By on December 27, 2013

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One of the things I’ve discovered when writing about automotive history, it first occurred to me when I was researching street names in and around Detroit, is that we name things after people to memorialize them and, ironically, in time the memorial becomes all that we know about them. Not many people who drive on James Couzens Hwy in Detroit every day know that he was a U.S. senator and the mayor of Detroit before then, but hardly anyone at all knows that he went into politics after a fairly successful career as the business manager of a local Detroit family owned firm, a concern known as the Ford Motor Company. When Mary Barra was named to be the chief executive officer of General Motors, the first woman to run a large automaker, I was reminded of another woman who ran a significant automotive company, in the 1930s, when few women ran any businesses, let alone one in the automotive field, Helen DeRoy. Though DeRoy’s name is possibly familiar to you, her pioneering roles in women’s history and automotive history aren’t as well known as her name.

The name DeRoy is well known in Michigan and elsewhere, primarily because of Mrs. DeRoy’s philanthropy. Her and her husband’s names are on buildings, educational institutions and scholarships in Michigan and elsewhere in the United States. Helen DeRoy passed away in 1977 at the age of 95 and the DeRoy Testamentary Foundation continues her good works with a current endowment of over $56 million. Mrs. DeRoy’s good name has been perpetuated by her philanthropy, but it seems to me that her charity has in part obscured just how she and her husband became wealthy enough to be so philanthropic as well as other facts of her life.

Helen DeRoy was born in 1882 in Oil City, Pennsylvania, to the Lowentritt family. She grew up in affluence, her father having made a fortune in the early oil industry. Her husband, Aaron, was born in Pittsburgh in 1880 and earned a degree in dentistry from the University of Pittsburgh. Finding the young automobile industry more appealing than pulling teeth, Aaron DeRoy started to sell Studebaker cars in Pittsburgh in the early 20th century, first electrics and then gasoline. He opened up more Studebaker dealerships in Pennsylvania and the midwest, today we’d call it a dealer group. Eventually, in addition to his dealerships, he became a distributor for Studebaker, making his own considerable fortune by the time he was 40 years old.

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By the early 1920s, wealthy and still relatively young, DeRoy considered retiring. Neither he nor Helen ever liked Pittsburgh and knowing Detroit well they decided to move there, taking up residence in the prestigious Whittier Hotel. Though they sold their interest in the Studebaker distributorship, by 1923 the DeRoys were back in the car business with the Aaron DeRoy Motor Car Company, which distributed Hudson and Essex brand automobiles for the Hudson Motor Co. in addition to operating retail dealerships.

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Aaron DeRoy, 1916 Photo

By the late 1920s, the DeRoys started giving away substantial sums of money to charitable causes. They were childless and most of their contributions seem to have gone to institutions and charities that aided and educated children (the same was true of two other prominent Detroit couples who did not have any children, the Rackhams and the Skillmans, whose names are also well known due to their philanthropy). The DeRoys were among the founders of the Detroit Zoo, the first natural habitat zoo in America, with Mr. DeRoy buying the zoological society its first two two giraffes in Germany in 1925, having to arrange transport to Detroit on special military trains because of their size.

After the start of the Great Depression, Aaron DeRoy took an active role in Detroit’s Allied Jewish Campaign, first as treasurer and then as campaign chairman. According to a contemporary news report by longtime Detroit journalist and founder of the Detroit Jewish News, Phil Slomovitz, the financial crisis threatened “every” educational and social agency in Detroit’s Jewish community with “ruin”, but under Mr. DeRoy’s leadership, the campaign was oversubscribed in both 1930 and 1931.

Well aware of his good fortune, DeRoy challenged Detroit’s more affluent Jews to participate generously in the campaign. ”If we who possess some wealth complain about losses and decline in income, what should the hordes of unemployed and poverty-stricken say to us? There is none of us so hard hit but that there is some one else in our midst who.is not even harder hit.”

Not only did his work help existing institutions survive the Depression, in 1930 he also helped raise funds to build a Jewish Community Center on Woodward Ave and Holbrook (today the Considine Little Rock Family Center operated jointly by the City of Detroit and the church next door) to provide recreational and educational activities. Along the same lines, Helen DeRoy became a director of the Fresh Air Society which then operated a summer camp in rural Brighton for city kids. Mrs. DeRoy maintained her relationship with the organization (today known as the Tamarack Camps) for the rest of her life.

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Though Aaron DeRoy made his money from cars, his passion was going fast on the water. A member many yacht clubs, as a sportsman he competed and won in a variety of classes in the Junior Gold Cup race for a number of years, and sponsored a Detroit entry in the senior Gold Cup race (using a speedboat formerly owned by Horace Dodge). He died in 1935 from injuries sustained in a car accident en route to Florida to watch yacht races with his good friend, industrialist and boat racer Gar Wood.

