James M. Roche, who rose through the ranks at General Motors Corp. to become chairman and chief executive in 1967, died June 6 at his home. He was 97.
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.
Mr. 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 in 1965.
According to his citation in the Automotive Hall of Fame, Mr. Roche is credited with helping promote equal opportunity within GM.
In 1971, the Rev. Leon Sullivan, the noted Philadelphia minister, became GM's first African American board member after Mr. 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 Mr. 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, Mr. Roche had to issue an apology in 1966 for company efforts to discredit Nader.
Mr. Roche served on several corporate boards, including PepsiCo and Jack Eckerd Corp., and spent a decade on the board of directors of the New York Stock Exchange.
He 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.