death of Elmore Leonard,” Russell says upon reflection. “That case could have been an excellent set-up for one of his novels.”

To set the stage for this drama, please return to January 2, 1999 when a powerful winter storm blanketed Southeastern Michigan, forcing the shutdown of Metro Airport and the stranding of hundreds of passengers stuck on airplanes for more than 8 hours.

One such passenger was a burly 6-foot, 3-inch, 240-pound gentleman, reportedly clad in Bermuda shorts, who was returning with his girlfriend from a trip to the sunny Caribbean. When he finally was able to deplane, he steadfastly marched to his car parked at an outlying airport lot. It, of course, was buried in hip-deep snow. He attempted to clear a pathway, but then settled into the warmth of the front seat, hoping that help would be on the way.

In his hurry to escape the winter blast, the man failed to clear away the snow from his exhaust pipe, which fully clogged pumped deadly carbon monoxide back into his tightly secured automobile. Within minutes, he was overcome with the gas, bringing his vacation trip to a tragic end.

A few miles away, at another Wayne County site, a 54-year-old man, standing all of 5 feet, 6 inches tall, was out shoveling snow, doing his best to clear his sidewalk and driveway from the white stuff that was piling up at an alarming rate.
Within minutes, he, too, would be dead, in his case after suffering a heart attack.

Two tragic deaths, miles apart, with no apparent connection except for winter’s common denominator – snow. One of the deceased was an imposing 6-3, while the other was just 5-6 in height. No one would ever mistake one for the other, according to Russell.

Both bodies were sent to the Wayne County morgue, where somehow, someway, a crisscross occurred. Small became big and big became small. One man, rightfully destined for a funeral home in Taylor, was sent to Ohio instead. The other, designated for a proper funeral service in the Buckeye State, was shipped to Taylor.

In other words, let the legal proceedings begin.

Russell was retained to represent the widow of the Taylor man.

“It probably should have been a tip off to the funeral home that something was amiss when one was attempting to put 5-6 size clothes on a 6-3 body, and vice versa,” Russell relates. “One was ripping out the seams of clothes to accommodate a bigger than expected body, while the other was doing the reverse alternations. You can only imagine how that must have been. Hello!”

But the family fireworks were yet to come. Each family was ushered into the respective funeral homes for final viewings of the deceased. The farewells, shall we say, did not go well.

“It would be safe to say that all hell broke loose at that point,” Russell reports, noting that the daughter of the Detroit area man was particularly upset with officials from the funeral home, eventually climbing into the casket to prove the case of mistaken identity.

The funeral home, of course, was dead in the water when legal swords were crossed, agreeing to settlement terms during a case evaluation process, according to Russell. The terms of that settlement, the parties agreed, would be kept confidential.

The Wayne County morgue, on the other hand, escaped the long arm of the civil law on governmental immunity grounds, Russell says.

“They were helpful in the case against the funeral home, however,” he says. “They somewhat admitted, when pressed, that on that day (shortly after the New Year’s celebrations) they were hung over and very much understaffed.”

Yes, indeed, too bad about Elmore Leonard. He would have enjoyed mining for literary gold in the real-life world of mortuary science.

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