“He had a real gratitude that his grandfather, Joseph Wetsman, made the trip to America. He would say to me, ‘I could never have done this in Europe,’” reflected Karen Davidson, the wife of the late William "Bill" Davidson, one of Detroit’s most successful businessmen and generous philanthropists.
Born in Detroit, in his home, William Davidson was the second of two children to parents Ralph and Sarah (their home was located on the property that is today the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History). His sister, Dorothy, would become and remain his best friend for life. Their mother, Sarah (nee Wetsman) taught her children to love each other and their family, and to always give back to their community. She also gave Bill his instinctive sense to know when to reach out to person in need, but to do so quietly and without notoriety. His father taught him to use business success as a means to help others.
Early on, William Davidson exhibited athletic prowess, playing football at Central High School, and, when he attended the University of Michigan, running cross-country track. Toward the end of WWII, Bill served for two years in the Navy in Asia. After his military service, Bill returned to Michigan and graduated from Wayne State University’s School of Law. After school, Bill opened a law practice but an early bankruptcy client caught his attention. He decided to acquire the Frank W. Kerr Company, a wholesale drug company that seemed promising. He enjoyed the challenge and made that company quite successful.
After a few years, another project appeared on his horizon. His uncle, Barney Wetsman, an entrepreneur, passed away and left Guardian Glass Company to his niece and nephews. By mutual agreement, Bill took over the company. Through his strong work ethic, vision, and passion, serving as chairman, president and CEO, he turned Guardian into Guardian Industries, one of the largest and most innovative architectural and automotive glass manufacturers in the world and a major supplier of plastic parts to the automotive industry.
When Bill was 18, his father and uncle were killed in an automobile accident. Observing the Jewish tradition of daily kaddish prayer for his father, Bill later recalled, solidified his strong Jewish identity. Detroit’s Congregation Shaarey Zedek, where Bill was a life-long member, became an essential part of who he was as a person. As his grandfather Joseph Wetsman had in 1922, Bill became president of Congregation Shaarey Zedek in 1977. He also served on the Clover Hill Cemetery Board of Trustees from 1980 to 1997 and was chairman of Clover Hill from 1987 to 1991, which followed a strong interest of his grandfather.
His philanthropy was noted worldwide, and the list of organizations he supported is long. Among his top priorities was his belief that young people have access to a quality Jewish education, both Jewish and secular, here and around the world. To that end, he founded the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1994. His generosity also extended to the University of Michigan, when he established the William Davidson Institute in 1992, to bring all the benefits of market economics to emerging markets. The Institute is affiliated with the Ross School of Business.
In 1997, the New York Times named him as one of America's most generous donors. A decade later, in 2007, he and his wife Karen, on behalf of Guardian Industries, made a substantial gift to support the new in-patient tower at Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, a center that serves "the Jewish, Christian and Muslim residents of the region." It was among the largest commitments ever made to a Jewish organization, and was named the Sarah Wetsman Davidson Tower, in memory of Bill's mother who was a leader in Hadassah throughout her life.
His success also enabled him to combine his instinct for business with his love of sports. In 1974, William Davidson led a group of relatives and friends to purchase the Detroit Pistons basketball team. Then, in 1988, he helped finance and build the Palace of Auburn Hills arena, which would remain the home of the basketball team until the end of the 2016-2017 season. In 1985, he was inducted into the Michigan Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. In 2004, he became the first professional sports owner to have a team win the NBA Championship, the Stanley Cup of the National Hockey League, and the Women’s National Basketball League Championship in the same year. In 2008, he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts.
Above all though, it was family Bill cherished the most. Joseph Wetsman’s immigration from his home in Russia, in the late 19th Century, enabled the young entrepreneur to explore America’s great promise of religious and economic freedom. Joseph’s gratitude was not lost on his grandson. Bill never forgot that, in Europe, no matter how hard one worked, Jews like his grandfather faced covenants and prohibitions that prevented them from entering certain professions and trades. “That gratitude was what drove him in his religious, business and family life,” said Karen.
Bill was always focused on his family obligations. From his sister Dorothy, and her husband Bud and two sons, to his wife, Karen, and his two children, Ethan and Marla, and his grandchildren, William Davidson, like his father and mother before him, taught them to live an active life, to be generous, to stay involved with the Jewish community, and to make decisions and move forward with optimism.
Today, his philanthropy and leadership lives on through the William Davidson Foundation, a private family foundation that works to honor its founder’s memory by preserving and enhancing the cultural, civic, and economic vitality of Southeast Michigan, Israel, and the Jewish community. The foundation is among the largest family foundations in Michigan and one of the largest foundations supporting the Jewish community worldwide. In 2015, the William Davidson Foundation granted the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan the funding to create a website that would serve as a “virtual museum” of Michigan’s Jewish history.
With thanks to the Gerson and Davidson family. Portions adapted from the eulogy delivered by Rabbi Joseph H. Krakoff, Congregation Shaarey Zedek.
Learn More: Congregation Shaarey Zedek, Sarah Wetsman, Clover Hill