Detroit –Eugene Driker, a prominent Detroit attorney who helped broker the city’s bankruptcy and rally support for the Grand Bargain that helped it out of bankruptcy, has died at age 85.
Driker died Thursday at his home in Palmer Woods, just as he wished, surrounded by his family, his 63-year-old wife, Elaine, confirmed to The Detroit News. A resident of Detroit for most of his life, Driker was a champion of the city and many of its institutions.
In more than 50 years of practicing law, he and his firm have represented some of the most prominent corporations in the state of Michigan, but helping mediate the city of Detroit during its historic bankruptcy in 2013 is l one of his most remarkable achievements. .
He was one of the six mediators. Despite being the only member of the team who is not a federal judge, Driker was the first call from Gerald Rosen, chief bankruptcy mediator and former U.S. District Chief Judge, for help. in the case.
“Whenever you needed help with a complex case, Eugene was the go-to guy,” said Rosen, now a JAMS referee. “To say that Eugene was a giant in both our legal community and the wider Detroit community is a vast understatement. …His contributions to the success of mediation have been immeasurable on so many levels. The wisdom, l Eugene’s spirit and integrity will be greatly missed by those who knew, loved and respected him.”
That’s why he was tasked with some of the tougher parts of the case, such as settling the city’s unfunded pension liabilities. He also helped raise $866 million for the creation of an independent nonprofit for the Detroit Institute of Arts. This decision allowed the museum to remain open and protect its collections from creditors.
“When you live in the city of Detroit, you always felt like there was an obligation to get deeply involved and work to effect positive change,” said Elaine Driker. “He did that his whole life, starting in the community and through his legal practice and negotiating Detroit’s bankruptcy, which really helped the city benefit. He was extremely proud of that.”
In a statement Friday, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer called Driker “a distinguished attorney, a tireless defender of his hometown of Detroit, and a friend. He has served with distinction as Governor of the Wayne State University and spent every day working to enrich and uplift his community.Eugene’s accomplishments in urban affairs, law, arts and culture leave a legacy for every Michigander to pursue.
Driker was born on February 24, 1937 in Detroit. He was the son of Ukrainian immigrants, growing up in a close-knit Jewish community near Dexter and Davison and learning Yiddish as his first language. He met Elaine when they were students at Wayne State University. He invited her to a fraternity party; giving him his pin quickly turned into a proposal, and they married when he was 22 and she was 20. They matured together, Elaine Driker said, setting up blocks they both grew up in and getting involved in political activism, volunteering and supporting the Jewish community.
“He was my North Star,” she said. “He encouraged me to develop my own life, my own career, supported me through it all. He was just an interesting, warm, fun person to share a life with.”
Driker spent only three years of his life outside of Detroit at the start of his legal career in Washington, D.C., where he was an attorney under Attorney General Robert Kennedy with the United States Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division in the early 1990s. 1960.
He earned his undergraduate degree at what was then known as Wayne University. He received his JD from Wayne Law in 1961. He served on the university’s board of governors for 12 years. He also chaired the WSU Foundation, the Law School Board of Visitors, and Wayne Law as the first fundraising chair. He was also a member of the law school’s Carl Levin Center for Oversight and Democracy.
“Eugene Driker was a great friend of Wayne State University, and of me personally,” President Roy Wilson said in a statement. “He was always generous with his time, intellect and support, yet modest in his accomplishments, which were many. His example inspires the entire Wayne State community.”
In 1968, he and his partners founded the law firm Barris, Sott, Denn & Driker PLLC in downtown Detroit. The firm focused on complex commercial litigation, advising businesses and non-profits, and alternative dispute resolution.
In addition to the Detroit bankruptcy, he defended Jackson-based utility CMS Energy Corp., parent company of Consumers Energy, in a $500 million fraud and breach of contract case against Dow Chemical Co. Dow later became a client of Driker’s company. He also represented DTE Energy, Ford Motor Co., General Motors Co., Michigan Consolidated Gas Co., Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Enterprises LLC and Textron Inc., according to a biography on the company’s website.
His philanthropic efforts were considerable. Former Buffalo Bills owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr. asked him to be one of four lifetime founding trustees of the foundation that bears his name beginning in 2015, helping to expand the mission of the organization to invest in ways to support communities in Southeast Michigan and Western New York.
“Eugene brought wisdom, empathy and incredible lived experience to every aspect of our work,” said Mary Wilson, chair of the foundation’s board of trustees and life trustee. “His guidance in shaping the mission, values and direction of the foundation will live on through the work of the foundation and will continue long after the foundation closes, through the impact that will be visible through our grantees and partners in our two regions. We are so blessed to have received the gift of his love, his friendship and his humanity.
Driker has also served on several other boards, including those of the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, and the National Yiddish Book Center Inc. in Massachusetts, which is became a special passion for him because of his efforts to preserve his native language and culture, said Elaine Driker. A trail adjacent to Belle Isle’s Blue Lagoon was recently named in honor of the Drikers, an especially special honor since toddler Eugene traveled there with his mother, she said.
“I learned about philanthropy from my husband,” said Elaine Driker. “He was a very generous person. He always understood the value of giving. I think he felt that life had been so good for him, for us and for our family, that there was an unwritten obligation to return that generosity to others. He would say, ‘I have so much fun giving money.'”
A funeral will be held Sunday at 10:30 a.m. at Temple Emanu-El in Oak Park. He is survived by his wife; two adult children, Elissa and Stephen; and five grandchildren.
“If bankruptcy was the pinnacle of his career,” said Elaine Driker, “then his five grandchildren were his life.”