General Motors via AP file
“Anybody who achieves a top position in an organization owes a debt of some kind,” James Roche said in 1987. “If you have a talent and you have your health, you should help others.”
updated 6/7/2004 1:39:55 PM ET 2004-06-07T17:39:55

James M. Roche, who rose through the ranks at General Motors Corp. to become chairman and CEO in 1967, has died. He was 97.

Roche died Sunday at his home. He had moved to Belleair, about 20 miles west of Tampa, after he reached GM’s mandatory retirement age and stepped down as chairman at the end of 1971. He remained a member of GM’s board of directors until May 1977.

Roche started as a statistical researcher with GM in 1927. He was promoted steadily over the years, becoming head of the Cadillac division in 1957 and president of the automaker in 1965.

Three years later, after race riots devastated Detroit, Roche and philanthropist Max Fisher founded the New Detroit organization to aid the city’s recovery.

“Jim Roche led GM with compassion and grace through some very challenging times,” GM chairman and chief executive Rick Wagoner said Monday. “He had a real compassion for people, and it showed in the effective way in which he led.”

According to his citation in the Automotive Hall of Fame, Roche is credited with helping promote equal opportunity within GM.

In 1971, the Rev. Leon Sullivan, the noted Philadelphia minister, became GM’s first black board member after Roche made a trip to Philadelphia to personally offer him the post. In his 1998 book “Moving Mountains,” Sullivan recalled how he pressed GM and other corporations to leave South Africa as a protest of its apartheid policies.

But Roche was involved in an embarrassing moment for GM in the mid-1960s. After consumer activist Ralph Nader published his 1965 book “Unsafe at Any Speed,” which criticized the GM Corvair as an unsafe vehicle, Roche had to issue an apology in 1966 for company efforts to discredit Nader.

“In effect, it was like the Bay of Pigs,” Roche recalled in a 1998 interview for an internal GM publication. “Just step right up to it and say you’re sorry and apologize. ... I think the organization learned a lesson. I think it was shocking in many respects to our people.”

Roche, who was born in Elgin, Ill., served on several corporate boards, including PepsiCo and the Jack Eckerd Corp., and spent a decade on the board of directors of the New York Stock Exchange.

Roche also spent much of the last three decades helping with local community development projects, particularly in Detroit.

“Anybody who achieves a top position in an organization owes a debt of some kind,” he told the St. Petersburg Times in 1987. “If you have a talent and you have your health, you should help others.”

He is survived by a daughter, two sons, and 27 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Services are scheduled for Wednesday at 10 a.m. at St. Cecilia Church in Clearwater. Private burial will take place in Elgin.

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