Mort Harris, philanthropist and American Axle co-founder, dies at 101

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Mort Harris, who co-founded auto industry supplier American Axle & Manufacturing Inc. and earned renown for his philanthropy, has died at 101.

The former industrialist, entrepreneur and former Detroit News Michiganian of the Year died Wednesday, according to a statement from Northwood University.

Mort Harris, then 99, shows off a plaque that was given to him by members of Turner Construction Co. who are also veterans, in honor of his service to the country as a World War II fighter pilot.

“Mort was a great man and a special person that meant so much to so many," American Axle Chairman and CEO David Dauch said in a statement Friday. "He certainly had a strong and positive influence on all that knew him."

The company launched when Richard Dauch, a former Chrysler executive vice president in worldwide manufacturing, formed a small investment team with Harris to buy what was known as the Final Drive and Forge Business Unit — which had five facilities in the U.S. — from General Motors, according to American Axle's website.

At the time, the deal was the largest sale of GM's automotive plants in more than 80 years, The Detroit News reported in 1994, the year American Axle became an independent supplier.

Today, the Detroit-based company has an estimated 20,000 associates operating at nearly 80 facilities in 17 countries while designing, engineering and manufacturing systems and technologies focused on autos, according to its website.

Wright Lassiter III, President and CEO of Henry Ford Health System (right) thanks Mort Harris for his donation after the groundbreaking for the Brigitte Harris Cancer Pavilion in Detroit on Tuesday, June 6, 2017.

"Mort lived an extraordinary life and was an accomplished businessman and philanthropist," David Dauch said. "His support was instrumental in the founding of American Axle & Manufacturing."

Born April 11, 1920, in Detroit, Harris started attending Wayne State University in 1939, according to an article Northwood posted on its website that was first published by the National Museum of the Mighty 8th Air Force. He had previously attended Central High School. 

During World War II, he was a fighter pilot, flying a B17 bomber on 33 runs over Germany and France, including two on D-Day. He crash-landed in the frigid North Sea and in a farmer's field after skimming the White Cliffs of Dover, The Detroit News reported.

After the war, he attended Wayne State University but didn't finish, Harris told The News in 2019.  "I wish I could start all over and get a bachelor's degree in business," he said at the time.

Harris eventually turned to industry, joining his uncle's industrial slag company, then buying a metallurgical products firm. 

After American Axle went public in 1999, he told The News, "I thought, 'OK, now what am I going to do?' I chose philanthropy."

He had already frequently contributed to institutions such as the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Detroit Institute of Arts and Michigan Science Center.

His name now graces a recreation and fitness Center at Wayne State.

In 2017, he gave $10 million to help Wayne Med-Direct, a Wayne State University program that aids admission to an undergraduate honors college and creates a pipeline to medical school.

"High profile is not meaningful to me," he told The News at the time. "I know I'm very fortunate. You don't see a group of people like I just met today who have a great grade point average like they do. I am very happy to meet them. I'm honored."

Harris also had been among the school's top five donors, having also contributed to social work and literacy programs. 

In 1970, he established the Edith Harris Memorial Scholarship in the School of Social Work in honor of his first wife, joining the Anthony Wayne Society, the university’s highest donor recognition group, as an inaugural member, officials said.

With his second wife, Brigitte, he continued to support a lecture series in the School of Social Work and scholarships for students in the College of Engineering, along with the Damon J. Keith Collection at the Law School and other university initiatives.

In 2012, they established the Mort Harris Endowed Scholarship Fund in the School of Medicine and the Mort Harris Office for Adult Literacy Endowment Fund with a $5 million gift. 

Harris also supported many community organizations, including the Boys and Girls Clubs of Southeastern Michigan, Focus: HOPE, and Detroit Public Television, Wayne State said. 

In a statement Friday, WSU President M. Roy Wilson described Harris as a humble giver.

"Anyone who has reached his incredibly high levels of success could be justifiably proud, but that wasn’t Mort," Wilson said. "Despite his financial success and his many military and civilian honors, Mort was humble and kind, and he would happily opt for a sandwich over a five-star meal because it was the people he was with that mattered most.

"Wayne State was the fortunate beneficiary of Mort’s thoughtful generosity, and his substantial gifts were often in support of students in need."

Harris gave a $20 million gift to Henry Ford Health System to support a new 187,000 square-foot cancer facility in Detroit. He also gave another $20 million gift to support Henry Ford’s precision medicine, brain cancer and pancreatic cancer programs, officials said.

The new cancer pavilion opened this year and is named after Brigitte Harris, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2016. 

“Her everyday character, depth, humility and simple grace of her presence will linger forever,” Harris said in a statement on the Henry Ford website.

The site is considered the anchor of the Henry Ford Cancer Institute.

"This is a transcendent moment in the fight against cancer,” Dr. Steven Kalkanis, CEO of Henry Ford Medical Group and Chief Academic Officer for the Henry Ford Health System, said in a statement in January. “At a time when our society has endured extraordinary challenges, the opening of this new Henry Ford Cancer Institute location in Detroit is a beacon of hope in the lives of everyone affected by this disease. The pavilion provides the facilities and resources required for our dedicated researchers and clinicians to push the boundaries of modern medicine that will allow us to detect cancer earlier and treat it more effectively than ever before.”

The pavilion is also some two blocks from where Harris, as a young child, was rushed to Henry Ford Hospital after he jumped off a roof and landed on a rusty nail, according to the health system.

Harris, who went on to live in Bloomfield Hills, told The News in 2019 he looked forward to living past his 100th birthday.

Another goal, he said: "I want to do things for other people."