Chrysler hearse is a fitting final ride for Lee Iacocca

Breana Noble
The Detroit News

Bloomfield Hills — Hundreds of family members and friends watched Wednesday as Lee Iacocca's casket slid into a Chrysler hearse — a fitting final chariot for the automaker's former CEO.

"It's a tough day," said Jerry Greenwald, former Chrysler Corp. vice chairman, following a funeral service at St. Hugo of the Hills Church. "He was a friend of Frank Sinatra, and Frank Sinatra sang this famous song, 'I Did it My Way.' That was Lee. In doing so, he changed in the best of ways, he changed the lives of thousands, maybe millions."

Lee Iacocca "moved mountains," said the Rev. Howard Lincoln, the pastor at Iacocca's home parish in Palm Desert, California, who led the services Wednesday.

Iacocca brought forth the success of the Ford Mustang and the first U.S.-produced minivan at Chrysler. He negotiated a deal with Congress to save the struggling Chrysler in 1980 and had the company pay it back early. He spearheaded the acquisition of American Motors Corp. in 1987 that put in Chrysler's hands the Jeep brand that in recent years has been a bright spot on the automaker's quarterly financial reports.

Lee Iacocca's casket is moved to a waiting Chrysler hearse Wednesday after a funeral mass at St. Hugo of the Hills Church in Bloomfield Hills.

"Lee always seemed to me to really never be down," Lincoln said. "I think he felt that life was good. Even in the darkest hours, I think he knew that somehow, even Chrysler was going to work out."

But despite Iacocca's achievements as an automotive executive, it was his heart that family and friends emphasized Wednesday during funeral services in Bloomfield Hills to honor the late former Chrysler Corp. CEO.

The family heard stories in the days following his death on July 2 from former Chrysler employees who said Iacocca had saved their jobs and put bread on the table when he took over the struggling automaker in 1979, his daughter, Kathryn Iacocca Hentz, said during the service at St. Hugo of the Hills Church.

Still, her father always made time for his family despite a busy schedule.

"He was always home for dinner," she said. "Every interaction mattered. Every person had value. He just was incredibly thoughtful."

Iacocca's granddaughter Mary-Caitlin Hentz sang "Ave Maria," and his eight grandchildren walked up and down the aisle to present the gifts for the Eucharist.

Parker Hentz, one of Iacocca's grandchildren, recalled sharing sweets with his "poppy," who ate black licorice "by the handful," and enjoyed his Dewar's with a splash of water.

Lincoln delivered a 15-minute homily that touched on Iacocca's long life and for what he stood. Next to his family, his faith and team-based business, Iacocca also loved a good cigar, Lincoln added.

When they first met, Iacocca invited Lincoln to his house, eventually offering him a cigar. Lincoln said he declined. But Iacocca persisted, telling him the cigar was Cuban. Lincoln speculated the cigars might have been shipped by Fidel Castro himself, who Iacocca first met in 1994.

Lincoln said Iacocca stood for teamwork. Although he was credited with bringing the Ford Mustang into the world, Iacocca always mentioned the team he worked with to bring the pony car into existence, Lincoln said. 

Before the services began Wednesday, a few guests arrived in their Mustangs, which were parked outside the church. Some advertised on their license plate frame their model year from the 1960s, the decade Ford introduced the pony car under Iacocca's direction. SUVs, however, were the style of choice now for most families over the minivans he popularized.

Angel Raddatz pulled up her bright 1965 Mustang to the curb of the church, pointing to Iacocca's signature on the glovebox her parents had requested at a fundraiser for diabetes research. Iacocca founded a charitable foundation for the cause following the death in 1983 of his first wife, the former Mary Kathryn McCleary.

"He was a legend," said Raddatz, 60, of Commerce Township who had come at the request of the Mustang Owners Club of Southeastern Michigan. "It was an honor to be invited. What he did was important for this community."

Lido Anthony Iacocca died at age 94 from complications of Parkinson's disease. He was one of the first CEOs to appear in commercials for his company and is the only auto executive to have led two of the Detroit Three automakers.

"He was a great leader," former Michigan Gov. Jim Blanchard said. "He was more than autos, more than marketing, more than sales. He was a strong leader."

Iacocca joined Ford Motor Co. in 1946 and quickly climbed the ranks. By 1970, he was president of the Dearborn automaker, but Chairman Henry Ford II later fired him. Chrysler Corp. hired Iacocca, and he became its CEO in 1978. He often is credited with driving the automaker's turnaround. Iacocca stepped down in 1993.

"Lee Iacocca definitely left a legacy," said Keith Crain, chairman of Crain Communications Inc. who followed Iacocca for two decades. "He was an interesting guy, fascinating, never dull, always entertaining. I think today was a fitting tribute for that legacy."

Iacocca's body will be buried with his first wife at White Chapel Cemetery in Troy.