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Detroit man who commuted by foot 21 miles a day surprised with a donated car

His story sparks online donations surpassing $300,000

Stephanie Gallman | 2/23/2015, 3:08 p.m.
The world's most famous commuter thought he was meeting friends for lunch Friday to close out a wild week in ...
James Robertson, whose 21-mile round-trip work commute garnered worldwide attention and more than $300,000 in donations, got more than just lunch. The 56-year-old is now the owner of a brand new 2015 Ford Taurus. (Photo: Courtesy Evan Leedy)

— The world's most famous commuter thought he was meeting friends for lunch Friday to close out a wild week in the spotlight.

But James Robertson, whose 21-mile round-trip work commute garnered worldwide attention and more than $300,000 in donations, got more than just lunch.

James Robertson, far right, walks 21-miles to and from work each day. Monday, along with friend Blake Pollack, Robertson met Evan Leedy, who helped raise more than $300,000 for him to buy a new car.

(Photo: Courtesy Blake Pollack)

James Robertson, far right, walks 21-miles to and from work each day. Monday, along with friend Blake Pollack, Robertson met Evan Leedy, who helped raise more than $300,000 for him to buy a new car.

The 56-year-old is now the owner of a brand new 2015 Ford Taurus.

Blake Pollack, who befriended Robertson 1½ years ago and has helped drive him to media interviews all week, helped pull off the surprise, suggesting they stop by a car dealership after lunch to pick up some brochures and start researching cars.

Robertson and Pollack were joined by Evan Leedy, the college student who set up a GoFundMe page on Robertson's behalf. They walked into Suburban Ford in Sterling Heights, Michigan, and instead of brochures, saw a shiny red car topped with a big bow.

"There must've been 200 people there to welcome him," Pollack said. "I though he was going to fall over."

When asked if he liked his new car, which has already been insured, Pollack said Robertson was quite clear.

"I don't like it," he said. "I love it."

'I never thought anything I did would garner this much attention'

Before receiving his new wheels, Robertson had trudged the better part of a marathon each workday, taking buses part of the way -- rain, snow or shine. But he never thought it was any big deal.

"I never thought anything I did would garner this much attention," Robertson said.

After reading about Robertson's commute in a Detroit Free Press article that went viral, Leedy was moved. Like Robertson, the 19-year-old lives and works in two counties, so he spends a great deal of time commuting himself. But Leedy has a car.

Leedy decided to set up an online fundraiser to buy Robertson a car.

"My first car cost $3,000," Leedy said, "So I set the goal at $5,000. Within an hour, we'd raised $2,000."

Leedy's fundraiser quickly blew past its original goal and had raised nearly $313,000 Friday evening. Leedy said he plans to stop taking donations on Sunday.

Robertson, in a video message posted on the Free Press website, gave thanks.

"Everybody calls me the inspiration, but to those who have been great enough to donate and everything ... it was really so welcome that I don't know what to tell you," he said. "You guys are the heroes."

'A true American hero'

Comments on the page from people donating money suggested the story of Robertson's dedication to getting to work had tapped into a deep well of public feeling.

"Thank you for inspiring me and hopefully tons of other people to persevere in the face of adversity," said a contributor by the name of Kevin LeMelle. "You are a true American hero."

"We could use more men like James Robertson in this world," wrote a donor named Betty Blanchard.

Pollack said he identifies with the strangers' words of support. Calling Friday's car presentation "absolutely amazing," Pollack remembered spotting Robertson during his own work commute 1½ years ago.