He’ll never be replaced. A man like Max M. Fisher comes along once in a lifetime. Philanthropist, Zionist and fund-raiser extraordinaire, his life of service to those in need gave hope to millions of people around the world and gave an international voice to the Detroit Jewish community.
Fisher died in his suburban Detroit home on March 3. He was 96.
More than 1,250 people paid tribute to Fisher during a funeral service on Sunday at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, Mich.
Dignitaries included Gov. Jennifer Granholm, U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, former U.S. Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham, former Gov. John Engler and U.S. Reps. John Dingell and Sander Levin, all of Michigan; Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and pro golfer Raymond Floyd, a friend of Fisher’s son Phillip.
A delegation of 30 Israeli officials, headed by Sallai Meridor, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, flew in to pay their respects to the family at the funeral.
Security was in place but nearly invisible. Although many notables, including the Israelis, had personal protection, site security was under the protective and tactical units of the local police department.
The eight eulogies were filled with anecdotes about the quiet and legendary leader. Grandson Anthony Cummings of Birmingham, Mich., for instance, told of how he and his sister Caroline enjoyed cuddling with their grandparents.
“Yes, Pops was a cuddler,” he said.
Robert Mosbacher of Houston, former U.S. secretary of commerce under the first President Bush, began by reading letters of condolence from three presidents: Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.
Then Mosbacher told the story of how the widowed Fisher met his second wife, Marjorie Switow, in 1952.
He attended a party at his friend Carolyn Alexander’s home in Detroit. “He was soon smitten — bowled over by a petite, dark-haired beauty who descended a staircase in a red dress.
“‘Hello, Scarlett,’ he said. “Hello, Rhett,’ she replied.
“And soon they were gone with the wind,” Mosbacher said.
Philanthropist A. Alfred Taubman, a longtime friend, said, “I first met Max more than 50 years ago at the same party. Marjorie, I think we both fell in love that night.”
Taubman added, “We fell in love with a rare blend of intellect and optimism, success and generosity. We fell in love with Max’s small-town common sense and worldly sophistication. Most important of all, he fell in love with us, just as he had fallen in love with Detroit, his faith and the world around him.”
U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Damon Keith of Detroit spoke of Fisher’s compassion.
When civil rights activist Rosa Parks was assaulted in her Detroit neighborhood a few years ago, Keith recalled, “Max called me and said, ‘Damon, how could this situation occur?’
“He challenged me by saying, ‘Damon, let’s get her out of that neighborhood and over to the Riverfront Apartments.’
“A few months ago, his son-in-law, Peter Cummings, sent me a letter, and in consultation with Max Fisher and Al Taubman, indicated that Mrs. Parks would be extended the right to occupy her residence as a tenant of Riverfront Apartments for the rest of her life at no cost.”
Fisher’s daughter, Jane Sherman, shared some personal insights into her father’s work in the oil business in Detroit.
“I must have been to the Aurora Oil Refinery a hundred times before I was 12 years old,” she said.
“He taught me about ‘cat crackers’ and catalytic converters and refining, just the things I needed for my teenage years.
“Daddy never believed in telling us what to do, but by his actions, he was able to instill in all of us a sense of community, compassion for others and a duty to help those less fortunate, no matter what the cause,” Sherman said.
She noted that there is a plaque at the Max M. Fisher United Jewish Communities headquarters in New York that quotes her father: “We are all trustees of our Jewish heritage with an obligation to cherish it, improve it and guarantee its future.” This quote, she said, “exemplifies what he has done for the entire world, not just the Jewish one.”
Rabbi Harold Loss of Temple Israel in West Bloomfield, Mich., looked to Fisher’s children “to give back to community, to work on behalf of our city, nation and the Jewish people — to care deeply about those who are in pain.”
Loss ended the 90-minute service by saying: “It is asked in the Book of Psalms, who shall ascend the mountain of the Lord and who shall stand in his holy place. The first answer offered: He that hath clean hands and a pure heart.
“Such a man was our Max Fisher.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.