The DJN Foundation Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History delves into the life of Bill Davidson prior to the debut of the new documentary, Call Me Bill.
By Mike Smith, Detroit Jewish News Foundation Archivist
Call Me Bill: The William Davidson Story is a new documentary that will kick off the 2019 Lenore Marwil Detroit Jewish Film Festival on May 2. Son Ethan Davidson and his wife, Gretchen, were executive producers of this film that tells the story of William “Bill” Davidson, one of the most important Jewish — as well as non-Jewish — entrepreneurs and philanthropists in Detroit history.
It has been 10 years since Davidson passed, so it is most appropriate we remember him in this issue of the JN. I wanted to do my part, but I will tell you, this was a tough piece to write. On one hand, it was very easy in terms of research. Davidson was mentioned on nearly 1,300 pages in the William Davidson Digital Archive.
But, one the other hand, where do I begin? Simply stated, Bill Davidson was a legendary figure. He was one of those rare individuals who had a hand in shaping the modern state of Michigan and its primary industry as well as the modern city of Detroit and its Jewish community, and the state of Israel.
A Detroit native and graduate of the University of Michigan, Davidson also served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. Upon his return, he earned his law degree from Wayne State University and began a long and immensely successful career in business.
As an entrepreneur, Davidson took over Guardian Industries, a glass manufacturer. He transformed the company into a hugely innovative global automotive supplier and, therefore, a major player in Detroit’s signature industry.
Davidson indirectly touched millions of lives in Metro Detroit when he became the owner of the Detroit Pistons. During his ownership, the team won NBA Championships in 1989, 1990 and 2004. And his Women’s National Basketball League team, the Detroit Shock, won four championships. (I could also mention his ownership of the Tampa Bay Lightning, a NHL team, but, as a die-hard, lifelong Detroit Red Wings fan, this would be hard for me to do). Because of his work in sports, Davidson was enshrined in the Michigan Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1986 and the NBA Hall of Fame in 2008.
More important, perhaps, was Davidson’s tremendous support for his fellow Jews and Jewish communities in Michigan, Israel and America. The list of his contributions is huge. To name just the tip of the iceberg, Davidson funded numerous education programs including the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Center, the Sarah Wetsman Davidson Hospital Tower at the Hadassah Medical Center in Ein Kerem, Israel, and the Davidson Center, Jerusalem Archaeological Park, near the Western Wall.
His legacy also lives on in the good works of the William Davidson Foundation. Indeed, I directly benefit from Davidson’s legacy every day. To write this column, and all of my “Looking Back” columns, my research is conducted within the William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History. Because of generous support from the William Davidson Foundation to the Detroit Jewish News Foundation, the archive is one of the leading online, digital newspaper archives in America. It is now preserved forever at the University of Michigan’s Bentley Historical Library.
Maybe Bill Davidson wouldn’t really care that the archive was named after him. It seems likely he would be too busy planning his next philanthropic endeavor. But, at the JN and the Jewish News Foundation, we think about him often and are grateful he was a Detroiter.
If you would like to know more about William “Bill” Davidson, see his 272-page book from the pages of the JN, along with biographies of other great Jewish Detroiters at djnfoundation.org/biographies.
Want to learn more? Go to the DJN Foundation archives, available free at djnfoundation.org.