Michael Berry, ‘visionary’ in Arab community, dies

Mark Hicks, and Jennifer Chambers
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Michael Berry’s extensive connections, commitment and contributions led many to consider him the dean of the Arab-American community in Metro Detroit.

“Sir Michael Berry was a visionary and was also very courageous,” said Hassan Jaber, executive director of ACCESS. “He had an unshakable loyalty to the community and to those who are underserved. He understood the importance of fully integrating Arab Americans into American society and showing Americans the value of their involvement.”

Mr. Berry, a pioneer in the Arab-American and Muslim community, died Sunday, Oct. 25, 2015. He was 95.

He was considered the first Muslim of Arab decent to practice law in the state, according to a profile on the Michigan State University College of Law website. Graduating from what was then Detroit College of Law in 1950, he and his associates formed a practice in Dearborn, officials wrote in the piece.

“He was a great lawyer,” said Imam Mohammad Mardini of the American Muslim Center in Dearborn. “Through his office, a lot of lawyers have been trained and worked to administer justice for those who have been in need.”

Mr. Berry eventually focused on municipal law and in 1967 was approached to serve on the Wayne County Road Commission, MSU officials said in the profile. “He won the election and quickly put his mark on the agency by righting a skewed bidding system,” the website read.

During his nearly 16 years on the commission, 10 were as chairman, when he was involved in Detroit Metro Airport’s expansion. An airport terminal was named after him.

While earning renown, Mr. Berry also courted controversy. In the early 1980s, The Detroit News ran a series of articles that showed widespread purchasing scandals, nepotism and cronyism under his helm. As a result, the series was partly responsible for charter reform in Wayne County, where voters approved a county executive form of government.

Long politically active, Mr. Berry chaired the 16th Congressional District Democrats for four terms starting in the 1960s as well as filling other posts. “He became friends with several of the Kennedys, and was encouraged to run for higher office himself,” MSU’s profile said.

The political ties ran deep. Heads of state and presidential candidates dined at his Dearborn home, and photos with personal inscriptions from Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and George H.W. Bush adorned the basement walls, according to Detroit News archives.

His reach and frankness often led political hopefuls to seek Berry for advice and making inroads among local Arab-Americans.

“Every candidate that I’m aware of within the Dearborn/Dearborn Heights/Detroit area, when they wanted to run for an office, they went and asked for his advice and his support — especially Arab-American ones,” said Fay Beydoun, executive director with the American Arab Chamber of Commerce. “There is not one that I’m aware of that did not come and take his support and his advice on their campaign. … He just was very honest and straightforward about the advice that he gave to everybody.”

Among the recent recipients was Brian Stone, a Democratic candidate for state representative. “Sir Michael was gracious and kind, met me within his home and gave insight on the Muslim and Arab-American community that guides my campaign to this day,” he said in a statement. “Sir Michael Berry was a giant among men. If I can say anything of the respect I have for him, it’s that I know, with his passing, not one soul can fill his place. … In the coming years, Dearborn’s historians will say he was a trailblazer, a true founder of Dearborn like Conrad Ten Eyck, Henry Ford and many others..”

Born May 8, 1920, in Highland Park, Mr. Berry grew up with four brothers and four sisters raised by Lebanese immigrants, MSU officials said.

Berry’s father worked in the tool and die division of Ford Motor Co. When fired, he instructed his young son to write a missive to the president about feeling discriminated against, according to Detroit News archives. Two weeks later, federal labor department officials visited their home and the job soon was reinstated.

Mr. Berry graduated from Fordson High School in Dearborn and went on to what is now Henry Ford College and Wayne State University, according to his resume and the MSU profile. He initially wanted to become a doctor but applied to the Detroit College of Law when the wait for medical school seemed too long.

A longtime township or city attorney for Dearborn, Romulus, Huron, Van Buren, Riverview and Garden City, he also was involved in bar associations as well as other professional groups, according to his resume.

Mr. Berry once imparted this advice to MSU law students who planned to start their own practice: “Get out early and establish yourself. Work from sunrise to sunset, like I did. Let people know who you are. Get to know people — that’s the secret.”

That philosophy guided his life, daughter Cindi LaCroix said. “He always told me that I could do anything or be anything I wanted to be, I just had to work for it. He thought if you just work hard, you’ll be successful. And then, if you’re successful, you owe it to humanity to help out where you could.”

Mr. Berry gave back, endowing scholarships at MSU College of Law, the University of Michigan-Dearborn, Davenport University and Henry Ford College as well as supporting hospitals in the area and Lebanon, among many other causes, relatives and associates said.

“He actually wanted to make the world a better place,” said his wife, Cindy. “He did things to help other people and it was rewarding for him to do that.”

Dearborn Public Schools’ Michael Berry Career Center, an amphitheater at Henry Ford College and an American Islamic Academy gym were named in his honor.

“He helped a lot of individuals in the community,” Mardini said. “He helped mold the mind of the youngsters by supporting education and academic institutions.”

Mr. Berry’s efforts garnered other honors. In the 1990s, the National Ethnic Coalition Organization awarded him the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, and the Lebanese government presented him with its Knight of the National Order of the Cedar of Lebanon, one of the highest honors, for his help in organizing a shipment of medical supplies. His alma mater has also cited him as a distinguished alum.

“He was in reality a person that has left a very strong legacy within our community and this area, not just for the Arab-American community,” Beydoun said.

In his spare time, Mr. Berry collected classic cars and owned champion racehorses, said LaCroix, whose experience with the equines inspired her to become a veterinarian.

He also maintained his humor and quick wit. “Even in the hospital, he was getting the nurses to crack up,” his daughter said. “He always saw the glass as half full, never half empty.”

Besides his wife and daughter, other survivors include children Laura Berry Harris, Carol Ward, Gail Berry, Timothy Berry and Brendan Berry; six grandchildren; four great-grandchildren; and siblings Patricia Kelley, Lindy Berry and Frank Berry.

Visitation is 1-8 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday at the Islamic Center of America, 19500 Ford Road, Dearborn. Funeral will be at 11 a.m. Thursday at the center.

Memorial donations may be made to the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

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