Creighton Craig Lederer, August 19, 1927 – August 18, 2023
Memorial Service on Wednesday, September 27, 2023, 11:00 a.m.
First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Palm Beaches
635 Prosperity Farms Rd, North Palm Beach, FL 33408
Lunch to follow in the Fellowship Hall
Creighton Craig Lederer died on August 18, 2023, one day before his 96th birthday. He was a quintessential Renaissance man, a polymath who loved literature, music, nature, mathematics, astronomy, art, and theatre. He was also a wonderful husband of 73 years to our mother, Natalie Lederer; an amazing father to 6 children; a successful Director of Buildings and Safety for the City of Detroit through several mayors; President of the Engineering Society of Detroit; President for many years of the Grosse Pointe Unitarian Church and active on a number of Universalist Church of Palm Beach committees; a community leader, and a sympathetic neighbor in each neighborhood in which he lived. He had a gift of making every person he spoke with feel that he heard them and understood their point of view. If ever it could be said, “He lived a long life, well led,” it would be to describe our Dad.
He told his children about leadership, “You can’t be both of the people and above the people,” but in his own life he bridged that gap and was a true leader among men. His few heroes in life were talented and brilliant people who emerged from simple circumstances, overcame odds, and led by example: Abraham Lincoln, Helen Keller, Albert Schweitzer, Martin Luther King, Jr.
Daughters Carrie and Sara remembered that he loved a good joke, especially puns, plays on words, and slapstick humor. He listened to Allen Sherman records and learned some of the songs by heart and loved Tom Lehrer’s comic songs about current events. He watched The Three Stooges, The Honeymooners, the Smothers Brothers, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In and enjoyed every joke even the 10th time it was told.
He knew poetry and literature and could recite Alfred Lord Tennyson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, T.S. Eliot, and full scenes of Shakespeare by heart. He had an amazing ear and loved classical music, folk music, blues and rock. Daughter Lisa, a classical violinist in Boston, recalled, “Our Dad was a self-taught guitarist who gathered his family around the TV to watch Andrès Segovia masterclasses. We all sang with our Dad as he played the guitar and harmonica, and most of us played guitar as well. He played a game with me as he drove me to high school where we would guess the era, country, composer, and name of the pieces on the radio.”
As a father he excelled. He taught us how to play the guitar, golf, tennis, softball, ping pong, and basketball. We all remember rounds of “Horse” in the backyard driveway where he mounted a basketball hoop on the garage roof, and wild ping pong games in the basement on a table that took up a whole room. He and Mom took us to movies, plays, and musicals. He was big on lessons and took us to weekly sports and music lessons. Son Rob remembers that he was an avid tennis player and fan of the sport. In 1971 he went on a business trip and returned with two tennis rackets. He gave one to Rob and together they learned the game from scratch. Rob went on to be number one and undefeated on his high school team and also played in college. Creighton enjoyed the sport for three decades into his late 70s, playing in many local tournaments.
He was a civil engineer by training, and started his career designing bridges for the railroad, but soon he was hired by the City of Detroit and began designing highways and bridges for the City when it was at its height in the 50s and 60s. At that time, Detroit was “the Motor City,” and was a hub of innovation and industry, with factories and assembly lines turning out the latest models of cars. It attracted some of the greatest engineers, academics, and business minds in the country, and Creighton was one of them. He rose through the ranks in the city until he became Assistant Director of Civil Engineering, and then City Manager.
Then one day, a phone call changed his life. The Commissioner of Buildings and Safety had been fired for mishandling records. The mayor asked Creighton to step in temporarily to run the department, and for the next thirty years, he headed the Department, through the terms of Mayors Gribbs, Young, and Archer– something unheard of for what was a highly sought after political appointment. During that time, he created a Department that was scandal free and known for its integrity.
His Department was also known for its innovations. He tackled the most difficult problems and came up with solutions for the City of Detroit. The word got around, and he was asked to visit other cities and show them how to do for their city what he had done for Detroit. During the time Creighton was Director of Buildings and Safety, he initiated and sustained many major projects including the Brewster/Douglas Housing Project, the Renaissance Center, the People Mover transportation system, the Jefferson/Conner Industrial Revitalization Project/Chrysler Plant, the Victoria Park Subdivision, the Expansion of Henry Ford Hospital and Cobo Hall Expansion and finally, the Grand Prix, which was launched when Creighton was Director of BSEED and is now an institution. He was an integral part of the Detroit Renaissance in the late 70s, retained a spot in his heart for the city and loved the T-shirts of the last decade proclaiming, “Detroit Never Left,” “Detroit Hustles Harder,” and “Detroit vs. Everyone.”
