The community mourns the loss of Eugene Driker, a civic leader who supported its cultural institutions and helped mediate the agreements that were key in helping Detroit emerge from bankruptcy.
Eugene Driker was a loyal Detroit supporter, a highly respected attorney, a community leader, a generous philanthropist and, above all, a devoted family man. On Sept. 29, 2022, Eugene passed away peacefully at his Palmer Woods home, surrounded by those he held most dear. He was 85.
Eugene was known for his impeccable ethics, his remarkable negotiating skills and an uncanny ability to find workable solutions to seemingly unsolvable problems. One of the highlights of his career was serving on the mediation team that negotiated the 2014 agreements that saved the City of Detroit from bankruptcy.
Eugene was the youngest of three children born to Ukrainian immigrants Charles and Frances Driker. He and his siblings, Ruth and Jack, grew up in the close-knit Jewish community near Dexter and Davison, in a home where Yiddish was the primary language. When asked about the most influential people in his life, he always named his parents for teaching him to cherish family and friends over material possessions. He brought his parents to life through colorful stories about their lives in the old country and as new Americans.
“To listen to him was to fall into another world,” said his grandson Caleb.
His leadership and time management skills emerged at a young age. He was elected vice president of his graduating class at Central High School despite working every summer and putting in long hours at his father’s candy store during the school year.
When it came time for college, he followed his siblings’ path to Wayne State University. According to one of his oft-told stories, his father said he could go to any college he wanted … as long as he could get there on the Dexter bus.
Eugene felt an immediate affinity for the university that continued throughout his lifetime. He later described his alma mater as “an undervalued jewel” and referred to his education as “the portal to the American Dream.” He expressed his gratitude to the institution through decades of service and financial support that included serving 12 years on the Board of Governors and chairing the Wayne State University Foundation and the Law School Board of Visitors. He was the first fundraising chair for the Wayne State Law School and a steadfast donor, making numerous gifts and establishing several endowed funds. He was instrumental in creating the Levin Center for Oversight and Democracy at the law school and served as its first board chair.
“His passion, generosity and brilliance made a difference to so many,” said Wayne State University President M. Roy Wilson. “His greatest impact was often behind the scenes as a counselor, storyteller and trusted friend.”
His Most Important Partner
As an undergrad, Eugene majored in math and joined the Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity. Through a fellow “Sammy,” he met his wife of 63 years, Elaine, who was pursuing a degree in education.
“He liked telling people he traded his bottle cap collection and two dead toads for my phone number,” Elaine said.
The couple got married after Elaine graduated, and she taught school in Livonia while Eugene completed law school. Despite their youth, they created a bond based on love, trust, shared values and mutual respect.
“Our enduring marriage was a combination of dumb luck and hard work, tempered by life’s realities and enhanced by the remarkable bounty of our children and grandchildren,” said Elaine, who described it as “a marriage made in heaven.”
Eugene’s first job was in the anti-trust division of the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. After their daughter, Elissa, was born, they moved back to Detroit to be closer to their families, buying a home in Green Acres near Livernois and Seven Mile and welcoming their second child, Stephen.
In 1968, he and four other lawyers founded the firm Barris, Sott, Denn & Driker, P.L.L.C., located in downtown Detroit. Eugene and his partners soon earned a reputation as “lawyers’ lawyers,” skillfully representing a variety of clients that included law firms, government entities and businesses ranging from small start-ups to large corporations.
“Eugene was always the heart and soul of our firm,” said Todd Mendel, one of his partners. “His integrity and wisdom in tackling vexing and complex business matters are legendary.”
Dedicated to Family
Although many Jewish families were abandoning Detroit and moving to the suburbs, Eugene and Elaine opted to stay in the city, buying a house in Palmer Woods that became the family headquarters for holidays, birthday celebrations and numerous gatherings large and small.
“Their home was a refuge, full of laughter, welcoming warmth and yummy treats,” said Shelley Kroll. “Eugene and Elaine were always fun to be around, energetic, defying the sobering stereotypes of aging with their energy, their wit, their curiosity and their unceasing interest in new ideas and new ways of being.”
While he received immense gratification from his work and philanthropic activities, nothing matched his love for his family and the pleasure he got from spending time with them.
His children have fond memories of going to baseball games at Tiger Stadium, visiting Belle Isle and the Detroit Zoo and playing catch in the driveway of their Detroit home.
“As a child, I didn’t understand the magnitude of his professional and community involvement because none of us ever felt he was too busy for us,” said his daughter, Elissa. “He showed us how to live a meaningful life full of friendship, family, beauty, nature and connection.”
While he had high standards for himself and his children, his advice and even his admonishments were dispensed lovingly.
