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DETROIT – James M. Roche, a retired General Motors chairman and chief executive officer who was known for his integrity and compassion, died Sunday at his Belleair, Fla. , home. He was 97.

Roche was chairman and CEO from 1967 to 1971, when he retired after 44 years of service to the world’s largest automaker. He remained an active member of the GM Board of Directors and its Finance Committee through May 1977.

Services are scheduled for 10 a.m. Wednesday at St. Cecilia Church in Clearwater , Fla. Private burial will follow in his hometown of Elgin , Ill.

Roche was known for his commitment to Detroit and to GM employees, and for tackling tough issues through extensive public service during a tumultuous era in the city’s history. Those who worked with him recall his great sense of humor, his calm manner and respect for others, and his thorough understanding of the automobile business.

“Jim Roche led GM with compassion and grace through some very challenging times,” GM Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner said today. “He was one of the leaders in helping to rebuild Detroit in the aftermath of the 1968 riots. Jim had a real compassion for people, and it showed in the effective way in which he led.”

Retired GM Chairman Jack Smith described Roche as “a caring, giving man of great integrity.”

"Throughout his entire career at GM, Jim worked closely with and showed a genuine concern for the problems of his fellow workers, and how to solve issues for the benefit of everyone involved,” Smith said. “If there ever was a template designed to merge corporate and community leadership into one role, Jim Roche was the example.”

Roche was responsible for nominating the late Rev. Leon H. Sullivan to GM’s Board of Directors in 1971, one of the first African-Americans named to the board of a major U.S. corporation. Roche’s leadership also led to the establishment of the board’s Public Policy Committee, which helped push GM to the forefront of progressive corporate responsibility and governance.

Born Dec. 16, 1906 , in Elgin , Roche graduated from Elgin High School in 1923. His father died during the 1918 flu epidemic, and it was necessary for Roche to work to support his family, so a college education was not possible. Despite the lack of a degree, Roche worked his way through the ranks of GM to the highest level. From the early 1960s through the decade after his retirement, Roche was awarded 10 honorary doctorates.

Roche joined GM in 1927, at the age of 21, as a statistician in the Cadillac Motor Car Division’s Chicago sales office. During the next 30 years at Cadillac, he was given responsibilities in business management, personnel, public relations and sales. He was named Cadillac’s general manager and a GM vice president in January 1957, and the luxury division set sales records during his tenure.

As a result of his long experience at Cadillac, Roche had a thorough understanding and appreciation of the important role GM’s dealers play, and of the importance of treating customers right. His strong rapport with GM’s dealers served him and the company well.

Roche was promoted in June 1960 to vice president of the corporation’s former distribution staff, which included sales, marketing, merchandising, advertising, service, parts, dealer relations and corporate policies.

In September 1962, he was elected an executive vice president and a member of the

Board of Directors with responsibilities for the former Allison Division, the Dayton

Household Appliance and Engine Group, and the Overseas and Canadian Group.

Roche had a well-rounded background when he was named GM’s 13 th president in 1965, a position he held until November 1967, when he was named chairman and CEO. He retired in 1971. In 1992, he was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in Dearborn , Mich.

Roche had an extensive record of community and public service. In the aftermath of the 1968 riots in Detroit , he and Max Fisher founded the New Detroit organization to assist in the city’s recovery. His public service also included serving as co-chairman of the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., co-chairman of the Detroit Growth Council for Economic Development, a member of the Tuskegee Institute Board of Trustees, chairman of the Radio Free Europe Fund, president of the Detroit Press Club Foundation, vice chairman of the Urban Coalition, member of the Board of Associate Trustees of Holy Cross College, and board member of Catholic Social Services of Wayne County. He also served on several Presidential Committees and Commissions.

In 1974, Roche was named with George Meany, then-president of the AFL-CIO, as co-chairman of the new Labor-Management Committee of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, which spurred the formation of employee assistance programs that are common in corporate America today. Roche had been involved in the establishment of GM’s first corporate-wide employee assistance program in 1970.

Roche also served on several corporate boards, including Pepsico, the New York Stock Exchange, LTV Corp. and the Jack Eckerd Corp.

Roche was preceded in death by his wife, Louise, in 2001. He is survived by sons James and Douglas Roche, and daughter Joan Quinlin, as well as 12 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren. Until his passing, Roche was GM’s eldest surviving retired chairman.

The family asks that contributions, in lieu of flowers, be sent to Hospice of Florida Suncoast in Largo , Fla.
 
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