Mort Harris: Helping to improve care for cancer patients

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Mort Harris is 99 ½ years old, which means he's outlived a lot.

His health, to start with. Many of his friends, including his cadre of fellow World War II pilots. Two wives, alas, and the absence of his beloved Brigitte has been a constant ache since she died of pancreatic cancer in 2016. 

Michiganian of the Year Mort Harris, 99, is a WWII pilot, industrialist and philanthropist.

But he has not outlived his goals. No. 1, at this point: "I want to do things for other people."

No. 2, the authentic war hero and altruistic industrialist wants to live past his 100th birthday in April — not for the milestone, but for the monument.

The Brigitte Harris Cancer Pavilion is scheduled to open next summer across from Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. A six-story, $155 million outpatient cancer center, it was launched two years ago with $20 million from Harris that was part of a $40 million gift to Henry Ford Health System.

"I want to last until I can be at the dedication," Harris said. For 46 years, until her death at 81, Brigitte "meant everything to me," and now the center will cement his devotion with its medical programs, yoga classes, third-floor garden and skywalk over West Grand Boulevard.

The donation makes Harris "a catalyst in the city moving forward, and advancing the way we care for cancer patients," said Spencer Hoover, vice president and executive director of the Henry Ford Cancer Institute.

More:Meet the 2019 Michiganians of the Year

Beyond that, said Hoover, 37, “given that I’m a veteran, he’s a hero for me. The contributions he’s made to society since he came back from the war make him a beacon I can aspire to be like.”

Harris flew a B17 bomber on 33 perilous runs over Germany and France, including two on D-Day. Twice, he crash-landed, the first time in the frigid North Sea and then in a farmer's field after he skimmed the White Cliffs of Dover.

Back home after the war, he joined his uncle's industrial slag company, then bought a metallurgical products firm. Several successes later, he co-founded American Axle.

After the company went public in 1999, "I thought, 'OK, now what am I going to do?' I chose philanthropy."

He had already been a frequent contributor to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Detroit Institute of Arts and Michigan Science Center, among others, and a member of multiple boards. Among the things he has funded at Wayne State University is the Mort Harris Recreation & Fitness Center.

Michiganian of the Year, Mort Harris, 99, WWII veteran, industrialist, philanthropist. Harris is being honored because he is one of the last surviving pilots from D-Day in 1944. He 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.

He had attended Wayne State University before and after the war, and it troubles him that he didn't finish. "I wish I could start all over," he says, "and get a bachelor's degree in business."

Beyond that, his list of regrets is short. He has done well and done good, and now he's doing whatever his body will let him.

"Everything has gone to hell inside me," he concedes. Fortunately, he can afford all the assistance he needs. He spends much of his time looking out the tall windows of his waterfront home in Bloomfield Hills, and as he speaks, a platoon of geese skid to a stop on the lake.

"I'm a has-been," he said, and then he grinned.

At least that's better than being a never-was, he said — and he has something special to look forward to next year.

Name: Mort Harris

Age: 99

Occupation: Philanthropist; former industrialist

Education: Central High School in Detroit; took classes at what's now Wayne State University

Family: Widowed twice; three children from a first marriage, to Edith; three with second wife, Brigitte; 11 grandchildren, one great-grandchild

Why honored: A long history of giving that includes $20 million to help create the Brigitte Harris Cancer Pavilion, due to open next summer