“When I needed him, he was there with full attention; he made problems seem less overwhelming and more manageable,” said his son, Stephen.
Eugene lit up in the presence of his grandchildren, and he enjoyed a special relationship with each one. He respected them as individuals regardless of age, teaching them about politics, the importance of clear and concise writing, humility, compassion and hard work.
“Each of us is called to live more deeply, more ethically and more joyously because of the example he provided,” said his grandson, Charlie. “He taught us there are no short cuts to being a good person.”
He attended their school and sporting events whenever possible and expressed his playful side building sandcastles on the shores of Lake Michigan during family vacations in Glen Arbor.
“He taught me the quickest way to solve a problem is not to care who gets credit for the solution,” said his grandson, Caleb.
A Masterful Problem-Solver
That philosophy served Eugene well when he was asked to join the mediation team tasked with helping the City of Detroit emerge from bankruptcy. He was instrumental in negotiating the agreement known as the “Grand Bargain,” a solution that restored solvency to the city while ensuring the DIA stayed open and the pension funds of city employees remained intact.
Eugene loved art and music; visiting the DIA often and holding season tickets to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. He liked maps, potato chips, Coney Islands and telling jokes with Yiddish punch lines.
He took pride in being one of four life trustees of the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation, an organization that helps communities and individuals in Southeast Michigan and Western New York. Earlier this year, he expressed his gratitude at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Eugene and Elaine C. Driker Trail on Belle Isle, part of the Ralph Wilson Gateway and Trail, the official southern trailhead for Michigan’s Iron Belle Trail, a 2,000-mile hiking and biking route stretching from Belle Isle to Ironwood in the Upper Peninsula. The tribute holds special meaning for Eugene, who spent many happy afternoons at Belle Isle with his parents, and later, with his children and grandchildren.
“He always led us to a better path and a greater good,” said Mary Wilson, widow of the late Ralph C. Wilson Jr.
Judaism and Jewish values were important to Eugene, and he selflessly gave his time and monetary support to many Jewish organizations including the American Jewish Committee (now JCRC/AJC) and serving as president of Jewish Vocational Service (now Gesher). He was a staunch supporter of Jewish Family Service and Kadima Mental Health Services. (Earlier this year, Jewish Vocational Service and Kadima merged into one organization under the name Gesher Human Services.)
“Eugene was dedicated to the City of Detroit and to the Jewish community; he was involved in both at the highest level,” said Bob Aronson, former CEO of the Jewish Federation of Metro Detroit. “I relied on him for his advice and counsel, as many others did.”
He was an avid supporter and former chair of the board of directors of the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts.
The Drikers loved traveling to destinations near and far, including Europe, Africa, Israel, New York and Florida. They spent many happy summers at their condo in Glen Arbor, exploring scenic Leelanau County with their children and grandchildren.
Eugene and Elaine took up bicycling together and enjoyed numerous bike rides with friends and family. As recently as August, Eugene completed a 15-mile ride up north, which he commemorated with a photo of his odometer to authenticate his accomplishment. In April, he published a 400-page memoir called Dexter Boy Diary, the culmination of 25 years of documenting memories and stories about his life from childhood to the present.
“He taught me the importance of philanthropy and the pleasure that comes from giving to people and institutions whose missions are to provide pathways to a better life for their constituents or enrich the fabric of Detroit, the city he loved so dearly,” said Elaine. “He was my North Star, my guidepost, my friend and my mentor.”
More than 600 people attended his funeral, officiated by Rabbi Matthew Zerwekh and Cantorial Soloist Kelly Onickel at Temple Emanu-El in Oak Park.
Eugene Driker is survived by his devoted and cherished wife of 63 years, Elaine Driker; beloved children, Elissa (Jay Zerwekh) Driker and Stephen (Jennifer) Driker; son-in-law, Perry Ohren; treasured grandchildren, Charlie, Caleb, Rebecca, Sophie and Emma; a loving circle of extended family and a world of friends.
Eugene was the son of the late Charles and the late Frances Driker and the brother of the late Ruth Driker (Irv) Kroll and the late Jack (Trudy) Driker.
Contributions in his memory may be directed to the Eugene Driker Endowed Scholarship in Law at Wayne State University, 5475 Woodward Ave., Detroit, MI 48202, (313) 577-2275, https://giving.wayne.edu/donate/driker; or The Driker Family Fund for College Students at the Yiddish Book Center, 1021 West St., Amherst, MA 01002, (413) 256-4900, www.yiddishbookcenter.org.
Arrangements by Ira Kaufman Chapel. Interment was at Machpelah Cemetery.