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James M. Roche, 97; Former Chairman of General Motors

June 08, 2004|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

James M. Roche, who rose through the ranks at General Motors Corp. to become president in 1965 and chairman and chief executive in 1967, heading the company during consumer debates over vehicle safety, has died. He was 97.

Roche died Sunday at his home in Belleair, Fla., near Tampa.

As GM president, Roche faced an embarrassing challenge when consumer activist Ralph Nader published his 1965 book "Unsafe at Any Speed," which criticized the GM Corvair as an unsafe vehicle.

Roche was called to testify before a U.S. Senate committee investigating vehicle safety and charges that GM tried to smear Nader.

"The government was trying to remake the industry," Roche told the Chicago Tribune in 1997, "and it became a political football. Then followed the environmental problems and emission controls. I think we made great progress. GM and the industry did what they could within the state of the art."

Roche also told the committee that without his knowledge, GM legal department officials hired detectives to tail Nader in an attempt to intimidate or discredit him. Roche formally apologized to Nader and the congressmen.

Reflecting on the incident three decades later, Roche told the Tribune that determining what had happened and what to do about it were company problems, adding: "I concluded that there was enough smoke and that I had better step up to it."

More positively, Roche, who earned a citation in the Automotive Hall of Fame, is credited with helping promote equal opportunity within GM. One of his final acts as chairman in 1971 was travel to Philadelphia to personally invite the Rev. Leon Sullivan to become GM's first black board member.

Born Dec. 16, 1906, in Elgin, Ill., Roche took after-school jobs from the age of 12, after the death of his father, who was an undertaker. He worked briefly for a utility in Aurora, but, seeing automobiles as the future, joined Cadillac in Chicago in 1927 as a statistical researcher. His only formal education consisted of accounting and business correspondence courses from LaSalle Extension Institute in Chicago.

Working up through the ranks, Roche became head of the Cadillac division in 1957, moved to the parent General Motors Corp. in 1960 and was named president in 1965, and chairman two years later. He stepped down at the end of 1971 when he reached GM's mandatory retirement age of 65, but remained on the board until 1977.

Long after his retirement, Roche remained loyal to the company he had served for half a century. Well into his 80s, he drove and evaluated each new GM automobile that was sent to him every four months.

"The suspension engineers used to say that Mr. Roche has the most sensitive bottom in the world. He may not be an engineer, but he sure can sense a ride that isn't right," an associate told Automotive News in 1991.

After leaving GM, Roche 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. President Nixon named him chairman of a committee to increase employer support for the National Guard and Reserve.

Roche, who divided his time between Bloomfield Hills, Mich., and Belleair, Fla., also worked on local community development projects in Detroit, and aided the National Urban Coalition and the Tuskegee Institute Board of Trustees.

Roche, a widower, is survived by a daughter, Joan; sons Douglas and James; and 27 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

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