Get to know people—that’s the secret.
Michael Berry, ’50
Michael Berry is at a point in his life at which he could simply look back and feel contentment and pride. Except this dynamo is going top-speed on multiple fronts. Chief among his interests are his large family, his legal practice, and his work as a philanthropist who advocates for better education and raises funds for many groups and causes.
Born in Highland Park, Michigan, and growing up with four brothers and four sisters, Berry liked to study and was eager to start working and get on with his life. His rock-solid values of integrity, education, fairness, and equality were among those ingrained in him by his hard-working parents, Mariam and Charles Berry. The family attempted to return to their homeland of Lebanon with their family in 1930, but the depression there was worse than in the United States, so they returned and settled in Dearborn. Michael is grateful for all the opportunities he has had in America.
A good student who graduated from Fordson Junior College and Wayne College, Berry originally wanted to become a doctor. The wait for medical school seemed too long, though, so he applied to Detroit College of Law (DCL), now MSU College of Law. There he became friends with two others students, Arman Simone (now deceased) and David Ambender. These three, who always studied and socialized together, were dubbed “The Three Musketeers.” Due to a glitch in his class schedule, Berry passed the bar exam and tried his first case in 1949, one month before he graduated.
Upon graduation in 1950, he and his associates formed the law practice of Berry, Hopson & Francis in Dearborn. As the first Muslim of Arab descent to practice law in the state of Michigan, Berry had to overcome a great deal of adversity.
Initially taking on every case, Berry later focused on municipal law. In 1967, he was approached to serve on the Wayne County Road Commission. He won the election and quickly put his mark on the agency by righting a skewed bidding system. In one instance, using his science education and lab training, he questioned the composition of fertilizer being purchased and was able to “right” the formula used, opening up the bidding and saving vast amounts of taxpayer dollars. His sharp business acumen earned him the position of chairman, which he held for 10 of his nearly 16 years of service.
While he was chairman of the Commission, Berry’s tenacious involvement in Detroit Metro Airport expansion, tight oversight of the bidding process, and execution of contracts earned him great respect. When a separate terminal for international travel was built, it was named in his honor.
His reputation for high ethics, tireless work on behalf of many causes, and an ability to “get big things done” brought him fame not only in Michigan, but also nationally and internationally.
Berry was active in the Democratic Party, chairing the 16th Congressional Democratic District for four terms beginning in the 1960s, and holding other powerful posts. He became friends with several of the Kennedys, and was encouraged to run for higher office himself.
His professional life is anchored by a bountiful home life. His marriage to Vivian produced four daughters and a happy, prosperous, and healthy family—a life that was tested when Vivian was killed in 1972.
Together, the family found the strength to continue moving forward. Berry’s daughter Laura Harris, ’87, ran a successful divorce practice at her father’s firm and worked as city attorney for Dearborn Heights. Berry also has two teenage sons and is now married to Cindy, a government relations professional.
Berry has endowed a scholarship at MSU Law and has given generously to support the University of Michigan-Dearborn, Davenport University, Henry Ford Community College, hospitals locally and in Lebanon, and many other causes. The Michael Berry Career Center at Dearborn Public Schools is named in his honor.
A 1983 Distinguished Alumnus (at DCL), his advice to MSU Law students who plan to start their own practice is, “Get out early and establish yourself. Work from sunrise to sunset, like I did. Let people know who you are. Get to know people—that’s the secret.”
To learn more about the fascinating life and accomplishments of Michael Berry, read Michael Berry, a biography by Susan Griffin, also of Dearborn.
A version of this profile originally appeared in the summer 2010 issue of Amicus, published by the MSU College of Law.