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Metro Detroit lawyer, mentor ‘had a charismatic heart’

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Mentoring youths, helping clients through his legal work and decades spent fervently boosting a West African nation all evoked Mike Lavoie’s long-held motto: “The good we do for each other.”

“He had such a good heart,” said his wife, Kristin Lavoie. “He had an indomitable spirit.”

Mr. Lavoie, a lawyer with the Butzel Long law firm, died after a heart attack Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016. He was 63.

Community service marked much of his pursuits.

Shortly after graduating from the University of Notre Dame in 1975, the Michigan native volunteered with the Peace Corps, traveling to what now is the West African nation of Burkina Faso.

During two years in the impoverished, landlocked nation, Mr. Lavoie dug wells and farmed near the village of Namtenga, learning the residents’ language, Moore, as well as forging extensive ties, his wife said. “It was total immersion.”

Years later, the lawyer’s connections helped link Cranbrook Schools in Bloomfield Hills with the village where he lived, officials said. Eventually, this led to the ongoing Namtenga Project, through which students have helped improve the villagers’ living conditions by supporting a successful sister weaving studio; enhancing scholarships; securing mosquito nets, solar panels and supplies; providing clean water and more.

Besides being “the magic” in networking, Mr. Lavoie strived to find supporters to advance the initiatives, said Lynn Bennett-Carpenter, who teaches at Cranbrook and accompanied him on a return visit. “He was just an amazing, one-of-a-kind person who had a charismatic heart.”

Mr. Lavoie also was president of Friends of Burkina Faso, a nonprofit that includes former Peace Corps volunteers. He returned there last year to present its first Award for Peace.

The lawyer often was welcomed back “like a favorite son coming home” and cherished any chance to help out in the country, his wife said. “It was his lifeblood. He saw the heart of the people.”

That service and goodwill also extended to Metro Detroit. For more than a decade, Mr. Lavoie frequently mentored students in middle and high school through the Pontiac Alumni Foundation: accompanying the youngsters on trips to cultural destinations, guiding them on cleanup efforts and offering advice, said retired Oakland County Circuit Judge Fred Mester, the group’s president and founder.

“He was totally committed to helping these young people find that there was a good life ahead of them and they could be whoever they wanted to be,” Mester said. “He was there to give them that shoulder to lean on and to help them in the next step.”

Though his efforts earned honors from the Oakland County Bar Association and the State Bar of Michigan as well as an appointment to the Michigan Community Service Commission, Mr. Lavoie “didn’t really want that trophy,” said Lisa Haynes, his longtime assistant. “It was really all about what he actually did to help out.”

Born Feb. 6, 1953, in Pontiac, Mr. Lavoie earned his law degree from the University of Detroit in 1980. He later worked for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit and became assistant chief of the criminal division, according to his biography.

In 1986, Mr. Lavoie joined Butzel Long, where he was part of the firm’s business litigation practice group. “You could tell he really loved the practice of law and helping clients and his colleagues in particular,” said Jim Rosenfeld, a friend and colleague. “His work showed an equal amount of care and preparation. … He was sometimes likened to Columbo in his approach of acting as a detective to ferret out the information from the opposing party and investigate claims.”

Mr. Lavoie also was active with a historical society and a golf league christened “Fight True.”

“He’s a good golfer, but the thing that was really striking about him was his golf banter,” said Mark Werder, a longtime friend. “He was just a total character.”

Other survivors include children Katie Ann Lavoie, Melissa Jane Lavoie, Laurel Fernandes and Elliott Fernandes; and siblings George, Hervey, Raymond and Robert. He was predeceased by his parents, Edith and Hervey, and a sister, Patricia Beutler.