Michael J. George, an icon in metro Detroit and a pillar in the Chaldean community, passed away today at age 81.
George was the quintessential American success story, having built the Melody Farms Dairy Company with his brother Sharkey from a single milk route in 1950 to a business with over $150 million in revenues. He was one of the most recognizable and revered businessmen in Michigan, best known for his humility, responsiveness and making deals with a handshake instead of a contract.
George was the Chaldean community’s most respected leader and spokesman for the better part of a generation. He championed several essential causes for the Chaldean community as the former Chairman of the Chaldean Federation of America and as co-founder and past president of the Chaldean Iraqi American Association of Michigan. He was instrumental in establishing both the Southfield Manor and later the Shenandoah Banquet, Golf, Community and Conference Center. He was one of the driving forces behind the formation of Bank of Michigan, a community bank focused largely on small business lending, which George believed was the essence of the American dream. Most recently he championed several new programs to aid tens of thousands of minority Christians flee unrelenting violence and persecution in Iraq and throughout the Middle East.
For these contributions and others George earned awards too numerous to mention, including the Ellis Island Medal of Honor (2001) for his outstanding service and achievements as an American of Chaldean heritage, the Arab American and Chaldean Council Entrepreneur of the Year (1998), and Associated Food Dealer’s Man of The Year (2001).
George had a considerable impact on the success of Chaldeans in the metro-Detroit area and also to the city of Detroit itself. After the Detroit riots in 1967, George, who by then had been in the dairy business for 15 years, encouraged Chaldean storeowners to stay in the city. He assisted many in their efforts to rebuild, open and buy more stores. Eventually, over the course of 30 years, George helped finance over 700 new stores (many in Detroit).
George had a “great impact” on the State of Michigan over the course of several years, helping “revitalize Detroit, which is essential to the reinvention of Michigan,” according to Governor Rick Synder.
Beyond his immediate family, George was a second father, godfather, uncle, mentor and advisor to countless others, many of whom attribute their success in business or politics to him. He was best known for his selflessness, generosity and the equal and respectful manner in which he treated everyone he met.
Gerald Rosen, the Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court in Detroit, described him as “a treasure of our community” who “has long been an important mentor to many men and women in our great community, and his leadership, wisdom and generous heart have endeared him to people of all faiths and backgrounds.”
Among the people who sought his counsel and advice are state and local political leaders, including former United States Senator and United States Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, who described George as “a great friend and mentor to me and countless others who were fortunate enough to know him.” Longtime United States Senator Carl Levin describes him as “a great friend of Detroit and a great friend of mine,” who has “given himself and his resources to provide a helping hand to countless individuals throughout the Detroit area.”
George was born in Detroit, Michigan on December 20, 1932. Upon graduating Catholic Central High School in 1950, George, his father Tom and his brother Sharkey started Tom George & Sons Dairy with $412, a coffee table and an 11-year-old truck to distribute Wilson’s dairy products.
After two years he left the family business to serve in the Army during the Korean War, from 1953-1955, obtaining the rank of sergeant. Upon his return, he rejoined the family business, which eventually became known as Melody Farms.
George became a legend in the dairy industry. He grew the company rapidly, both organically and through acquisitions, including Richardson Dairy, All Star Dairy, Sealtest Dairy, Twin Pines Dairy Company, Stroh’s Ice Cream and, ironically, the very first company with which he worked, Wilson’s Dairy. Prior to their sale to industry leader Dean’s Foods in 2003, Melody Farms had several lines of dairy products, over 80 flavors of ice cream, over 10,000 customers and was one of the largest privately held dairy and beverage distribution companies in the United States. George went on to pursue several other business interests, including real estate such as hotels, office buildings, and parking garages, and companies in several different industries, including food products, technology, banking, warehousing and others. George always stayed active in business and philanthropy, at one point serving on 19 boards simultaneously.
George was a dedicated family man. He enjoyed boating and an occasional cigar, but looked most forward to dinner at his home with his entire family every Sunday.
Michael George is survived by his wife of 54 years, Najat, their six sons and three daughter-in-laws, Anthony and Sheila, Robert and Mimi, Rodney and Paulette, Lenny, Scott and Michael II, 10 grandchildren Amber, Dominic, Lorenzo, Robert Jr. (and his wife Lindsey), Samantha, Blake, Brittany, Michaela, Nicholas and Caitlin, and his older brother, Sharkey and his wife Rita.
In light of his longstanding commitment to charity, in lieu of flowers the family requests that donations be made to the Michael J. George Charity at 30777 Northwestern Highway, Suite 300, Farmington Hills, Michigan 48334 or online at www.mjgcharity.org
A mass will be held at Mother of God Chaldean Catholic Church, 25585 Berg Road, Southfield, Michigan 48033 at 10:00 a.m. on Thursday June 26. People can pay their respects to the family the same day from 3:00 – 7:00 p.m. at the Shenandoah, located at 5600 Walnut Lake Road, West Bloomfield, Michigan 48323.
The family intends to announce a remembrance dinner within the coming months.
For more information or additional pictures, please go to www.mjgcharity.org and for comment contact Mike Sarafa at (248) 798-9610.