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Eugene Driker, attorney who helped mediate Detroit bankruptcy, dies at 85

Detroit — Eugene Driker, a prominent Detroit attorney who helped to mediate the city's bankruptcy and coalesce support for the Grand Bargain that helped it to emerge from bankruptcy, has died at the age of 85.

Driker died on Thursday in his Palmer Woods home, as he wished, surrounded by family, his wife of 63 years, Elaine, confirmed to The Detroit News. A nearly lifelong Detroit resident, Driker was a champion of the city and many of its institutions.

Over the course of more than 50 years of practicing law, he and his firm represented some of the most important corporations in the state of Michigan, but helping to mediate the city of Detroit through its historic bankruptcy in 2013 is one of his most outstanding achievements.

He was one of six mediators. Although he was the only one making up the team who wasn't a federal judge, Driker was the first call Gerald Rosen, the chief mediator of the bankruptcy and former chief U.S. District judge, made to solicit help in the case.

"Whenever you needed help on a complex case, Eugene was the man to see," said Rosen, now a JAMS arbitrator. "To say that Eugene was a giant in both our legal community and the larger Detroit community is a vast understatement. ... His contributions to the success of the mediation were immeasurable on so many levels. Eugene's wisdom, wit and integrity will be greatly missed by those who knew, loved and respected him."

That's why he was tasked with some of the most difficult parts of the case, such as addressing 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. The move ensured the museum stayed open and protected its collections from creditors.

"It always felt like when you live in the city of Detroit, there was an obligation to become deeply involved and to work to effectuate positive change," Elaine Driker said. "He did that his whole life, starting out in the community and through his legal practice and mediating the Detroit bankruptcy, which really contributed to the benefit of the city. He was extraordinarily proud of it."

In a statement Friday, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer called Driker "a preeminent attorney, a lifelong and untiring advocate for his home city of Detroit, and a friend. He served with distinction as a Wayne State University governor and spent every day working to enrich and uplift his community. Eugene’s achievements in urban affairs, law, arts, and culture leave a legacy for every Michigander to carry forward.”

Driker was born Feb. 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 asked her to a fraternity party; giving her his pin soon turned into a proposal, and they wed when he was 22 and she was 20. They ripened together, Elaine Driker said, settling blocks from where they both grew up and involving themselves in political activism, doing volunteer work 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 all of it. He was just an interesting, warm, funny person to share a life with."

Driker only spent three years of his life outside of Detroit early in his legal career in Washington, D.C., where he was an attorney under Attorney General Robert Kennedy with the U.S. Justice Department's antitrust division in the early 1960s.

He obtained his undergraduate degree at what was then known as Wayne University. He received his juris doctorate at Wayne Law in 1961. He was 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 a member of the Carl Levin Center for Oversight and Democracy at the law school as well.

"Eugene Driker was a great friend to Wayne State University, and to me personally," President M. Roy Wilson said in a statement. "He was consistently generous with his time, intellect and support, yet modest about his accomplishments, which were many. His example inspires the entire Wayne State community."

In 1968, he founded with his partners the law firm Barris, Sott, Denn & Driker PLLC in downtown Detroit. The company focused on complex business litigation, counseling of businesses and nonprofits, and alternative dispute resolution.

In addition to Detroit's bankruptcy, he defended Jackson-based utility CMS Energy Corp., parent 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 firm. 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 bio on the firm's website.

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His philanthropic efforts were extensive. Former Buffalo Bills owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr. asked him to be one of four lifetime founding trustees in the foundation that bears his name starting in 2015, helping to develop the organization's mission to invest in ways to support communities in southeast Michigan and western New York.

"Eugene brought wisdom, empathy and an incredible lived experience to every aspect of our work," said Mary Wilson, the foundation's board chair and a lifetime trustee. "His guidance in shaping the mission, values and direction of the foundation will live on through the foundation’s work and will continue long after the foundation closes its doors, thanks to the impact that will be seen through our grantees and partners across our two regions. We are so blessed to have been given the gift of his love, friendship and humanity.”

Driker also served on several other boards, including those of the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit and the National Yiddish Book Center Inc. in Massachusetts, which became a particular passion of his because of its efforts to preserve his native language and culture, Elaine Driker said. A trail adjacent to the Blue Lagoon on Belle Isle recently was named for the Drikers, an honor particularly special since Eugene as a toddler went there with his mother, she said.

"I learned about philanthropy from my husband," Elaine Driker said. "He was a very generous person. He always understood the value of giving. I think that he felt that life had been so good to him and to us and to our family, that there was an unwritten obligation to return that generosity to others. He would say, 'I get so much pleasure giving money away.'"

A funeral will be held at 10:30 a.m. Sunday at Temple Emanu-El in Oak Park. He is survived by his wife; two adult children, Elissa and Stephen; and five grandchildren.

"If the bankruptcy was the pinnacle of his career," Elaine Driker said, "then his five grandchildren were of his life."

Twitter: @BreanaCNoble