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Mourners pay last respects to UAW's Holiefield

Tom Greenwood
The Detroit News

Detroit — Thousands of mourners filled the vast interior of the Greater Grace Temple on the city's west side Tuesday in a display of respect for labor leader General Holiefield.

They were all there: blue collar and white collar, full-length mink coats and UAW leather jackets, expensive suits and blue jeans. It didn't matter if you worked on the line or stared at a computer screen, you were there to pay your respects to this nationally known leader of the United Auto Workers.

Twice elected as vice president of the UAW, Holiefield died March 9 after a battle with pancreatic cancer.

A long line of friends, family as well as union brothers and sisters lined up to pass before the casket Tuesday in a sign of last respect for the longtime political and community activist.

At the beginning, Bishop Charles H. Ellis III asked the audience to stand and give an ovation for Holiefield for "all the lives he has touched."

The applause was long, loud and warm.

"Amazing Grace" was sung by Martha Reeves and some in the audience clapped along.

"What a great personality we are saying goodbye to," said U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Detroit. "He had wisdom, compassion and dedication. He helped save Chrysler. Arbitration is still under attack in Washington, D.C. You can't fight multi-billion dollar corporations alone. You need help. We need unions. We will always need unions."

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, said via video: "He will be so, so missed. But the good news is that, General, we will keep up the fight."

More than 30 speakers were expected to honor the UAW leader.

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel said Holiefield signified the "united" in UAW.

"You could tell that he cared about people, you could feel that about him," Hackel said. "Recognize the people that will add importance to your life. That's what the General did, he brought good things into my life. God bless you, and may you rest in peace, General."

Many in the audience chuckled at Hackel's memories of Holiefield, especially when he realized how big a man he was.

Macomb County Sheriff Anthony Wickersham called Holiefield a champion of auto workers.

"That's reflected in all the auto workers who are here to honor him today," Wickersham said. "I think all of us here today would say that he accomplished what he set out to do, and we thank him for that. He may be gone, but his spirit and legacy will continue on."

Meanwhile, tributes have also flowed in from President Barack Obama, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, Council President Brenda Jones and retired UAW president Ron Gettelfinger.

"My husband was always working for the people," his wife, Monica Morgan-Holiefield, said in an earlier statement. "He wanted to eradicate poverty by providing jobs and opportunity and by protecting those jobs and opportunities. I just want his message to live on. I want his legacy to continue."

Holiefield, a Harrison Township resident, was elected UAW vice president in June 2006 and was re-elected in 2010. He directed the Chrysler, heavy trucks and General Dynamics departments. He led Chrysler's contract negotiations in 2007 and 2011, helping craft deals that included wage raises, profit-sharing plans and increases in the number of jobs.

He was instrumental in helping the automaker receive federal assistance that stopped it from going bankrupt in 2009.

Holiefield became a UAW member in 1973, when he started at the Chrysler's Jefferson assembly plant in Detroit. In 1975, he transferred to the Chrysler axle plant in Detroit, where he became involved with UAW Local 961, working on various standing committees, including civil rights, community action program, union label and bylaws.

In addition to his work, he was a member of the NAACP, the UAW Legal Services Board and the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists. Morgan-Holiefield on Monday called her husband a gentle giant who loved dancing, playing the bass guitar and riding his motorcycle.

Holiefield took a leave of absence from his UAW position in January 2014, one month after he accidentally shot Morgan-Holiefield in their home. She recovered. He pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of reckless use of a firearm and said the incident occurred when he was cleaning several loaded guns. He retired from the UAW in June 2014.

"I'm a military man, and I remember whenever a general entered a room, you had to salute him. But not this General. This General, you gave a great big hug. I loved that about this man," said Pastor Ralph Leach.

The Holiefield family is asking that donations be made to either the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, online at www.panan.org, or by sending a check to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, 1500 Rosecrans Avenue, suite 200, Manhattan Beach, CA 90266.

Donations can also be made to the General Holiefield Memorial Fund, c/o the Karmanos Cancer Institute, 4100 John R, VEO1FS, Detroit, MI 48201.

Online donations can be made at www.karmanos.org or by calling (800) 527-6266.

tgreenwood@detroitnews.com