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Longtime businessman, father of 8 ‘very personable’

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Attracting business contacts, gaining many friends, entertaining his loved ones — John Cullen was known for being sociable.

“He was a first-class guy,” said George Schena, a former client and longtime friend. “He was very personable.”

Mr. Cullen, a longtime businessman, died Thursday, Feb. 26, 2015. He was 89.

Born April 17, 1925, in Detroit, he was the fourth of nine children.

When his father died during the Depression, Mr. Cullen helped support the family working in a grocery store, then on a Detroit River ferry, relatives said.

“He was used to hard work from a young age and he expected folks to work hard and to contribute,” said his son, Matt Cullen, CEO of Rock Ventures, an affiliate of Quicken Loans Inc.

After graduating from Holy Redeemer High School in 1943, Mr. Cullen entered the Merchant Marines and was an engineer during World War II, serving overseas, relatives said.

Returning to Metro Detroit, he worked at a Taylor engineering company before partnering with a business associate to launch a firm eventually known as J.L. Cullen Co.

Through that enterprise, he connected contractors with major construction projects in the region — including many involving the Big Three automakers, his son said.

“He just really enjoyed being involved in a lot of the big projects and seeing things come from the ground up,” Matt Cullen said.

Schena, who first met him through his commercial roofing company, remembers Mr. Cullen as “a rep that knew all of the automotive people. … He was just good at meeting people, knowing people. He was the contact guy.”

Mr. Cullen retired more than a decade ago, his son said.

Long active in the community, he was on a dad’s club at St. Mary’s of Redford and president of the Michigan Inter-Club Swimming Association as well as Plum Hollow Country Club in Southfield, relatives said.

An avid golfer and athletics fan, Mr. Cullen passed that zeal on to his family, his son said. “He really loved watching his kids and grandkids participate in sports of all kinds.”

The father of eight also relished hosting holiday soirees and other festivities.

“He was an Irish guy who lived to sing and dance,” his son said. “There were plenty of good parties and activities any time the family came together.”

A lifelong Catholic, Mr. Cullen frequently attended Mass and credited his faith with helping him weather challenges — including the deaths of his two wives, said his daughter, Karen Cullen.

“He always felt it was his faith that got him through those times,” she said. “Faith was the bedrock of who he was.”

Mr. Cullen also regularly met up with his friends for lunch. “John was very sharp … up until the last day,” Schena said.

That extended to Mr. Cullen’s rapport with the nurses and others who cared for him in his final days, his daughter said. “He made friends with everybody.”

Long proud of his heritage, Mr. Cullen planned to visit Ireland again with his relatives this year, marking what would have been his 90th birthday.

Now, the trip is “turning into a celebration of his life,” his son said. “The entire family is really looking forward to spending time together and celebrating the things important to him.”

Besides his son and daughter, other survivors include six additional children, Elaine Cullen, Laura Cullen, Mark Cullen, Kathleen Kristl, John Cullen and Michael Cullen; 17 grandchildren; a brother, William Cullen; a sister, Catherine Belcher; and many nieces and nephews.

He was predeceased by both of his wives, Zita and Joan.

A funeral Mass was held Monday at Ss. Peter & Paul Jesuit Church, Detroit.

Memorials may be made to Make-A-Wish Michigan at https://michigan.wish.org/ways-to-help/giving/donate, or the Detroit RiverFront Conservancy, www.detroitriverfront.org/ways-help/make-donation.