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Natalie Stavale Special to the Jewish News
WWII veteran and philanthropist Morton Harris honored as a Churchill Fellow.
Detroit native Morton E. “Mort” Harris, 97, is a successful businessman, entrepreneur, noted philanthropist and a decorated World War II veteran. He’s also now a Churchill Fellow.
Harris recently was inducted into the Association of Churchill Fellows at the National Churchill Museum on the campus of Westminster College in Fulton, Mo., during the Churchill Fellows Weekend, an annual event where a national expert on Churchill delivers the Enid and R. Crosby Kemper Lecture and new Churchill Fellows are inducted.
“I am highly honored to be named a Churchill Fellow,” Harris said. “World War II was about a relentless fight for freedom against a well-armed enemy. At the outset, a successful outcome was uncertain. Churchill’s voice gave us hope. His courage was contagious.”
The Association of Churchill Fellows, founded in 1969, is an honorary society of people dedicated to the development and use of the National Churchill Museum at Westminster College, where Sir Winston Churchill delivered his historic “Iron Curtain” speech in 1946, which marked the beginning of the “Cold War” with what was then the Soviet Union. Past Fellows inductees include Churchill’s grandson, Winston Churchill, Walter Cronkite, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Sir Martin Gilbert.
Four other prominent leaders also were named Churchill Fellows alongside Harris, including Metro Detroiter William Clark Durant III, president of the New Common School Foundation, co-founder and former CEO of Cornerstone Schools in Detroit.
“I am honored beyond measure to have been inducted into the Society of Churchill Fellows alongside my dear friend Mort, a genuine World War II Air Force pilot hero in the European theater,” Durant said. “I was a captain in the Army in the ’70s and my dad, now deceased, was an Army captain in the Pacific in World War II. It is continually important to remind young people that freedom is not free.”
Durant also attended the Churchill Fellows Weekend and brought two students from Cornerstone Health + Technology High School: junior Gevon Clemons and senior DaLayna Mitchell, both of Detroit. They got to meet Harris and learn of the historical importance and current relevance of Winston Churchill at the very location of his historic address in 1946, given in the presence of President Harry S. Truman. Clemons and Mitchell were selected for their academic excellence and interest in history.
His Excellency Ron Dermer, the Israeli Ambassador to the United States, delivered this year’s lecture on the topic of “Churchill and Israel” in the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury, a 17th-century Christopher Wren church in London that was bombed in 1940 during the German blitzkrieg at the start of World War II and re-dedicated in 1969 at Westminster College to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Churchill’s now-famous speech.
“My experience during the Churchill Fellows Weekend was truly amazing. The knowledge I gained on this trip will stay with me beyond high school,” Mitchell said. “Learning about Winston Churchill has inspired me to work harder, help motivate others and make a difference in the world. Israeli Ambassador Dermer is a remarkable individual and an incredible speaker. I was honored to hear his lecture, as well as meet a World War II veteran, Mr. Mort Harris, who shared with me details of his journey throughout the war.”
Clemons said, “This was an experience of a lifetime. Churchill was not just a man, but also a true hero. I learned firsthand from Ambassador Dermer that Churchill provided tremendous support to the Jewish people as they struggled to create Israel.”
Harris added, “As a native Detroiter, it was a joy to have two Detroit students travel to Fulton with me and a gift to share my World War II experiences with them.”
“I am highly honored to be named a Churchill Fellow. World War II was about a relentless fight for freedom against a well-armed enemy. At the outset, a successful outcome was uncertain. Churchill’s voice gave us hope. His courage was contagious.”
— Morton “Mort” Harris
Harris flew 33 combat missions during World War II, was shot down twice and is pictured with fellow pilots in Life magazine as a part of the flying squadron that first bombed Berlin.
He was honored for leading a squad of 12 B-17s to deliver cannons to the town of Footman-Lilas, where French freedom fighters and farmers used the cargo to liberate the first major city in France. This operation helped turn the tide of the war for France, and Paris was soon liberated from the Nazis.
After returning home, Harris became a successful businessman in Detroit, serving as president of Mercier Corp. and later co-founding Detroit’s American Axle & Manufacturing Holdings Inc. in 1994.
Over the years, Harris and his late wife, Bridgette, donated millions of dollars to benefit the arts, education and health care in Metro Detroit, including the Cranbrook Garden Club, Oakland Family Services, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Boys and Girls Clubs of Southeastern Michigan and other organizations. They also contributed to Wayne State University, where Harris attended college, and where today the university’s recreation and fitness center bears his name.
Last June, Harris donated $20 million to facilitate cancer care and research as part of a $40 million package to support the Henry Ford Health System. Harris’ donation will help fund the $155 million Brigitte Harris Cancer Pavilion, a six-story outpatient cancer center expected to open in 2019. The pavilion will feature special gathering places for patient and caregiver support groups, yoga classes, music and art therapy, a rooftop third-floor garden and a skywalk to connect it to the 805-bed Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit’s New Center neighborhood.
In addition to the Churchill Fellows honor, Harris recently was presented with the Knight of the French Legion of Honor medal by Guillaume Lacroix, consulate general of France in Chicago, on behalf of the president of the French Republic, for his service during World War II as a bomber pilot in the U.S. Army Air Corps’ Eighth Air Force, 95th Bomber Group, based in Horham, Suffolk, England. The award was created by Napoleon in 1802 and is the highest national decoration of the French Republic.
Additionally, Harris was a longtime friend and business partner of the late Detroit philanthropist Mandell “Bill” Berman.