For all his success, Harris remained a modest and humble man who never sought out recognition for his accomplishments, either on the battlefield, in business or in his philanthropic endeavors, for which there were many.
Mort Harris of Bloomfield Hills, international industrialist, philanthropist and decorated WWII veteran, passed away on May 5, 2021. He was 101.
Harris co-founded American Axle & Manufacturing (AAM), a multi-billion-dollar global Tier 1 automotive supplier.
“The AAM family was saddened to hear of the passing of Mort Harris,” said AAM Chairman and CEO David C. Dauch in a statement. “Mort was a great man and a special person that meant so much to so many. He certainly had a strong and positive influence on all that knew him.”
Harris was born April 11, 1920, in Detroit. He was confirmed at Temple Beth El. He graduated from Central High School and began studying engineering in 1939 at Wayne University, the forerunner of Wayne State University (WSU). A true patriot, Harris left school to enlist in the WWII effort.
As a member of the U.S. 8th Air Force, famously known as the “Mighty Eighth,” Harris became known as the “Berlin Kid” for the decisive B-17 bombing missions he flew over the German capital. Two of Harris’ 33 missions included passes over the beaches of Normandy on D-Day; he survived two crash landings in the North Sea.
For his heroism and distinguished service in battle, Harris was awarded three U.S. Distinguished Flying Crosses, six air medals, a presidential citation, the Polish Medal of Honor and the French Legion of Honor, France’s highest decoration.
For all his success, like many of the Greatest Generation, Harris remained a modest and humble man who never sought out recognition for his accomplishments, either on the battlefield, in business or in his philanthropic endeavors, for which there were many. It was a lesson he learned form a very young age according to Harris’ first cousin, Ed Levy Jr., 90, of Birmingham.
“It was my father who taught Mort and I that money has three purposes,” said Levy Jr. “One, to put a roof over your head and that of your family and food on the table. Two, to practice the free enterprise system and practice it not only for your own benefit, but for the benefit of the people that helped you make it. And three, if there’s anything left over, it should go to good causes. He took that very seriously.”
Those sentiments were echoed by WSU President M. Roy Wilson in a statement: “Anyone who has reached his incredibly high levels of success could be justifiably proud, but that wasn’t Mort,” Wilson said. “Despite his financial success and his many military and civilian honors, Mort was humble and kind, and he would happily opt for a sandwich over a five-star meal because it was the people he was with that mattered the most.”
WSU was on the receiving end of many generous donations by Harris. He made a $10 million donation to the Wayne-Med-Direct program for students that WSU says “creates a pipeline for admission to Wayne State’s School of Medicine.” A recreation and fitness center at WSU also bears Harris’ name.
The Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Detroit Institute of Arts, the Michigan Science Center, Northwood University, and community organizations like the Boys and Girls Clubs of Southeastern Michigan, Focus: Hope and Detroit Public Television are just a few of the beneficiaries of Harris’ endless generosity.
Sadly, Harris lost both his first wife, Edith, and second wife, Brigitte, to illness. He established the Edith Harris Memorial Lecture Series at WSU in her memory. A $10 million contribution to the Brigitte Harris Cancer Pavilion at the Henry Ford Cancer Institute just opened in January, which was part of $40 million in lifetime giving to the health system.
He is survived by his and Edith’s three sons and Brigitte’s three children from a previous marriage. Harris is also survived by his close and loving friend, Sandy Morrison.
Harris remained active for most of his 101 years and, as recently as 2017, shocked his cousin Ed, then 86, by asking him to arrange for what would be Harris’ first trip to Israel at the age of 97. Three weeks later, the two began an unforgettable eight-day tour.
“Mort loved every minute of it,” said Levy Jr. “He couldn’t say enough about what an eye-opener it was. He even started saying things like maybe he should spend the rest of his life there.”
A memorial service for Mort Harris is being planned for a later date.