Detroit — When a Detroit sports legend passes, Bud Somerville of Westland typically is first in line to pay his respects.
"They say the 'Spirit of Detroit' is the statue out in front of city hall," said Somerville, 61, as he stood outside Comerica Park where a crowd gathered Monday to honor Detroit sports and pizza icon Mike Ilitch. "But the 'Spirit of Detroit' is Ilitch, Howe, Harwell and Kaline."
Somerville was first to arrive and watched employees put the finishing touches on a giant, temporary wall in the shadow of the "Big Tiger" off Woodward. Photographs of Ilitch lined the top and middle sections, with white space dominating the rest.
Messages left by fans will be saved and shared with the Ilitch family, according to a news release late Sunday. Ilitch died Friday at age 87.
"I'm gonna miss that guy," Somerville said after writing his tribute. Then, he gave a nod to Ilitch's wife.
"I hope Marian's doing OK," he said.
Somerville's comments came several months after he stood outside the Joe Louis Arena in June as first in line to attend Red Wings legend Gordie Howe's public visitation. Six years before that, the Westland resident was first to enter Comerica Park to bid farewell to longtime Tigers announcer Ernie Harwell.
Next up is Ilitch's public visitation from noon to 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Fox Theatre Grand Lobby, where Ilitch will lie in repose. Ilitch and his wife bought the historic Fox in 1987 and restored it, setting set the stage for an entertainment revival in downtown Detroit.
"I'll be there; I've already got it cleared with my boss," Somerville said. "I hope I'm first in line."
Dozens gathered Monday to say goodbye to Ilitch, including large groups of Ilitich company employees streaming across Woodward from the Fox Theatre.
Nearby, Detroiter Donna Anderson wiped away a tear after adding her message to the growing collection of tributes.
"I'm just happy that he was bringing the city back alive," said Anderson, 52. "I feel like we lost somebody special."
Ann Marie Genrich-Rockov echoed Anderson's sentiments as she remembered her years working in the Little Caesars corporate offices.
"It's tremendous what he's done. He brought life back to the city," said Genrich-Rockov, who initially worked for Little Caesars from 1988 to 1998 and returned to the company last summer.
The Canton resident paused after writing her tribute and looked up to the clear blue sky.
"What a great day," she said. "I think Mr. I. brought the sun out."
Genrich-Rockov met Ilitch in 1997, shortly after the Red Wings won their first Stanley Cup in decades and the team owner brought Lord Stanley to the Little Caesars offices.
Luckily, Genrich-Rockov's three-month-old son was in an on-site daycare. On Monday, the woman showed off a picture of her baby — now a teenager — propped up in the trophy's cup.
"(Ilitch) said he was the first Little Caesar's baby to sit in the Stanley Cup," Genrich-Rockov said.
Somerville also met Ilitch, during a chance encounter at Comerica Park. He was at the game with his young grandson, who was dressed head-to-toe in a tiger costume.
"He reached down and hugged Kaden and said, 'You're a great Tiger,' " Somerville recalled.
Detroiter Teresa Alvarez never met Ilitch, but saw him often during her three seasons on the Detroit Tigers Energy Squad, pumping up the crowd at Comerica Park.
"He's the hero of Detroit and that's what I wrote in my tribute," said Alvarez, 26. "Everyone in the sports world knows and respects him."
Ilitich's dedication to Detroit sports wound up benefiting the rest of the city, she said.
"He was here to make Detroit better, and he did," she said. "He invested so much."
Asked if she had anything to add, Alvarez had a simple answer.
Goodbye, Mr. I.
The public memorial is located at Comerica Park's front gates, near the "Big Tiger" statue off Woodward. Free parking is available in the Fox Garage and surface lots in front of the park.
Illitch will lie in repose from noon to 8 p.m. Wednesday during a public visitation at the Fox Theatre Grand Lobby.
Additional memorial dates and events are planned at Joe Louis Arena, the Lakeland Complex and the Little Caesars Arena construction site.
In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations in Ilitch’s memory be made to:
■Ilitch Charities: IlitchCharities.org
■The Detroit Red Wings Foundation: nhl.com/redwings/community/foundation
■The Detroit Tigers Foundation: Detroit.Tigers.mlb.com/det/community/foundation.jsp