William C. “Bill” Brooks, a long-respected Detroit icon whose reputation as a fearless civil, political and business pioneer reverberated across the country, died Monday.
Brooks, a longtime General Motors executive, who served in three presidential administrations and headed several Michigan companies, was 85.
Brooks had the uncanny ability to achieve in business while also setting the bar for civic engagement — fighting for quality education for Detroit schoolchildren, demanding business opportunities for African-American entrepreneurs and helping to forge a cultural legacy befitting the Motor City.
He was revered for his service to community, the arts and children, serving on the board of Michigan Opera Theatre, the board of the Music Hall Center for Performing Arts and as chairman of the board of the Detroit Public Schools. He advised mayors, congressional representatives and presidents.
“He and Betty have been dear friends of mine for probably 30 years,” Mayor Mike Duggan said Tuesday of Brooks and his wife of 62 years, Elizabeth. “He was there for the schools. He was there for every major charity. And … when we were doing $850 million in investments in the DMC (Detroit Medical Center) hospitals, he was a very strong partner in making sure that African-American contractors got a great deal of the work. He would sit down in a room and figure out solutions. That’s just who he was.
“He advocated for the charities that needed help. He advocated for opportunities for African-American entrepreneurs. He advocated for the schoolchildren of the city of Detroit. He was a great man.”
U.S Rep. Debbie Dingell agreed, saying, “He cared deeply about the city and the state and believed in public service.”
During Brooks’ tenure at GM, he served as vice president of corporate affairs, chairman of the General Motors Foundation and chairman of the board and president of Motor Enterprises, Inc., a GM small business investment subsidiary.
After leaving GM, he helped stabilize two ailing companies, Lason Inc. and United American Healthcare Corp. He also has started various ventures and served on the boards of several public companies including Louisiana-Pacific Corp., DTE Energy Co. and Covansys Corp.
He also ran for Detroit mayor in 2001.
In addition to GM and United Health Care, Brooks served as chairman and CEO of BPI Communications, LLC: vice chairman of Netlinks LLC: chairman of the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation: chairman emeritus of the Board of Directors of the Michigan Black Chamber of Commerce, which he helped found; and chairman emeritus of the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce
Brooks eventually returned to GM and remained there until his retirement in 1997. His daughter Pamela Tully recalled his view of his biggest mistake: He almost passed up the chance to serve as an assistant labor secretary.
“I said there was no way I would do that, leave a rising career and not make any money,” he said then. But he did “after a discussion with my family, who said, ‘There's no way you cannot,’ and (GM Chairman) Roger Smith said I should do it because ‘We need people with such experience in business.’ ”
She also recalled the advice he gave to people starting out in business:
“Go to a corporation, watch and learn. Then go out on your own, and the real issue is to learn how to learn, go into many different areas. The jobs that will be here 10 years from now don't exist today.”
Brooks also was recruited to mentor young people. His family recalled Mayor Coleman A. Young asking him to become a Scout leader.
“When I first came to this town, Coleman Young became mayor, and he asked me to look after Boy Scouts in this city and get them ready for the world,” Brooks recalled in his autobiography. “People don’t realize, Coleman was an Eagle Scout, and he said, ‘You can bring them to any building in this city,’ and he used to come and talk to these young folks … and that was a great experience for me.”
Brooks’ family said among his greatest recent thrills were a hug from a third-grader who had just read to him and a thank-you letter and photograph. They came from a Michigan State University graduate Brooks had given an award to in sixth grade.
Bill Brooks was born Aug. 21, 1933, in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, to William Harrison Brooks and Johanna (McNabb) Brooks.
His father, according to the family, was a decorated World War I veteran who served in heavy combat in France.
His mother was a beloved educator, the first African-American from Ste. Genevieve to earn a college degree. In 1941, even at the height of school segregation by race, she was elected vice president of the Missouri Parents Teachers Association. She later became a professor at Stowe Teachers College (now Harris-Stowe University) in St. Louis.
Brooks earned a bachelor's degree from Long Island University in 1961 and a master's in business administration from the University of Oklahoma. He would later complete the Harvard Business School’s Advanced Management Program and receive an honorary doctor of humane letters in May 1987 from Florida A&M University.
He entered the Air Force, eventually becoming an officer working in the Pentagon. After retiring from the Air Force in 1972, he was appointed by President Richard Nixon to work as an operations research analyst in the Office of Management and Budget.
He began his career at GM in 1975 and worked there until 1989, when President George H.W. Bush appointed him assistant secretary of labor for the Employment Standards Administration. He returned to General Motors in 1991 while also serving under President Bill Clinton on the Social Security Advisory Board.
In a career that ranged from cars to economics, Brooks was noted for his commitment to health, education and the welfare of children.
He was a past member of the Board of Trustees of Grand Valley State University and the University of Detroit Mercy. He also was a past member of the Board of Trustees of the Detroit-Macomb Hospital Association, the Henry Ford Health System and the Pontiac Osteopathic Hospital.
Dr. Kenneth Harris, president and CEO of the National Business League, Inc., praised Brooks, who helped found the Michigan Black Chamber of Commerce and the Detroit Chapter of the National Black MBA Association.
“Mr. Brooks was a larger-than-life figure who pushed the envelope on issues of economic inclusion, while preparing the next generation for leadership and who always said there is no success without succession,” he said.
Funeral arrangements are being handled by Swanson Funeral Home. Visitation will be 4 to 8 p.m. Monday at 806 East Grand Blvd. in Detroit. The funeral service will be at 11 a.m. Tuesday at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, 1000 Eliot St in Detroit.
Brooks is survived by his wife, Elizabeth; his children, William C. Brooks Jr., Patricia Elizabeth Brooks and Pamela (Peter) Tully; and eight grandchildren. He also had four great-grandchildren.