In that era, when wealthy men died their widows would often sell off their business assets, as the Dodge brothers’ widows did, or hire experienced business managers. Women operated few businesses on their own. Helen DeRoy, though, upon her husband’s untimely death assumed full responsibility for the operation of the DeRoy Motor Car Company and her husband’s other business and financial interests. She also increased her philanthropy, funding the expansion of the Detroit JCC, with a swimming pool and gymnasium, fulfilling a project that her husband had started.

The former Aaron DeRoy Memorial Bldg of Detroit's Jewish Community Center

The former Aaron DeRoy Memorial Bldg of Detroit’s Jewish Community Center

By the early 1940s, Helen was no longer a young woman and she decided to retire from the business world, selling the family car business, which continued to operate under her husband’s brand name – the DeRoy name meant something in the auto industry. She didn’t have a sedate retirement, though, traveling frequently. She also increased her philanthropy, establishing the Helen L. DeRoy Foundation, today the DeRoy Testamentary Foundation. She built an auditorium and student housing at Detroit’s Wayne State University as well as a residence hall at Brandeis University. Helen Deroy Hall at WSU and the adjacent Meyer and Anna Prentis Building (Meyer Prentis was Alfred Sloan’s right hand man and the longtime comptroller of General Motors) were designed by Minoru Yamasaki, and share some architectural features with his World Trade Center towers. Scholarships at numerous other universities have been endowed by Mrs. DeRoy. An active member of Detroit’s Temple Beth El, many of Mrs. DeRoy’s contributions were focused on the Jewish community, but on the whole her philanthropy was non-denominational. The medical libary at Providence Hospital, a Catholic institution in Southfield, Michigan, is named after her. The film studies department at the famous Interlochen arts camp and a hall at the Dossin Great Lakes Museum on Belle Isle also bear her name.

Helen L. DeRoy Hall, Wayne State University, Detroit

Helen L. DeRoy Hall, Wayne State University, Detroit

Today, if you search on the name Helen DeRoy, you can find many examples of her philanthropy, but almost nothing about the woman herself. It was a bit of a chore to find enough about her to write a simple blog post. An image search on Google results in pictures of some of the buildings mentioned above and even some photos of Malcolm X (who spoke at Wayne’s campus), but none of Mrs. Deroy. The only image I could find of the woman was a newspaper clipping in the Detroit Public Library’s Burton Historical Collection from the Detroit Free Press in 1939 when she endowed the Jewish Community Center’s new building in Detroit.

The offices of the DeRoy Testamentary Foundation are just down the street from my credit union so the other day I stopped in to see what biographical information they had about their founder and they told me that they didn’t have much more than what I could find on Wikipedia. As mentioned, the DeRoys had no children, so there’s nobody to have kept some kind of family history either. Fortunately, the DeRoy/Prentis complex on the WSU campus was nominated for the National Register of Historic Places and there was some biographical information on the DeRoys in the nomination form.

I suppose there’s some justice in that Mrs. DeRoy’s philanthropy has obscured her life story. Whatever immortality we have in this world are the works, good or bad, that survive us. While the fact that Helen DeRoy ran her family automobile distributorship at a time when it was pretty much unheard of for women to run businesses, particularly involving something like cars, is certainly worthy of note, in the long run her philanthropy is likely the most significant thing that she did. From the smile on her face in the photo above, it clearly gave her much joy.

Disclaimer: The author has benefited from the philanthropy of Aaron and Helen DeRoy on countless occasions. Actually, there’s a very good chance that were it not for Mrs. DeRoy, you would not be reading this. In 1939, she paid for the expansion of the Jewish Community Center on Woodward in Detroit. A newspaper clipping  from the time about her donation shows some of the building’s features that she underwrote, including the swimming pool. A few years later, during World War II, a young soldier from Brooklyn named Leonard Schreiber, who was getting an associate degree in civil engineering at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor while in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, was swimming in that pool at a USO event when he met a local Detroit girl named Pauline Smolinsky. The story about the JCC swimming pool is old family lore. The connection to Helen DeRoy wasn’t discovered until researching this post.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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3 Comments on “Before Mary Barra: Helen Deroy, Philanthropist (and Pioneering Automotive Businesswoman)...”


  • avatar
    jz78817

    see, posts like this really help put the “T” in TTAC.

    er, the second “T,” I mean.

    I was aware of the name Helen DeRoy, but up until now knew precisely nothing about her.

  • avatar
    shaker

    Thanks for the bio, how the DeRoys became successful, and yet were generous with their wealth – and that their generosity actually led to your parents meeting. Very cool story!

  • avatar
    fincar1

    A great piece, yet another illustration that there are no coincidences.

    As a Washingtonian, I immediately assumed that WSU referred to Washington State University, but on a moment’s reflection I suspect that it’s Wayne State University.


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