You'll have to pardon Mort Harris if his voice sounds extra hoarse. He recently celebrated a very big birthday.
Originally scheduled for a party at the Henry Ford Museum, plans were changed at the last minute due to coronavirus – which was how Harris found himself being driven down his street, where he was greeted by over 150 friends and neighbors wishing him a happy birthday from driveways.
“I had no idea...it was very spontaneous,” he said from his Bloomfield Hills home, where he has lived since 1958. “It was a ruckus affair.”
Guests included a performance by four French horn players from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, an organization the noted philanthropist keeps dear to his heart. He was honored at their Heroes Gala last year.
The DSO is just one of many cultural institutions Harris has supported over the years. Others include Detroit Institute of Arts and Cranbrook Garden Club.
“I just like to do things for culture, especially around where I live,” Harris said.
Harris has also been a contributor to Wayne State University, where the recreation and fitness center is named after him. Harris took classes there before, and after, enlisting in the U.S. Air Force during World War II.
He recalled that during his time in the Air Force, he was the lead bomber pilot on 33 air raids over France and Germany. Harris recently received the Knight of the French Legion of Honor medal, created by Napoleon in 1802, for his service. Over the years he also received three Distinguished Flying Crosses, a Presidential Citation and the Polish Medal of Honor.
Before flying in WWII, though, he had never actually flown a plane. But Harris kept thinking about becoming a pilot if he got called up. He took the test to see if he qualified, and he did.
“I passed pretty nicely the first time,” Harris recalled. “I was meant to be a pilot. I love it.”
Once home, he continued to fly his own aircraft for personal and business use.
After the war, Harris became a very, very successful businessman. He went on to own, start, or co-found multiple businesses, including Michigan's American Axle and Manufacturing, which he co-founded.
His business successes led him to becoming a philanthropist.
Harris said he made a lot of money quickly, and he wanted to help others.
“I hope when people hear my name they don't think bad things and that I tried to do good things for human beings,” Harris said.
One of his most recent contributions was to Henry Ford Health System, where he gave a $40 million gift, of which $20 million went towards their new outpatient cancer center, Brigitte Harris Cancer Pavilion, named for his late wife who died of pancreatic cancer in 2016. The center is expected to open later this year.
What would Brigitte have thought of this honor?
“Not much,” he said. “She was very quiet and never sought after any kind of accolade for herself.”
Even though she'll never be able see it, Harris is proud and pleased for her. He hopes she's somehow mystically aware of it.
Unlike some who reach 100 years of age, Harris isn't full of sage advice.
“I don't know if I can give advice to anybody in this whole world because I lived my own life the way I wanted to,” Harris said.
Ironically, that may be the best advice of all.