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 Churchillian: Former Detroit attorney helps keep a ‘Lion’ alive

By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

Richard Marsh is a walking encyclopedia of all things Churchill. His breadth of knowledge of the late British prime minister is perhaps surpassed only by the magnificence of Marsh’s home library, which is dedicated to the World War II hero widely credited with helping stop Nazi tyranny in its tracks.

The library, undoubtedly, would make Churchill proud, rich as it is with countless collectibles, books, letters, documents, and photos of the cigar-chomping war leader in particular and British history in general.

“Let’s just say that when we built this house we did it largely with this library in mind,” said Marsh, president of the Winston Churchill Society of Michigan for the past six years. “My collection of books had grown to such a degree over the years that we needed a larger space to house them.”

Marsh, a retired Clark Hill attorney, and his wife, Mary Jo, a retired school teacher, designed and built their stately Scio Township home west of Ann Arbor with exquisite attention to detail. At the front of the house is a quaint English courtyard with British lions adorning the bench. The front door features a lion’s head doorknocker in keeping with the style of 10 Downing Street, the home of British prime ministers since 1735.

A portrait of Churchill, a replica of a 1941 painting by acclaimed artist Frank Salisbury, sets the tone for the library, which features a stylish fireplace and coffered ceilings. It is accented by furniture modeled after treasured pieces in the grand Althorp House, the English home of the Spencer family that included Lady Diana, the late Princess of Wales. Churchill’s ancestry can be traced to the Spencers, one of the preeminent aristocratic families in Britain, according to Marsh.

“I’ve always believed in the importance of planning and preparation,” Marsh said. “Everything was designed or collected with a purpose.” 

There are 13 generations of Churchills represented in Marsh’s collection, which has been built over the course of his legal career that began in 1969 when he graduated from the University of Michigan Law School.

“My family’s ancestry is tied to Cutcombe Parish in southwest England and I’ve probably made at least 15 visits to Great Britain over the years,” said Marsh, who also earned his bachelor’s degree from U-M. “I’ve always been fascinated by history and Churchill is such a revered figure who stands out in so many ways,” he added, noting that the heroic prime minister won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953 and a decade later was made an Honorary Citizen of the United States.

Much of Marsh’s collection has been obtained through purchases from three primary dealers in the U.S., including Chartwell Booksellers in New York City, billed as “The World’s Only Winston Churchill Bookshop.” He said that prices for prized Churchill items tend to follow the ups and downs of the stock market. In other words, “dealers have done well” during the recent bull market, fetching higher prices for authentic Churchill goods.

Steve Forbes, the son of the late magazine publisher Malcolm Forbes, reportedly is influencing the market, periodically selling some of his father’s cherished Churchill items at auction, according to Marsh.

“Being a collector is not for the faint of heart,” Marsh said with a half smile. “It can be a pricey proposition.”

Churchill, as a prolific and gifted writer, is largely responsible for that. He reportedly authored more than 40 books, including his best-selling six-volume history, “The Second World War.” Marsh even has collected a 2,100-page bound bibliography of Churchill’s various published works.

“What many people don’t know about Churchill is that he was a war correspondent of great note in the late 1800s before he became involved in politics as a Member of Parliament,” related Marsh, who estimates that he has more than 1,500 books in his Churchill collection. “He wrote for several of Britain’s leading newspapers and also authored several books about his military experiences in the British army.”

In keeping with his British hero, Marsh has written extensively on Churchill’s life, privately publishing a collection of essays. He also is a sought-after speaker at various Churchill-related events, regularly traveling the country to attend meetings of significance. Of local note, Marsh was the featured speaker recently at the Senior Men’s Club of Grosse Pointe meeting.

Perhaps then the talk turned to Churchill’s photographic memory and his “uncanny ability to foresee the future,” or of his strained relationship with his father and his mother’s Brooklyn-born American lineage.

“There is never a shortage of Churchill material, that is for sure,” Marsh said matter of factly, pointing out that Churchill and his father died at same hour on the same day of the month some 70 years apart.

Marsh has undoubtedly gathered some interesting nuggets from Churchill’s 91-year-old daughter, Mary Soames, whom he has met several times. Several years ago Lady Soames published her memoirs, “A Daughter’s Tale,” a signed copy of which appears in Marsh’s collection.

Fortunately, Marsh’s wife shares his enthusiasm for the man known as “The Last Lion,” as does the couple’s three daughters, Elizabeth, Catherine, and Diana. Marsh and his wife, who grew up in Canton, met on a blind date to a U-M football game in 1967, marrying during his final year of law school. 

He spent his entire career with Clark Hill, a Detroit firm that has taken many shapes since its founding in 1890. He specialized in administrative law, environmental law, and litigation before retiring.

“I rarely stop by the office anymore, except to abuse the copier,” Marsh quipped.

Marsh was raised in Dearborn, the home of Ford Motor Co. 

“I was discriminated against as a kid because my dad was the Chevy dealer there,” Marsh said with a smile. “My grandfather started the car dealership in 1933 after losing his job as circulation manager at The Free Press.”

Now in his “second career” as president of the Churchill Society of Michigan, Marsh runs little risk of losing his job.

“I have a feeling that this is a lifetime appointment,” he cracked.

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