A Bright Outlook

Photograph by Cybelle Codish

The David B. Hermelin ORT Resource Center in West Bloomfield Township.

The David B. Hermelin Volunteer Fundraising Award at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

The Hermelin Brain Tumor Center at Detroit’s Henry Ford Hospital.

The name of the late David Hermelin, a man hailed in a November 2000 obituary as “one of the country’s greatest philanthropists and fundraisers,” is emblazoned across southeast Michigan like freeway signposts.

And now, as his widow begins her second decade without him at her side, Doreen Hermelin — who served with David as U.S. ambassador to Norway, worked with him in raising millions for Bill Clinton and other political campaigns, and assisted in the building of The Palace of Auburn Hills — is happy to talk about any of the family’s charitable and humanitarian endeavors.

That is, as long as the conversation doesn’t turn to Doreen Hermelin.

“I was just reading a profile of someone in Vanity Fair and said to myself, ‘What was I thinking?’ ” laments Doreen, who had agreed to an Hour Detroit interview only to help promote one of her pet ventures, ORT (Organization for Rehabilitation through Training) America, the national education and training nonprofit she has guided as president since 2007. “I don’t need, don’t want publicity, because it’s not my thing. I’m so embarrassed. I don’t toot my horn. It’s very uncomfortable for me.”

Her LinkedIn profile describes her as an “Independent Fund-Raising Professional,” but that’s like Barack Obama labeling himself “politician.” She was vice chair of The Michigan Difference, the University of Michigan’s $2.5-billion capital campaign, the largest and most successful public university fundraising effort in U.S. history. Imbued with the wisdom acquired from having just turned 70, Hermelin is, by virtually all accounts, one of the most dynamic, effective, well-connected people living among us. She’s “an example of Detroit leadership at its finest,” says Arthur M. Horwitz, president and publisher of the Detroit Jewish News. Yet, the last in-depth mainstream media coverage you’ve seen on her was ….


“We in this city, with the schools and all our other challenges, this is the kind of person we need right now,” says Emmett S. Moten Jr., real-estate developer and former director of Detroit’s Community and Economic Development Department under Mayor Coleman A. Young. Moten partnered with Hermelin, among others, on the redevelopment of downtown’s historic Pick-Fort Shelby Hotel, which converted the site to a Doubletree Guest Suites. “She hasn’t blinked,” Moten says. “Boundaries mean nothing to her. She just believes in what she’s supposed to do to help her fellow man. These people don’t come around all the time. We’re blessed to have her in our presence.”

That Hermelin would zealously avoid the media limelight comes as little surprise to Michigan State University trustee and former Democratic National Committee executive Faylene Owen, who still refers to Doreen as “sister-in-law.” (She previously was married to Hermelin’s brother, Eugene Curtis.) “I don’t know anyone who carries greater personal commitments than Doreen,” Owen says. “She travels the world to support worthy causes. Most impressive to me is that Doreen has carried on in spite of the loss of her lifelong love and partner. She and David worked on so many causes together, and now she does the work on her own.

“Doreen always brought excitement and energy to everything she’s done,” Owen adds. “She’s a very caring person, and she’s got a big heart. She grew up in [Detroit’s Sherwood Forest neighborhood] on Canterbury, and she has the same girlfriends she had when she was 14.”

Hermelin’s ongoing personal commitment is to ORT America, prompting her whirlwind 10-day excursion to Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, and the United Nations late last year. The 2007 merger of two organizations that have existed since the 1920s — American ORT and its female-only counterpart, Women’s American ORT — made history by unanimously electing Hermelin to a three-year term (ending this month) as the first president of their combined structure.

“I’ve been an ORT member since I was married, which was 51 years ago,” Hermelin says, her intense brown eyes softening as she sits in the elegant dining room of the family’s estate. “My husband loved ORT for that whole line about teaching a man how to fish and he can eat for a lifetime. The organization always meant a lot to me, because I care greatly about education. I think education changes the world. When you educate enough people in the community, you change the whole environment of the community.”

ORT America is the major supporter of programs for 300,000 students in 63 countries annually. “ORT’s long suit is science and technology, because that’s what the world needs now, and they’ve become a real expert at that,” Hermelin says. “It’s a way to find a job. ORT started 130 years ago in Russia teaching trades to help the Jews get jobs, then spread to other parts of the world to help Jews stay Jewish and get jobs, and now it’s really nonsectarian because it teaches everybody.”

At the Hermelin ORT Resource Center at Drake and Maple roads, “We’ve taken people from the shelters in Detroit, from all over the community, anybody who says ‘I need a job’ could come for no fee,” she says. “They learn the Windows program — it’s a 12-week course and you get a certification that you are knowledgeable in basic computer skills. I need a course in it myself, really, because I came to computers so late.”

Laurie Pine, former ORT America national director of communications, says of Hermelin: “She inspires us. She’s amazing. She’s brought so many people of many generations together. She talks about ORT as a family, and she’s made it a family. There’s a warmth here.”

Through it all, Hermelin somehow finds time to spend with her family, five children and 16 grandchildren, eight of whom David never met. “My husband was bigger than life, he really was,” she reflects. “He’s still missed by our community, by so many people. He left me these big shoes, and I’m trying to fill them.”