Attorney has devoted his career to serving transportation needs

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By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

As he is the first to admit, there is a lot of “show and tell” in Fritz Damm’s office on the 18th floor of the Buhl Building in the Detroit Financial District.

Perhaps most striking is the magnificent view of the Detroit River as it stretches south past the Ambassador Bridge and into a series of Downriver communities that line the international waterway.

But before visitors can catch a glimpse of a steady stream of freighters heading north or south, there is another eye-catching sight to behold – a wall lined eight stacks high with an array of toy truck models, each with its own story to tell.

There, from top to bottom, are scores of truck models representing dozens of transportation companies, each of which has somehow crossed legal paths with Damm over the course of his 51-year career in the law.

Damm, a past president of the Transportation Lawyers Association, is now Of Counsel with the Detroit office of Scopelitis Garvin Light Hanson & Feary, P.C. He was a partner with the Indianapolis-based firm when it opened its Detroit office in 2008 at a time when businesses across the country were in contraction mode due to the onset of the recession.

“It wasn’t exactly an ideal time to open another office, but the powers-that-be saw an opportunity here and it has turned out well for the clients we represent,” said Damm, a University of Michigan grad who earned his law degree from Wayne State University.

In large part, the firm owes its standing to the age-old saying, “If you got it ... a truck brought it,” according to Damm, who was 12 years into his career when the deregulation of the trucking industry began with the passage of the Motor Carrier Act of 1980, federal legislation signed by then President Jimmy Carter.

“It was a Teamster-dominated industry at the time and that obviously has changed over the past four decades,” said Damm, who served as co-counsel on various cases with James P. Hoffa when the current Teamsters president had his own Detroit legal practice. “The goal of deregulation was to increase competition and to improve business operations by removing certain government restrictions, but history will be the judge if that has been achieved.”

A close look at the various truck models lining Damm’s office wall may well tell the story.

“Many of the companies whose names are on these trucks are no longer in business,” said Damm with a wave of his hand.

Gone are such giants as ANR Freight, Preston Trucking, Carolina Freight Carriers, and McLean Trucking Co.

“In many respects, the world of transportation has become even more complex after deregulation. That, of course, has meant that we have had to adapt and to evolve to the changing needs of our clients,” said Damm, who believes that the best marketing tool is “to do a good job.”

For the Scopelitis firm, which has offices in 14 cities from coast to coast, that equates to representing more than 5,000 transportation-related clients in the continental United States, providing legal expertise to the trucking, transportation, and logistics industries.

Damm, who grew up in Muskegon, has a wide-ranging transportation practice that includes labor and employment, mergers and acquistions, collections, freight claims, and workers’ compensation matters. He also remains actively involved in the Transportation Lawyers Association, currently chairing its Recruitment and Member Services.  In 2009, Damm was the recipient of TLA’s Lifetime Achievement Award” in recognition of his “longstanding dedication and service.”

He began his legal journey somewhat by chance after short-circuiting plans to get a master’s degree in England following his graduation from U-M.

“After spending some time there, I decided going to law school was a better option for me,” Damm said of his change of heart. “Then, once I graduated from law school at Wayne State, I had no idea that I would end up in transportation law. No clue. Zero. But things happen for a reason and I’m certainly grateful that my career path led me into that field.”

Damm developed his work ethic as a boy when he began helping out at his father and uncle’s hardware business in downtown Muskegon on Ottawa Street.

“I did a lot of odd jobs, loading and unloading goods, doing whatever I could to make myself useful,” said Damm. “My dad (Russ) and uncle built a very successful business, and had a very loyal customer base until some of the bigger retailers like Meijer’s started to expand their operations. At that point, the handwriting was on the wall.”

In the early 1930s, Damm’s father made a name for himself as a member of the U-M football team, which won back-to-back national championships under the coaching guidance of Harry Kipke. One of the elder Damm’s teammates on the title-winning teams was an offensive lineman who would go on to greater glory – Gerald R. Ford, the 38th president of the United States.

In honor of the late president, attorney Damm has been part of an educational project destined to keep Ford’s gridiron memory alive in a way that transcends sports and politics (see related story).

While Damm’s father made his mark in football and business, his mother (Harriet) was celebrated in the arts and in community service.

“My mother’s story centered on community service work in a day when women weren’t known for being involved in that sort of activity,” said Damm. “She was a driving force in that regard and was a real role model.”

Later in life she became an accomplished artist, displaying her oil paintings in galleries in the U.S. and Europe, according to Damm, whose mother died in 2015 at the age of 101.

One of three siblings, Damm unexpectedly became a varsity swimmer at U-M despite the fact that he could barely swim while a student at North Muskegon High School, which didn’t have a pool or a team.

“At the time, the U-M team was coached by Gus Stager, who was the coach of the 1960 U.S. Olympic Swim Team,” said Damm, who is an accomplished downhill skier. “He literally taught me how to swim, to get from one end of the pool to the other. Once I got it into my mind that I could swim, things just fell into place from there.”

He eventually became a member of the Letterwinners M Club, an organization exclusively reserved for former U-M student-athletes who have earned a varsity athletic letter. In 1983-84, Damm served as president of the M Club board, and has been a strong supporter of the Wolverine athletic program over the years.

Damm also has played a pivotal role in the Crossroads of Michigan organization, a social service agency founded in 1971 to provide “emergency assistance, advocacy, and counseling to anyone in need.” In 2013, Damm was the recipient of the James A. McLaren Award for his years of dedicated service to the agency.

“I was an original part of the team that opened this social service unit in November of 1971 at the Cathedral Church on Woodward and Warren, as well as serving as their counsel for all of the years since,” noted Damm. “Father James McLaren was the originator of Crossroads as well as my friend for all of the years until his untimely death in 2006. He married my wife Sheila and I in July of 1972.”

The couple celebrated their 47th wedding anniversary in late July, and have two children, Molly, a professor and counselor at Montana State University, and Jordan, a social worker in California.

In 1981, the Damms became foster parents to a 14-year-old Detroit boy, Patrick, whose family life at the time was in shambles.

“He didn’t have a dad and his life was upside down, so we stepped in to help out,” said Damm. “Patrick is 53 now and has his own son, Lex, and daughter, Kate. We continue to be part of that family’s life.”

That “helping hand” story is emblematic of Damm’s devotion to “doing good,” whether in the legal community or beyond.

“My advice to young lawyers has been to find something outside your practice that you believe in and are passionate about to supplement your law practice,” said Damm. “The rewards of giving far outweigh whatever cost is involved.”

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