DEARBORN – Some people need just one story to describe their life. Others need more than one life to recount all their thoughts and accomplishments. Michael Berry was not just a successful attorney, bright politician, or even public figure; rather he encompassed all of these things with skilled dignity. He is a community leader who rose to fame and fortune from humble beginnings in the Southwwwqeswswend of Dearborn. As Wayne County Road Commissioner from 1967 to 1983, he set a career path based on principle and a strong foundation. But most importantly, he is a family man.
Berry achieved unprecedented notoriety when he became the first Arab Muslim to practice law in the State of Michigan. Graduating from the Detroit College of Law in 1949 after just two-and-a-half years, he earned his bachelor’s degree and eventually an accredited doctorate. Only a day after being admitted to the Michigan Bar Association, Berry was handed his first lawsuit dealing with an alleged drunk truck driver. Berry was understandably intimidated to face a judge so soon, but he immediately made his mark in the courtroom irking the judge so greatly he was nearly thrown in jail for contempt of court. He won his case that day and gained respect and legitimacy from his boss who immediately gave him more responsibility in the firm. Eventually he would go on to form the law firm of Berry, Hopson & Francis, a practice that was never held together by written contract, but rather by a simple handshake, a testament to the trust and honor these gentleman shared.
Anyone who makes a trip through Detroit International Airport should recognize the name of the international terminal, because it was named after Michael Berry. At a time when Arab Americans were forced to hide their identity and heritage, Berry was bestowed this honor due to his dedication in building and transforming Detroit’s airport into a world class center. Of his many professional accomplishments, Wayne County Road Commissioner truly defined his career and stature in the community.
“I worked 14 years running the system, with the help of my two co-commissioners, and during that period of time we started to build the national terminal. I had no idea that they would select me…my name to be put on it, but the Detroit Chamber of Commerce, Wayne County Chamber of Commerce and others made the decision… because I never let any contract go without a substantial bid, I made sure that every contract over 500 bucks was bid for, and when I had my engineers estimate the cost of construction I never allowed any override at any given time we built buildings for other uses in the airport. I attribute that to my Lebanese heritage, that they do not live beyond their means.”
Michigan State Senator Irma Clark-Coleman, then an administrative secretary who was one of the first African Americans to work for the Wayne County Road Commission, notes that, “Before [Berry] was finished, he had transformed the Road Commission to reflect its location and the community it served. He made sure that a great number of blacks and Arab Americans were hired. Before that, the only positions that blacks or women had were entry level; blacks usually just did road repairs.
As Wayne County Commissioner, his duties truly evolved into those of a diplomat on the international political scene. His walls at home are lined with letters from many U.S. Presidents, cabinet members, and other influential politicians written to show their appreciation for his wise counsel over matters domestic and foreign. One notable letter came from Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 that read, “…I do hope in the campaign weeks ahead, we can again discuss problems of mutual concern. I am sure, both you and I agree, that the Middle East situation should be, and must be, of grave concern to the United States government.”
Though the power Berry has yielded in the past may have been intimidating to his opponents, his status truly is disarmed around his children, particularly his two teenage sons. When the boys were born (Michael was 71 at the time), a friend joked, “At your age, Mike…tell me, how did you do it?” Berry replied, “Hummous. If you eat a lot of it, you’ll have the same success.”