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Ex-Detroit Mayor Roman Gribbs dies at age 90

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News
Young visitors watch Detroit Mayor Roman Gribbs sign a proclamation on Oct. 12, 1970.

Detroit — Former Detroit Mayor Roman S. Gribbs was passionate about public service, the law and revitalizing Detroit, colleagues and family say.

Born Dec. 29, 1925, Gribbs was elected Detroit’s 65th mayor in 1969 as the city struggled to rebound from the 1967 riots. The Northville resident and father of five died Tuesday of cancer. He was 90.

“What was evident to us throughout our lives was the fact that he really believed in public service and that he also loved the law,” said Gribbs’ second-oldest daughter, Carla Brisbois-Gribbs, 58, of Rochester.

“He dedicated himself to being forthright and honest and an upstanding individual who was committed to the community that he served; Detroit and greater Detroit in later years.”

The son of Polish immigrants, Gribbs was born in Detroit and raised on a farm near Capac. Gribbs was the last white mayor in the city prior to sitting Mayor Mike Duggan. Gribbs decided not to seek re-election in 1973 when Coleman A. Young was elected in what became a 20-year reign as the city’s first African-American leader.

“Roman Gribbs was the textbook definition of a dedicated public servant,” Duggan said in a statement released Tuesday. “Through a career that stretched nearly half a century, and in his roles as an assistant prosecutor, a respected judge, and as sheriff and mayor, he admirably served Detroit — a city he loved dearly. I am grateful for his service, and my heart goes out to his family.”

Gribbs graduated from Capac High School, then served in the Army from 1944 to 1948. After his return, Gribbs earned a degree in economics and accounting from the University of Detroit in 1952, and a law degree in 1954, according to family.

In 1957, Gribbs became an assistant prosecutor, a position he held until 1964. He later entered private practice. He was appointed sheriff of Wayne County in June 1968 prior to making a bid for Detroit mayor.

He won the election in 1969 in a close race, beating then Wayne County Auditor Richard Austin, who later became Michigan’s secretary of state.

Brisbois-Gribbs said her parents worked hard to ensure they had a normal upbringing, noting that, while mayor, her father opted to keep the family in their North Rosedale Park home rather than reside in the Manoogian Mansion.

Brisbois-Gribbs, a regional manager for DTE Energy Co., said her father was also known for his high ethics and respect for all races and citizens.

“He made some significant improvements and changes to help bring minorities into his administration,” she said, noting he appointed the first African-American deputy mayor, Walter Greene. “He really worked to bring individuals of all backgrounds together.”

Under Gribbs, Detroit’s Police Department implemented the Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets police initiative. Known as STRESS, the purpose of the police decoy program was to reduce crime in critical pockets of the city. The unit, however, was connected with the death of eight African-Americans in its first four months of operation and 18 people in the first 14 months.

During his single term, Gribbs’ administration improved the Eastern Market district and worked with Henry Ford II and a coalition of city leaders to build the Renaissance Center to revitalize the city’s downtown.

Gribbs was also the first mayor to propose establishing four Neighborhood City Halls in Detroit in 1971 to respond to citizen complaints and “bring government closer to the people.”

After leaving the Mayor’s Office, Gribbs, a Democrat, returned to private practice and became a circuit court judge in 1975. He was elected to the Michigan Court of Appeals in 1982, and served until his retirement in January 2001.

The next month, he was appointed by former Gov. John Engler to the Michigan Gaming Control Board. He served until December 2003.

Detroit Deputy Mayor Isaiah “Ike” McKinnon formerly served on Gribbs’ executive protection unit and called him a dedicated leader.

“He was seen as a very loyal, dedicated and honest person for our city,” said McKinnon, adding that Gribbs remained a friend throughout the years and was a person who championed McKinnon’s 1994 appointment as the city’s police chief.

He is survived by four daughters, Carla Brisbois-Gribbs, Paula Rewald-Gribbs, Rebecca Lawson and Elizabeth Gardella-Gribbs; one son, Christopher Gribbs; stepdaughter Michelle Barr O’Connor; stepson Robert Brent Barr; wife, Leola Gribbs; and 16 grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his wife, Katherine Stratis, to whom he was married from 1954-82.

Visitation is from 3-9 p.m. Thursday with a 7 p.m. prayer service at L.J. Griffin Funeral Home, 19091 Northville Road, Northville. A funeral Mass is at 11 a.m. Friday at Our Lady of Victory Church, 133 Orchard in Northville.

Memorial contributions may be made to Maryknoll, PO Box 302, Maryknoll, NY, 10545, 1 (888) 627-9566; North Rosedale Park Legacy Project,; or Our Lady of Victory Church,