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The co-founder (with wife Marian) of franchisor Little Caesars Pizza and owner of Major League Baseball's Detroit Tigers and Hockey's Red Wings franchise, Mike Ilitch, died in a Detroit hospital on Friday. He was 87.
During his life, Ilitch received many honors. He was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, the National Hockey League Hall of Fame, the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame, the International Franchise Association's Hall of Fame, to name a few of his honors. He was behind numerous philanthropic endeavors.
In May of 1959, Ilitch started a Little Caesars Pizza shop in a suburb of Detroit, Garden City. It sold its first franchise license in 1962. As of its disclosures at the beginning of 2016, it has grown in the United States to some 3,900 franchises and 500 company outlets. It franchises internationally as well.
Competitor Domino's Pizza released this statement of Ilitch's passing: "We are saddened tonight by the loss of Mike Ilitch," said Patrick Doyle, CEO of Domino's Pizza. "He was not only an icon in the restaurant industry and a philanthropist who had a profound impact on the city of Detroit, he was also a worthy adversary." Domino's was founded only a year later than Little Caesars in nearby Ypsilanti. It also has become one of the world's largest pizza chains. "We loved competing against him and his world-renowned brand. We send our deepest condolences to the Ilitch family," said Doyle.
Mike Ilitch was married to Marian Ilitch, his wife and business partner for 61 years. They have seven children.
Upon graduating from high school in 1947, the Detroit Tigers offered Ilitch a minor league contract. Ilitch turned the opportunity down to join the U.S. Marine Corps, serving from 1948-1952. After discharge from the Marines, Ilitch played shortstop in the minor league franchise system from 1952 to 1955, making it to AAA and hitting over .300, until a knee injury ended his baseball career. He later worked as a door-to-door salesman until he and his wife Marian saved enough money to open the first Little Caesars in Garden City, Michigan on May 8, 1959.
Success in the pizza business enabled Ilitch to invest in other food, sports and entertainment businesses. All businesses are headquartered in the Detroit metropolitan area and will continue under family ownership, led by president and CEO of Ilitch Holdings, Inc., Christopher Ilitch.
"My father was a once-in-a-generation entrepreneur, visionary and leader, setting the tone for our organization and our family," said Christopher Ilitch, president and CEO of Ilitch Holdings Inc. "He made such a positive impact in the world of sports, in business and in the community, and we will remember him for his unwavering commitment to his employees, his passion for Detroit, his generosity to others and his devotion to his family and friends. Together my family and the company celebrate the tremendous man he was, and we will continue to work hard to uphold his remarkable legacy. I'm honored to have had the opportunity to work with him to nurture and grow our businesses, but mostly, I'm grateful to have called him my Dad."
The family will honor Mr. Ilitch at a private funeral service. An opportunity for members of the public to pay their respects is also being planned and will later be announced.
UPDATE (Feb 12, 2017): A public visitation will be at the Fox Theatre Grand Lobby. Mr. Ilitch will lie in repose for a public visitation on Wednesday, February 15, from noon – 8 p.m. in the Grand Lobby of the historic Fox Theatre. Community members are invited to the lobby of this national historic site that Mike and his wife Marian fully restored and established as the world headquarters of Little Caesars in 1989.
Beginning February 13 at 1 p.m., a public memorial display will be set up at Commercial Park. Community members are invited to share memories or write messages of condolence on a temporary, public memorial site to be organized outside of Comercial Park, near the "Big Tiger". Memorial sentiments will be saved and shared with family.