'Kingmaker' will be sorely missed by all
As I turned the corner and headed up the main hallway of One Heritage Place late Thursday afternoon, I was tempted to call out to the man heading through the revolving glass doors in front of me.
But I let Heinz Prechter go, out through the doors and toward his car parked in the circular drive facing Interstate 75. It would be the last time I laid eyes on Prechter, who killed himself early the next morning after fighting the demons of depression for the better part of his life.
That Prechter battled depression was news to many people who knew him. That fact is a credit to his inner center — people who worked with and loved him over decades of time. They kept his depression secret, for fear of what the stigma of the disease might do to his public image.
The Heinz Prechter I knew was a character, a man who could be quick with the quip or as honest a quote as the day is long.
He was a short, stout man, with a penchant for expensive, striped European suits, shirts and ties. He also had a penchant for putting on weight, which he often worried about.
But more than anything, Heinz Prechter was a version of Horatio Alger who was German to the core but American to the soul.
He was the ultimate name-dropper, but without a smidgen of ego.
Earlier this year, he dropped into my office to chat about a recent dinner he had attended in Washington, D.C. Of course, it wasn’t just any dinner date — it was at the White House with the Dubyas, President George and first lady Laura, along with former President Bush and his wife, Barbara, and every other important person in the current administration.
As he told me of the dinner ("Karl, guess where I had dinner Tuesday night?"), he winked and gave me an elbow in the ribs.
That was the Heinz Prechter I always knew. A big enough player — one of the most influential fund-raisers on the national scene — to dine with presidents, but a down-to-earth employer who knew your first name and always took time to recognize you in the hallway.
When I look back at the 15 or so years that I knew Heinz Prechter, they seem to go by in a blur.
I remember one of my first conversations with him, on a boat in the middle of the Detroit River. We were talking about the difficulties of Detroit and the talk turned to then-Mayor Coleman Young, who was regularly being hammered by the media for his inability to move the city forward.
"People shouldn’t be so hard on Coleman Young," Heinz said. "Coleman Young is a man that you can do business with …"
He left it there to lie. That was the player in Heinz Prechter coming out.
And that’s where so much of his persona could be misunderstood.
To some people, Prechter was an expensive suit and a Republican slant. I can’t tell you how many times people over the years accused Prechter of slanting the news in our newspaper or doing some other thing Downriver, all of which he had absolutely nothing to do with.
The reality was that he had very little to do with the newspapers, and, while a Republican Party supporter, was a smart enough businessman to keep both sides of his bread buttered.
But that’s the price you pay when you’re a power broker, which is exactly what Heinz Prechter was, so much so that Newsweek magazine last year called him one of the most influential kingmakers in America.
While he walked with kings, he was never too good for the mainstream Joe.
When this newspaper endorsed former Wyandotte Mayor James DeSana in his run for the U.S. Congress against U.S. Rep. John Dingell, a personal friend of Prechter’s, he didn’t get angry.
"Karl," he said in his thick German accent, "are you trying to get me in trouble with the Dingells? You know they are friends of mine."
Then he smiled and chuckled. We never spoke about it again.
When then Vice President Dan Quayle visited the Downriver area in the early 1990s, Prechter went out of his way to arrange a one-on-one interview with him. Prechter got the ear of then state Republican Party leader Spencer Abraham (who went on to serve in the U.S. Senate and now is a member of President Bush’s cabinet), and he made it happen.
Quayle made the rounds Downriver, through Southgate and Allen Park and finally to Prechter’s Grosse Ile residence, where everyone who is anyone met and feted the vice president.
By the end of the evening, I was stationed outside near the Quayle limousine, plenty nervous and sweating bullets.
All of a sudden, Quayle burst through the doors with his legion of Secret Service men and who else but Prechter right behind.
"Where’s Karl?" Quayle called out to no one in particular as he made a beeline for a totally bewildered young editor who was about to take a ride with the vice president back to the airport.
As Quayle and I shook hands, Prechter the kingmaker stood in the background, getting a big kick out of the whole scene. For one night, Heinz Prechter made Karl Ziomek a king.
When the limo left, Heinz looked around and, to no one in particular, said, "Someone get me a beer!"
But that’s just the way he always was in public, despite the private bouts with depression. He was proud of his holdings. He treated people more like family than employees.
His legacy is so great that you’d need a book to give it proper due.
American Sunroof Co. started with a brilliant idea and, in a garage in Los Angeles, an old sewing machine and a workbench made out of an old door.
His ventures grew over the years, into development, into publishing. His national fund-raising abilities made him a regular on the dais with presidents.
Heck, when it came to Chrysler and Daimler-Benz it was Prechter who brought Robert Eaton and Jurgen Schrempp together.
"It would never have worked with Lee Iacocca," Prechter told me one day.
People are going to miss Heinz Prechter. This area has never had a spokesman with nearly the magnetism and loyalty of "the Duke of Downriver."
His vision and never-ending quest for a better Downriver was many times the glue that bound the region. He appreciated being an American more than many people who were born within these shores.
"What do you think of these?" he once asked, hitching up his coat sleeves to show his shirt cuffs. Holding them down were red, white and blue presidential cuff links.
"The president gave them to me," he said, referring to the elder of the Bushes. His smile was as wide as Downriver.
I’ll miss Heinz Prechter.
All of us will.
Karl Ziomek is the managing editor of Heritage Newspapers. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by telephone at 1-734-246-0801.