Fred M. Butzel (1877-1948)

Service and Philanthropy Were the Heart of His Soul

Fred Butzel, courtesy Jewish Community ArchivesEach fall the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit presents the Fred M. Butzel Memorial Award for Distinguished Community Service to a member of the local community whose leadership and devotion rise above all others and who exemplifies the characteristics of the award's extraordinary namesake, Fred M. Butzel. Past recipients have included names familiar to the Michigan Jewish community: Max M. Fisher, William Davidson, David and Doreen Hermelin, to name a few. These men and women devoted their lives to making the world a better place, knowing the reward for their devotion was in the satisfaction of seeing others smile because of the kindness of a stranger. For this reason, it is easy to imagine that Fred Butzel's heart must have been very, very full.

Born in Detroit, Fred Butzel was the third of four sons of business leader Magnus and his wife, Henrietta. Fred Butzel attended the University of Michigan, then transferred to the Detroit College of Law, and was admitted to the bar in 1899. He joined his brother Henry in founding a law firm that would eventually become Butzel, Levin, Winston, Youngjohn and Quint.

Around age 20, the accomplished pianist got his first job teaching English to young immigrant boys, igniting a lifelong commitment to supporting countless immigrants, be it with money, free legal advice, or jobs. Fred’s involvement in the founding of the Trisquare Club, a club that allowed boys to govern themselves, and conduct debates and oratorical contests, lead to the creation of a Boy Scout Troop at the Hannah Schloss Memorial Building.

Like his brothers and his father, Fred found success in business, but he relished his community service and philanthropy. He was known to randomly hand $100 bills to storefront church leaders, welcome strangers into his home, and led some of the most important community organizations in the country, including the American Jewish Committee. He chaired the local War Camp Community Service chapter in WWI, and establish the Detroit Patriotic Fund, the agency formed to consolidate the various war relief agencies. The Patriotic Fund eventually became the Detroit Community Fund, of which Butzel served as vice chair.

During WWII, he served as the vice president of the Detroit Community War Chest, vice chair of the Wayne County USO, and chair of the local draft board. The Legal Aid Bureau links Butzel's name to its founding, as he freely gave of his time, experience, and knowledge to the organization.

At the request of Mayor Edward Jeffries, Fred served as vice chair of the Interracial Committee, a post necessitated by tensions long brewing between Southern blacks and whites who had streamed into the city for automotive and war production jobs in the early 1940s. In 1943, a three-day race riot left the city reeling from 34 deaths and much destruction. A year later, the committee convened to examine race relations, housing and transportation problems within the city.

In 1937, to celebrate his 60th birthday, the Jewish National Fund Council of Detroit led the effort to fund and plant the Fred M. Butzel Forest in Palestine. At the time, the only other American with a forest in his name was Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis. Fred ranked his support of a Jewish state at the top of his obligations, and shortly before his death, he saw his friend Chaim Weizmann elected president of the newly-declared nation.

The charming bachelor never married but "was wedded to his people," wrote Detroit Jewish News publisher Philip Slomovitz upon Fred Butzel's death in 1948, at age 70. On the day of his funeral, flags in the city of Detroit flew at half-staff to honor the man known to many as Uncle Fred, to others as Looyer Bootzel, and to most simply as Mr. Butzel. In remembering Fred Butzel, Detroit Free Press columnist Malcolm W. Bingay wrote that Butzel could not be described in any simple fashion and “cannot be labeled."

To honor him, the Jewish Welfare Federation and the Allied Jewish Campaign established memorial funds in his memory. His home on Mack Ave. was deeded to Parkside Hospital as a home for nurses of all races who worked at the four neighboring Detroit hospitals. In 1952, the Detroit Jewish community came together to dedicate the Fred M. Butzel Memorial Building located at 163 Madison. But, it would be the Fred M. Butzel Memorial Award for Outstanding Community Service, first given in 1951, that would endure. Julian Krolik, Fred’s friend and associate, was the first recipient.

Excerpted from Michigan Jewish History, Vol. 48, “Fred M. Butzel, the Man Behind the Name,” by Wendy Rose Bice. 

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