Tigers scout's quiet gesture a ringing example
Russell's donation for Van Horn's funeral a chance to help somebody, give back
DETROIT -- Mike Russell has been a Major League scout for more than two decades. He's used to the scout's task of working in the background, never getting the glory, rarely seeing his name mentioned. His advice and opinion have provided the groundwork behind many Tigers trades over president/general manager Dave Dombrowski's tenure.
Scouts are folks who often get quoted, but anonymously. So he wasn't quite prepared when his name popped up in a story about the funeral services for James Van Horn, known around Comerica Park as the "Eat 'Em Up Tigers guy."
It was one line from a funeral director, buried in an MLive.com story, noting that Russell picked up the cost. It was an off-the-field gesture he was hoping would stay anonymous, like his on-field work. Now that the word is out, he's hoping it can be an example of paying it forward.
"I just didn't want Mr. Van Horn's family and him to go out with no dignity," Russell told MLB.com in a phone conversation Wednesday night.
Russell never met Van Horn other than seeing him on his way into Comerica Park on the rare occasions when he was watching his own team, either when scouts were called in for meetings or when the Tigers made it to the postseason. Like many fans, though, Russell grew to recognize him for his "Eat 'Em Up Tigers" chant and for the giant foam hand he wore. He also recognized Michael Alston, a wheelchair-bound panhandler frequently seen around the ballpark before and after games.
The two were killed when a car hit them on Gratiot Avenue in Detroit in the early-morning hours of July 27. Russell read about it in the Detroit Free Press, called the reporter and got in touch with the funeral home that was handling the services.
"These two guys were buddies," Russell said. "Even though they had some bad luck along the way, they were friends. And for James Van Horn to be helping his friend at 2 in the morning, I think that James Van Horn pushed him right into heaven. It's a tragic thing, and I hope that they find the person who's responsible for it and that the family gets some closure."
Fans and friends quickly started an online campaign to raise money and help pay for funeral services, eventually topping their goal of $5,000. Russell asked the funeral home how much was needed, worrying what might happen if some donations didn't come through.
Between the fundraising efforts and Russell's undisclosed donation, both men received a memorial and proper burial.
James Henry, vice president at C.W. Morris-J.W. Henry Funeral Home in Highland Park, Mich., said the response from people -- both acquaintances and complete strangers -- was one of the largest they've seen.
"We've done services for pastors and dignitaries, and it was up there," he said.
Russell had a chance to talk with family members and learn Van Horn's story, his years working in the auto industry and his tough times since.
"I'd like for people to know that it's the spirit of helping somebody," he said. "I think James Van Horn is a hero to me because he didn't leave his buddy, Mike, behind."
For Russell, it was his chance to pay it forward for an act of kindness paid to him and his family years ago. The Gulf Breeze, Fla., resident and his family lost their house when Hurricane Ivan hit the Gulf Coast in 2004. Tigers owner Mike Ilitch, he said, quietly sent them a donation to rebuild.
Russell has made donations to local charities since then, and he has taken part in fundraisers in Florida. This was more personal. Russell was hoping to do this quietly as well.
"We lost everything in a six-hour period, and he stepped up and helped us," he said. "I just thought it was the Christian thing to do."
Instead, Russell has an example to show his 2-year-old daughter, Katie, about the power of giving. Talking is one thing, he said. Giving is another.