Michael George, patriarch of Chaldean community, dead at 81

By JC Reindl
Detroit Free Press Business Writer
Michael J. George, a patriarch of metro Detroit’s large Chaldean community and a founder of what was the Melody Farms Dairy, one of the largest dairies in Michigan, died Tuesday, June 24, 2014, at age 81.
Michael J. George, a patriarch of metro Detroit’s large Chaldean community and a founder of Melody Farms Dairy, once one of the largest dairies in Michigan, died today at age 81.

The death was announced by George Enterprises, a Farmington Hills-based holding company for businesses and philanthropic causes now run by Mr. George’s sons and grandchildren.

Born in Detroit to Iraqi immigrant parents, Mr. George graduated from what was then Detroit Catholic Central High School in 1950 and joined his father, Tom, and brother Sharkey in starting a milk route business called Tom George & Sons Dairy. He returned to the family business after a stint in the U.S. Army during the Korean War.

“My dad always told me to stay in a business where people will consume the product regardless of the economic conditions,” Michael George once told the Free Press.

Their venture ultimately grew to become Melody Farms, which developed its own line of juices and dairy products, including more than 80 flavors of ice cream. The company, with Michael George at the helm, acquired several other regional dairy companies, including Richardson Farm Dairy, Wilson’s Dairy Foods, Twin Pines Farm Dairy and lastly, in 1999, Stroh’s Ice Cream.

Melody Farms was one of the largest dairy firms in the state and reported more than $150 million in yearly sales during the 1990s. In 2003, the company was acquired by Dean Foods for an undisclosed sum.

Mr. George was one of the most visible and respected members of the Detroit-area Chaldean community of Iraqi Christians and Eastern Rite Catholics.

Metro Detroit has the largest population of Chaldeans outside of Iraq. There were fewer than 100 in the area at the end of World War II; today, there are close to 130,000.

“Mike George was the patriarch of the Chaldean community,” said Martin Manna, president of the Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce in Southfield.

“He taught us all the importance of serving others and the values of being a good business person. And he mentored many of us — including myself.”

As his own ventures prospered, Mr. George decided to help fellow Chaldeans with opening small shops and businesses.

Some of the loans he and a business partner made to Detroit-area party stores came under the scrutiny of federal investigators and Mr. George ultimately pleaded guilty in 1997 to two misdemeanor charges of mishandling Small Business Administration money and not filling out paperwork. He was required to pay $25 for court costs and a $325,000 fine to the government.

Mr. George tried his hand at other business ventures through the years, including real estate, and in 2005 was a lead organizer for the Bank of Michigan, a community bank in Farmington Hills.

“He was a part of every major period of growth in the Chaldean community,” said his nephew, Michael Sarafa, the bank’s president and CEO.

Mr. George once served on as many as 19 business and community boards and was a past chairman of the Chaldean Federation of America.

U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said in a statement today that Mr. George was “a great friend of Detroit and a great friend of mine” who had “given himself and his resources to provide a helping hand to countless individuals throughout the Detroit area.”

Mr. George, who lived in West Bloomfield, is survived by his wife, Najat; six sons, Anthony, Robert, Rodney, Lenny, Scott and Michael George II, and 10 grandchildren.

A mass is scheduled for 10 a.m. Thursday at Mother of God Chaldean Catholic Church, 25585 Berg Road in Southfield. Visitors will be received from 3 p.m.-7 p.m. that day at the Shenandoah Country Club, 5600 Walnut Lake Road in West Bloomfield.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Michael J. George Charity, 30777 Northwestern Highway, Suite 300, Farmington Hills 48224 or online at www.mjgcharity.org.