“How far that little candle throws its beams. So shines a good deed in a weary world.” ~ William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice
Imagine the Great Lakes Bay Region without art exhibits and musical performances, scholarships for promising youths, recreational opportunities and nature trails, many of its beautiful places, and helping hands for the needy. None of these things just somehow falls from the sky or springs forth from a bountiful earth. People make these things happen—people with vision and, most especially, generosity.
So many things that give this region its character and quality of life have been made possible by gifts, large and small. Some key gifts by historic figures resulted in the creation of grant-making foundations that have a tremendous impact on our communities. Too often, these foundations and the gifts they have made are taken for granted. Yet, without the people who created and stewarded these foundations over years and decades, this region and our lives in it would be very different.
Foundations invest resources created from donations or bequests and use the earnings to perpetuate the generosity of the original donors. There are some 80 private foundations in the Great Lakes Bay Region, most bearing the names of individuals whose initial philanthropy continues over time.
Who were some of these people to whom we owe so much? Their names may sound familiar, but behind each name is a story.
Leopold Kantzler was a successful businessman whose companies pioneered the post-WWII development of pre-constructed homes, Sterling Homes as they became known. Interestingly, Kantzler’s office was a building on Wenona Street in Bay City that is now home to Wanigan Eatery, and the name “Kantzler” is still etched over its front door.
Born in Austria, Kantzler and his family immigrated to the United States when he was a child and, by a stroke of our good fortune, settled in Bay City. After graduating from the University of Michigan in 1910, and after a brief business adventure in Chicago, he returned to his hometown, grew his businesses, and served his community.
In his later years, and on the advice of his attorney, Robert Sarow, he created the Kantzler Foundation, funded with $2.5 million upon his death in 1974. As Sarow noted, Kantzler’s intent was to leave a substantial portion of his estate “for charitable, educational, scientific, or artistic programs to benefit the people of Bay City and the Saginaw Valley Community.” From that initial bequest, over the past four decades, support has been provided for virtually every important community initiative in Bay City, including the development of both sides of the Saginaw Riverfront, the main library, the new Dow Bay Area Family Y, and restoration of the State Theatre and Pere Marquette Depot. An arboretum on the west side of the Saginaw River honors the Kantzler name and support.
Dominic Monastiere, immediate past president of the foundation, says, “I think all of the trustees would agree that the single best decision the foundation ever made was a grant in 1982 to establish the Bay Area Community Foundation. Philanthropy breeds philanthropy.”
Beyond those community projects, the Kantzler Foundation has also directly touched the lives of numerous individuals. For example, Kantzler Fellowships were created at Saginaw Valley State University to encourage Bay Area students to engage in community service. Ariel Sims, a Kantzler Fellow from Pinconning who is now a student at Harvard Law School, says “the Kantzler Fellowship was a great opportunity for me as an undergraduate to pursue community interest projects…and the most important thing I took away from the fellowship was the satisfaction of giving back to the community I grew up in.”
Brian Law, current president of the foundation, says, “Since its inception, grants from the Kantzler Foundation have been a primary source of funding for educational, economic, social, recreational, and cultural development throughout the Greater Bay Area. We have all been touched in some positive way by the generosity of this one man and this one gift. From his example, we should all draw inspiration to create a better future by leaving something good behind.”
For many in Midland, it’s difficult to remember when there wasn’t a Gerstacker Foundation. Its support for the community and people has been so prolific and so important for the past half century that it’s assumed to have always been there. But, in fact, it was the creation of real people with foresight and commitment to their fellow citizens.
Rollin Gerstacker was a native of Cleveland and graduate of the Case Institute of Technology (now Case Western Reserve University). His engineering career was with a construction firm specializing in ore-handling machinery for shipping firms. Some years after his death, in 1945, his wife, Eda, moved to Midland to be near her children. In 1957, with the help of her son, Carl (former chairman of The Dow Chemical Company), she created the foundation to honor her husband.
