HAMTRAMCK, MI - An elderly couple walks down one of the main streets in this Polish enclave, when a passing child recognizes the man. "Mommy, that's the nice man from the TV," the child says.
Pleased he has been recognized from his folksy dealership commercials, the man reaches into his pocket and gives the child a crisp one-dollar bill.
He's 92-year-old Woodrow W. Woody, owner of Woody Pontiac Sales, which has been in the same Hamtramck location for almost 60 years.
Mr. Woody's small act of kindness with that youngster has been repeated thousands of times and in many places. He likes to pass out dollar bills to youngsters. He gives much more to charitable causes.
Through that giving nature he has become friends with mayors, governors, congressmen, senators and presidents as well as actors, actresses, musicians, priests, bishops and cardinals.
Significant philanthropy, of course, starts with being successful in business. And this has been the case with Mr. Woody for six decades.
After building Hudson cars on an assembly line and selling new cars for a Chevrolet dealership, he opened a used-car lot on Detroit's east side in 1936.
He applied for the Pontiac franchise in Hamtramck in 1939. At first the automaker turned him down. The Pontiac zone manager didn't expect a person of Lebanese descent to be able to thrive in downtown Hamtramck, which at the time had the highest concentrated Polish population outside of Poland.
"I said I'm dating a Polish girl and if you give me the franchise, I'll marry her," recalls Mr. Woody, who has been married to Anna for more than 50 years. "The guy started laughing and said, 'Boy, if you want it that bad, you can have it.'"
So, in January of 1940, Woody Pontiac Sales opened and sold 200 cars in its first year, advertising vehicles for $25 above cost. The next year he sold 700 to become the second-largest Pontiac dealer in Michigan.
When Mr. Woody joined the Army during World War II, his family and a Pontiac zone employee kept the store running by selling used cars and parts.
He came back to Hamtramck in 1945 and was an active participant in the post-war boom. His peak year was 1966 when he sold 2,200 new Pontiacs.
So successful was he that he set up two brothers and a brother-in-law in neighboring dealerships. He has outlived them all.
Mr. Woody still comes to the dealership five days a week, and although he doesn't actually sell cars anymore, he makes it a point to at least meet every customer and oversees many transactions.
"When it's all over, I sit down and look the deal over and sign it and welcome them into the Woody Pontiac family," he says.
Mr. Woody is very loyal to the community that made him prosperous. Pontiac once offered him a prime location near his home in suburban Mount Clemens, but he chose to stay in Hamtramck. He even spends his winters in Michigan.
"People ask me if I'm going south for the winter and I tell them, yes, South Hamtramck," he says with a laugh.
If only the population were as loyal to Hamtramck as Mr. Woody. Many of his core customers moved from the little ethnic community, which is surrounded by the City of Detroit. The migration has hurt sales.
While he maintains a strong parts, service and body-shop business, new-car sales have tailed off to about 400 units per year.
"A lot of the people left Hamtramck and went to the suburbs," says Mr. Woody. "It's a struggle right now. But we are making money. We are a salient business and I have no intentions of selling."
If he sold the dealership it would mean he would have to clear out three upstairs rooms of pictures and memorabilia recalling Mr. Woody's 60 years of car sales, philanthropic activities, political involvement and personal honors.
One glance around "Woody's Gallery" gives an indication of his political leaning. There are pictures of him with Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon,, Reagan and Bush. Some are personally signed. President Bush even gave him a personal tour of Air Force One during one stop in Detroit.
"I sat in the President's chair and called a meeting to order," says Mr. Woody proudly.
Although he admits he voted for John Kennedy, the only Democrat pictured in the gallery is the late Michigan Gov. G. Mennen "Soapy" Williams.
Even more impressive than his political giving is Mr. Woody's dedication to his adopted city, his native country, his church and youth organizations.
He has been president of the Hamtramck Rotary Club three times and has a perfect attendance record that spans more than 50 years. In the 1950s, he spearheaded the drive to build the city's public library and has been president of its Chamber of Commerce.
In the '60s, he built a school and a dispensary in the village, Bejderfel, Lebanon, from which he and his parents emigrated in 1912. He also has been president of the World Lebanese Cultural Union.
He established the Woody Pontiac Scholarship at Hamtramck High School. He also has a track record of significant giving with the Detroit American Arab Relief Fund, Junior Achievement, Boystown, the Salvation Army, Boy Scouts of America, the United Foundation and the Danny Thomas St. Jude Children's Hospital.
"When he was up against the wall, (Mr. Woody) reached into his pocket and gave Danny Thomas his last $10,000," says 40-year employee Mona Lewis. "He's left a trail of love and respect."
Mr. Woody has received multiple honors as a result of his philanthropic activities. In 1968, the Catholic Church presented him with the title of knight commander of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, one of the highest honors a Pope can give to a living non-cleric.
Early this year, at theConvention, Time Magazine made Mr. Woody one of its 1999 Quality Dealer Award recipients.
Without children or heirs to pass the to business to, the post-Woody future of Woody's Pontiac Sales is uncertain.
"I don't give it much thought," says Mr. Woody.
"The automobile business is very interesting and exciting," he says. "It's survival of the fittest, and I have survived."