May 9, 2021

Philanthropist Mort Harris leaves a legacy at Wayne State University

The Wayne State community mourns the passing of entrepreneur and philanthropist, Mort Harris.

“I met Mort when I joined Wayne State in 2013 — and as impressed as I was with his credentials, I was even more impressed with his humility,” Wayne State President M. Roy Wilson said. “For me, personally, he was not only a great man but a great friend as well. I will miss him and his zest for life, but I am happy his legacy will live on at our university and with our students.”

Harris had a long relationship with Wayne State. In 1939, he began taking engineering classes at what was then Wayne University. He left the university during World War II and became a highly decorated pilot in the U.S. Army Air Corps, flying 33 successful missions over German-occupied territories. After the war, Harris embarked on a successful business career in Detroit as a co-founder of American Axle & Manufacturing Inc.

Harris has used his success to give back to the city, including a series of major philanthropic investments at Wayne State,  totaling more than $17 million. In 1970, he established the Edith Harris Memorial Scholarship in the School of Social Work in honor of his first wife, joining the Anthony Wayne Society, the university’s highest donor recognition group, as an inaugural member.

With his second wife, Brigitte, Mort continued to support a lecture series in the School of Social Work and scholarships for students in the College of Engineering, along with the Damon J. Keith Collection at the Law School and numerous other university initiatives.

In 2003, their generous support resulted in the Mort Harris Recreation and Fitness Center, located in the heart of Wayne State’s campus. In 2012, Mr. and Mrs. Harris established the Mort Harris Endowed Scholarship Fund in the School of Medicine and the Mort Harris Office for Adult Literacy Endowment Fund with a $5 million gift in 2012. That gift to create the Harris Literacy Program in the Office of Educational Outreach has registered more than 2,000 Detroiters since 2013, improving foundational skills in reading and math to help participants succeed in the workplace or in pursuit of higher education.

“Wayne State creates opportunity and makes our entire community stronger,” Harris said in announcing his $10 million gift for the Wayne Med-Direct program at Wayne State in 2017, which recruits high school students with a passion for health disparities and simultaneously admits them into an undergraduate program and Wayne State’s School of Medicine with full scholarships. “I am happy to support this program that will produce medical leaders and improve health for so many people in urban areas like Detroit, and beyond.”

Cedric Mutebi, 2019 recipient of the Mort Harris Med-Direct Scholarship, credited Harris with  enabling his dream of becoming a leader in medicine. “Through Med Direct at Wayne State, and thanks to a generous gift from Mort Harris, I was given the opportunity to pursue my passions in medicine and change the narrative around health disparities in minority communities.”

Harris has supported numerous other community organizations, and in May 2011, Wayne State presented him with an honorary Doctor of Laws degree in recognition of his many contributions to society, and his impact at Wayne State.

Remembered for his humility, kindness and charity, Harris was quoted asking “What good is your success if you cannot share it for the good of others?” His life exemplified his values.
In addition to Wayne State, Harris supported numerous community organizations, including the Henry Ford Health System, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Boys and Girls Clubs of Southeastern Michigan, Focus: HOPE, the Detroit Institute of Arts and Detroit Public Television.

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