He believed that the best things in life were free. He loved a good campfire, with songs and stories; a big Thanksgiving meal, with so many family members that tables had to be strung together; any great book (he enrolled in the Great Books courses and took them for years); good music, a good glass of wine, and nature reserves. He loved art and supported his wife Natalie’s many years of docenting at the Detroit Institute of Arts and at the Norton Museum. For years after he retired, he led tours of John D. MacArthur Beach State Park, a nesting ground for rare sea turtles and many species of birds.
In 1967, when the country was in the throes of racial turbulence, Creighton was President of the Grosse Pointe Unitarian Church. Grosse Pointe was at the time one of the most segregated cities in the country. The Rev. Minister Harry Meserve, who was the Unitarian Church’s minister, had formed the Human Relations Council to support efforts to desegregate the city. Rev. Meserve began to preach sermons about equality, brotherhood, love, and calling for desegregation. The Unitarian Church participated in a candlelight march through the streets of Grosse Pointe. In March of 1968, the Human Right Council brought the Rev. Martin Luther King to Grosse Pointe, where he gave a speech entitled, “The Other America,” to a capacity crowd of 2,700 in a school gym in Grosse Pointe. That was Rev. King’s last speech before he was assassinated in April.
The Grosse Pointe Unitarian Church was thriving at the time, with many members who were prominent businesspeople and leaders in both Detroit and Grosse Pointe, but the issue of desegregation divided the Church in a way that no other issue had. Many of the church’s wealthiest members approached Dad and told him that they would quit the Church if he supported integration. All totaled it looked like half the members of the would leave. Daughter Laura recalls that when she asked him, “What are you going to do?” he answered, “Although it’s hard, I’m going to do what’s right.” Under his leadership, the Board of the Grosse Pointe Unitarian Church voted to support their minister and take a stand for desegregation.
After he retired, and they moved to Florida, they joined the First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Palm Beaches where they were active members for many years., including several years when Creighton served as President of 1stUUPB. Members of the church remember that Creighton (and Natalie) were involved in everything. “They were at services every Sunday when they were in Florida and made Hospitality an important part of the day. Creighton was one of our financial gurus. He served on the Finance Committee. As a structural engineer, he helped with issues involving the Sanctuary and Emerson Building. He and Natalie organized and presented a Teaching Thursday program, the theme of which was that the universal web of life includes evolution. Creighton was a peacemaker; whatever was going on, it was a happier place when Creighton was there. 1stUUPB today is better because he was a part of us.”
Creighton Craig Lederer, was born on August 19, 1927, in Oakland California to James (“Jimmy”) and Alma (nee Graf) Lederer. His father, Jimmy Lederer, was a talented musician who played in bars and juke joints during the Prohibition Era and the Great Depression. It is said that Fats Waller composed Honeysuckle Rose on Jimmy’s piano. Jimmy and Alma divorced when Creighton was 2 years old. Alma traveled back to Brooklyn New York, to her brother’s apartment, and raised Creighton and his older sister, Jean, in a secular Jewish family. Creighton remembered that they didn’t have much in the way of money, but that Alma always found a way to get them to theatre productions, symphonies, museum openings, and other cultural events.
He attended Brooklyn Technical High School, one of the first public schools for gifted and talented, graduating in 1944 at the age of 16, after skipping several grades. When he was 17, he enlisted in the Navy and served as ship navigator for nine months at the end of World War II. After the War, he was admitted to Oberlin College in Ohio and then transferred to the University of Michigan’s Civil Engineering Department where he graduated summa cum laude in 1949.
He met and married Natalie Lederer in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She was (and still is!) beautiful and talented and had many admirers. She said that Creighton was smart and funny and won her over because he made her laugh.
He is survived by Natalie; five of his children, Laura (husband John), Carrie (Steven), Robert, Sara (Peter), and Lisa (Clay); a sixth child, Creighton John, died at 6 months; grandchildren Lianna, Jenna, Thomas, Emma, Abraham, Andrew, and Matthias (grandchild Kara died in 2019); and great grandchildren, Kye and Violet.