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William Davidson
  William Davidson

Remembering William Davidson

3/15/2009 --

WDI founder and U-M benefactor leaves rich legacy.

William Davidson died March 13 at the age of 86 at his home in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

One of the largest donors to the University of Michigan, Davidson also supported the University with his counsel, guidance and vision. He was a long-time supporter of the business school. The physical and social centerpiece of the new Ross School of Business facility bears his name: The Davidson Winter Garden.

Davidson also endowed a chair in his own name, currently held by Professor Kenneth Lieberthal, and a chair in honor of California Congressman Tom Lantos, currently held by Robert Kennedy. He was also the founder and guiding force of the University's William Davidson Institute, of which Kennedy is executive director and which is dedicated to developing and disseminating expertise on issues affecting firms in transition and emerging market economies.

The Institute was created in 1992 when Guardian Industries Corp., an international manufacturer of glass products, made a major financial commitment over a 20-year period to establish an institute at the U-M's business school. Named in honor of Davidson, Guardian Industries' chairman, president and CEO, WDI represented an aggressive and visionary response to global economic transformation.

At a ceremony celebrating the creation of the Institute, Davidson said: "My vision for the Institute is that it will help to forge a path for those responsible for economic change in these emerging markets---that it will give them the knowledge, the methods and the blueprints for a successful transition to a market economy."

"Bill Davidson was a business visionary, a great philanthropist and a dedicated family man," said Kennedy. "He built Guardian Industries into one of the world's leading industrial firms. He funded universities, hospitals and other charities around the world. And it was a joy to see him with the family he loved so much.

"I had the privilege to work for Mr. Davidson over the past six years. He was incredibly generous to the University of Michigan. One of the nice things was that it was never about him. Bill always encouraged us to aim high and to accomplish great things. The thing he said most often was, 'How can I help?'"

Ross School Dean Robert Dolan, who also serves as president of WDI, said Davidson had a bold vision in establishing the Institute. While it was an inspiring one, Dolan said, it also was a challenging one. It was all made possible by Davidson's "most generous financial support, and more importantly, by his great guidance and leadership."

"A presentation of plans for his Institute was sure to be met with hard questions, which inevitably proved to be the precisely correct set of questions to be posed," Dolan said. "Boldness was encouraged, as long as it came from a foundation of careful analysis. His often-expressed 'You're doing great' never lost its inspirational value."

U-M President Mary Sue Coleman said Davidson's impact on the University will "last for generations."

"His generosity as an adviser, a business executive and a philanthropist enhanced the teaching and research experience for U-M students and faculty," she said. "He did not hesitate to share his knowledge and expertise, and our university is stronger for it.

"It was always a pleasure to spend time with him, and my thoughts are with Karen and their family. We will miss him, and we will honor his legacy as a dedicated and successful alumnus."

Davidson may have been best known as the managing partner of the NBA's Detroit Pistons, a team he bought in 1974. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008. He was the majority owner of Palace Sports and Entertainment, which includes The Palace of Auburn Hills, the Detroit Shock (Women's National Basketball Association) and DTE Music Theater, a world-class entertainment venue, as well as management of Meadow Brook Music Theater.

During his tenure as owner, Davidson's professional teams won seven world championships, three in the NBA, three in the WNBA and one in the National Hockey League. Palace Sports and Entertainment owned the Tampa Bay Lightning when that franchise won the Stanley Cup in 2004.

In addition to accomplishments as a professional sports owner, Davidson was one of metro Detroit's most notable philanthropists, responsible for more than $200 million in donations to local and international charities and universities.

Organizations and municipalities that have benefited from his generosity include the U-M, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, Karmanos Cancer Institute and Children's Research Center of Michigan, city of Detroit's Parks and Recreation Department, Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital in Jerusalem, Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovet, Israel, and countless others.

In 1997, Davidson was honored for his philanthropy by the Council of Michigan Foundations and also named one of America's most generous donors by the New York Times.

A native of Detroit, Davidson received his undergraduate degree in business administration from the U-M in 1947 and his law degree from Wayne State University in 1949. In 1996 he was awarded the Doctor of Humane Letters, Honoris Causa from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. In 2001, Davidson was awarded an honorary degree from the U-M.

Dolan said one of the great things in life is that people get to pick their teachers---not so much by signing up for a class with someone, but by whom they adopt as their model of behavior.

"One did not have to be with 'Mr. D' for very long to figure out that there were lifelong learning opportunities in whatever you did with him," Dolan said. "Whether it was discussing the strategic plan for his Institute, having dinner or attending a Pistons game, they all offered lessons in leadership. Seemingly complicated questions were boiled down to essentials, and then answered with the more parsimonious general principles.

"Addressing a dilemma by asking, 'What would Mr. D do?' has always been a most worthwhile practice for me---one that I plan on continuing, even though, sadly, my very enjoyable days learning from him have ended."

Davidson is survived by his wife, Karen, two grown children, Ethan and Marla, and three stepdaughters.

For more information, contact:
Bernie DeGroat, (734) 936-1015 or 647-1847,