'OPENING ACT:' Noted Detroit area lawyer often cast in the lead role

Dick Rassel, now in his second tour of duty as chairman of Butzel Long, is a pro at opening doors.

He has developed a knack for it over a distinguished legal career that began in 1969 and has been spiced with scores of courtroom victories in defense of First Amendment rights.

Yet, for all his legal and litigation success, Rassel perhaps is equally well known for his volunteer work on behalf of various nonprofits in Metro Detroit, where he has taken door opening to a real art form. His efforts on behalf of Detroit Public Television, in analog days known simply as Channel 56 in the Motor City, are the stuff of leadership legend, the kind of behind-the-scenes work that would make for a compelling TV show on the virtues of volunteerism.

In fact, a video tribute of a very special nature was paid to Rassel in late September at DPTVs annual Premiere Night, a gala event at the Detroit Athletic Club. That evening, in the presence of more than 300 key supporters of public television, Rassel was in the spotlight as the 2011 winner of the John W. Porter Leadership Award, an honor named for the former president of Eastern Michigan University. Dr. Porter, who also served as superintendent of public instruction in Michigan during his career, chaired the strategic planning committee for Detroit Public Television in the 1990s, recommending a new digital facility and capital campaign project for the sustainability of DPTV.

Rich Homberg, president and general manager of Detroit Public Television, said the award could easily have been named after its most recent recipient.

Dick (Rassel), throughout his many years of association with public television in Detroit, has demonstrated the kind of visionary leadership that has consistently inspired others to take positive action, said Homberg, the former general manager of WWJ Newsradio 950 in Detroit. He truly makes things happen when he gets involved with a project or a good cause.

Currently vice chairman of Detroit Public Television, Rassel has served on its board of directors since 1998, including a stint as chairman. During his tenure on the board, Rassel helped champion a $22 million capital campaign that created high-definition studios for the station, mobile production facilities, and a remote studio operation in Detroit.

He has an incredible knowledge of the community and, more importantly, has the trust of leadership around Detroit, Homberg said of Rassel. He is the ultimate door opener, encourager, networker, and partnerer. Leaders in the business, educational, legal, and cultural communities universally trust him and regularly seek out his advice and his wisdom.

Homberg, for example.

Four years ago, when Homberg was considering a move from WWJ to Detroit Public Television, the first call he made seeking guidance was to Rassel.

Ive always said that the best first step is to get in touch with Dick Rassel when faced with a difficult decision, so I took my own advice, Homberg said. It was a wise move to seek his input.

Rassel, in turn, credits Homberg and his colleagues on the DPTV board for continuing to breathe new life into public television in Metro Detroit.

Fiscally we are in great shape and we have the most modern production facilities of any PBS station in the Midwest, said Rassel, who earned his bachelors degree from Notre Dame and his law degree from the University of Michigan. Im very bullish about our future. We have the ability to produce programs and documentaries for national distribution due to the infrastructure that we have built over the last few years.

He is particularly proud that the station serves as a voice for other nonprofits in the area, including the Detroit Institute for the Arts, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and the Detroit Zoo. As a strong advocate for a free press and government transparency, Rassel especially was delighted that DPTV was able to broadcast the Mackinac Policy Conference online this year, gavel to gavel.

Said Rassel: It was a dream to be able to pull that off, to get the funding from various private and public sources to make it happen. We were able to provide nearly 24 hours of conference coverage, offering our viewers the opportunity to hear what our business and political leaders were saying on key issues facing the state and the region. It was a proud moment for all of us associated with public television in Detroit.

By Tom Kirvan

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