Corporate lawyer known as Detroit's 'man for all seasons'

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Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

A Republican insider, attorney Richard Van Dusen possessed a deft political touch that was admired on both sides of the aisle, earning praise as the “Motor City’s man for all seasons.”

It was a label he wore with humility during a legal and public service career that spanned more than four decades, and included work as a legislator in the Michigan House of Representatives, as undersecretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and as the chief legal aide to Governor George Romney during his first term in office.

Van Dusen, who in 1995 was recognized as a “Legal Legend” by The Detroit Legal News during its centennial celebration, also was among the representatives to the state’s Constitutional Convention in the early 1960s, helping draft a revised document that was approved by voters in 1963.

It was as a member of the so-called “ConCon” that Van Dusen began working closely with Romney, who was elected to office in the fall of 1962. Their ties were cemented when Van Dusen began offering Romney legal advice during his first year as governor.

“Time and again, he (Van Dusen) was the center for reason and judgment,” said William Seidman, Romney’s financial adviser. “All of us, including the governor, would troop in to Dick’s office. He always spoke as if he were chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Such smarts would come in handy when Van Dusen was tabbed by Romney to be his “right hand man” at HUD during the Nixon Administration, helping guide a federal department that often was in the center of a political firestorm that engulfed a nation dealing with racial strife.

“Van Dusen and his wife, Barbara, were very much at ease in the high-powered world of Washington,” according to 1995 The Legal News profile of the Harvard Law School alum. “When they left in 1972, their friends at a farewell tennis party included CIA Director Richard Helms, Treasury Secretary George Schultz, and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart.”

Despite his national connections, Van Dusen spent much of his life helping Detroit and many local institutions, including Wayne State University. At the time of his death in 1991, Van Dusen was chairman of the board of Wayne State, previously serving as head of the panel’s budget and finance committee during the 1980s.

“He was the central figure in bringing the institution back to financial health after the last recession,” said then Wayne State President David Adamany. “He also was very active in securing private support for the university. He was the leading proponent on the board for focusing the university on an urban mission.”

A native of Jackson, Van Dusen also was a driving force with the Greater Detroit Chamber of Commerce, serving on the board for 10 years and as its chairman for two terms.

“His modus operandi as a champion of progress was finding ways for the business community, government agencies, and community groups to work together on common problems,” The Legal News wrote in the profile of Van Dusen. “”Detroit Renaissance, the Detroit Compact, and the Detroit Strategic Plan were examples of initiatives that Van Dusen helped nurture.

“He was able to draw on innumerable contacts in the business community through his leadership in organizations such as the Automobile Club of Michigan, the Kresge Foundation, and the United Way.”

A graduate of the University of Minnesota, Van Dusen was a captain of the football team for the Gophers, earning All-Big Ten honors as a tight end. He received his law degree from Harvard in 1949, joining Dickinson Wright upon graduation.

During his years with the firm, Van Dusen was credited with transforming Dickinson Wright into one of the “most diversified large firms in the country,” according to The Legal News profile.

“Van Dusen’s life earned him the admiration of his adversaries,” according to the profile. “Before he became a federal judge, Avern Cohn was an occasional political and legal foe. Judge Cohn had this to say about Van Dusen when he died:

“He was not a parochial man,” Cohn said of Van Dusen. “He never thought small. He always had large thoughts. He was a man who understood duty and obligation. But he wore his sense of obligation lightly. He truly wanted to help Detroit.”
 

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