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Hoot McInerney: With a legend, everybody has a story

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Hoot McInerney just reached into his pocket and handed over a wad of cash to a guy from a children's hospital. He didn't even count it.

He said something so innocently and inadvertently insulting to a famous comedian that he wound up getting mentioned by name on "The Tonight Show."

He grabbed the microphone at someone's retirement party and said he was glad she was leaving — and she took it as praise.

Across his 86 years, McInerney met pretty much everybody, and everybody he met has a tale. So on the eve of his funeral, here's a question:

Do you become a legend because people tell stories about you, or do people tell stories about you because you're a legend?

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Or in his case, which one would he have sold first?

Martin "Hoot" McInerney died Monday, ending an improbable run that saw him go from hawking Fords to owning as many as 25 dealerships.

Sometimes, he was crusty. Always, he was generous. He never forgot his Detroit roots or his friends.

He knew CEOs, the Pope and Bob Hope — and in 1977, he found himself on the first tee of the Bob Hope Desert Classic golf tournament, in which amateurs are paired with a professional and a noteworthy athlete or entertainer.

The entertainer turned out to be comedian Tom Dreesen, who's 72 now and still working more dates than Congress.

He introduced himself, and McInerney said, "I sure hope we get a good celebrity. Last year we got some guy I never heard of."

Improbable friends for life

Nobody laughed harder at that story over the years than McInerney, except possibly the viewers watching Johnny Carson when Dreesen told it on the air.

"A lot of people walk through life and you never know they're there," Dreesen said this week. "Others walk into a room and you just know: somebody's here!"

That was McInerney, who became his friend and perpetual pro-am partner, and who became the most memorable guest at Marianne Nestor's send-off from St. Joseph Mercy Oakland Hospital.

Nestor was the hospital's chief fundraiser. McInerney was a principal donor, the one who made sure the Big Three CEOs not only came to the major annual fundraiser, but donated a car apiece.

"Some days, it was, 'Hi, honey, what can I do for you?' Other days, it was, 'Get out of my office,' " Nestor said. "But he always came through."

At her goodbye party, when he stood up and said good riddance, she knew it was a sly joke about all the checks he'd written ... and that she had done her job.

A car-donating man

So many stories, so little time before the funeral mass: Friday, 11 a.m., St. Hugo of the Hills Catholic Church in Bloomfield Hills.

Novi City Councilman Wayne Wrobel, fiancé of McInerney's executive assistant, accompanied him to industry day at the auto show last month. In the dealers' VIP room, "it was like watching a scene from 'The Godfather.' Everyone came up to him to pay respects."

Former Detroit Lions coach Rick Forzano, past president of a St. Joseph Mercy Oakland donors' club, recalled McInerney donating a car for an event, then salting the room with a handful of buddies to drive the price up. The winning bidder wrote a check, then donated the car back to be auctioned again.

"I could name you so many people he looked after," Forzano said. "He didn't know how to say no to someone in need."

Paul W. Smith took over the morning show at WJR-AM (760) after J.P. McCarthy died, and what he most needed was acceptance. McInerney and a cadre of McCarthy's other close friends provided it.

Smith accompanied McInerney to a Kentucky Derby where McInerney got so caught up in the camaraderie of a clubhouse card game that he missed the race. At McInerney's massive home in Bloomfield Hills, Smith saw gifts from John Paul II — not only blessed rosaries, but the pontiff's white, beanie-style cap.

McInerney, Smith said, would always ask him, "You need anything, darlin'? You need a car or anything?"

The last few years, as McInerney grew frail, Smith would say it first: "You need anything, darlin'?"

McInerney never did. He had everything he wanted, and friends to keep the legend alive.