As of 2014, the foundation had awarded grants totaling more than $211 million to hundreds of causes, projects, and institutions. Overseen by a board originally led by Carl, longtime members have included family member Gail Lamphear and friends Ned Brandt and Alan Ott, its treasurer and financial mentor. The current president is Lisa Gerstacker and Bill Schuette is the vice president. The foundation has helped to beautify and enliven downtown Midland and to create and sustain arts, health care and recreational programs, senior housing projects and sports organizations for youths, academic and health care institutions, and nature preserves and churches. Its philanthropic fingerprints are found everywhere in the civic and cultural fabric of Midland and the region.
Some grants have directly supported individuals, with a primary focus on education and educators. It funds mini grants for teachers, encouraging them to experiment with creative ideas in their classrooms. And it has endowed fellowships for promising educational leaders. This select group annually participates in a year-long leadership development program, highlighted by an opportunity to visit Europe and Asia to explore how schools there have improved student achievement.
One Gerstacker Fellow is Janet Greif, recently the principal of Midland High School and now the superintendent of Bay City Public Schools. She credits the fellowship with having “expanded my ability to lead because of the outstanding professional development involving ethics, communication, global awareness, organizational leadership, student achievement, and the resources available through networking.” After having visited schools in China through the fellowship, she returned home “inspired to secure funding to provide my staff and students with the same life-changing experience.”
H. R. (“Ran”) Wickes (1899 – 1974) began as an apprentice in the business founded by his grandfather, and he eventually rose to the presidency of Wickes Brothers, Wickes Boiler Company, and U.S. Graphite Company. At its peak, its 16 divisions and subsidiaries employed some 16,000 people in the United States and abroad. In 1961, Wickes became the first Saginaw firm listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
Active in civic affairs, Wickes chaired the Saginaw Chamber of Commerce, the Water Authority, and the Saginaw Manufacturer’s Association. He was a board director of the then Saginaw General Hospital, a member of the advisory board of St. Mary’s Hospital, and an organizer of the Saginaw locations of Big Brothers Big Sisters and Salvation Army.
But beyond all of these personal contributions of time and treasure, his most enduring contribution to his hometown was the decision in 1945 to establish, with an initial gift of $1 million, a foundation. And over the past 70 years, no organization has had a more important impact on the Saginaw community.
Its benefactions are usually provided in ways that are quiet and “behind the scenes.” And because of this, they have, in fact, so often gone unseen. But a list of organizations the Wickes Foundation has helped to create, improve, or preserve could go on almost endlessly. Without the support of this foundation, there may not be a Mid-Michigan Children’s Museum, a Children’s Zoo at Celebration Square, a Saginaw Township Soccer Complex, or a Saginaw Community Foundation. Wouldn’t the lives of Saginaw residents be so much poorer without a Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra and a host of other cultural and recreational opportunities? And how many lives have been touched by the First Ward Community Center, the Underground Railroad, or Hidden Harvest?
Pam Cole, director of the East Side Soup Kitchen, which serves hundreds of meals each day to adults and children who would otherwise go hungry, says, “The Harvey Randall Wickes Foundation has been a wonderful resource to assist us in making these meals possible.” In fact, the kitchen in the Hunger Solution Center, which houses the East Side Soup Kitchen and Hidden Harvest organizations, is named in honor of the Wickes Foundation.
And the good works of Wickes extends to higher education, too. Ran Wickes donated the first million dollars used to purchase land for what became the Saginaw Valley State University campus, as well as another million dollars to construct the stadium that now honors his name.
Since 1969, the foundation has been managed by a board of trustees initially led by Wickes’ close friends, Melvin Zahnow and James Finkbeiner. Finkbeiner was followed in the role of president in 2002 by Hugo “Ted” Braun, who was succeeded by another member of the board, Craig Horn, in 2015.
Braun says that the Wickes Foundation serves its mission of making Saginaw “a better place to live” through funding of other non-profit organizations, which provide community services and programs. These partnering nonprofits are what Braun calls the foundation’s “customers, to be treated with care and support.” And when making difficult decisions as to which among myriad causes the foundation should support, Braun looks to the foundation’s founder: “What would Ran do?” remains the guiding light for faithfully stewarding this gift that keeps on giving.
In a lucky geophysical accident, a receding glacier left brine deposits beneath the soil of Midland. The potential of using brine in a commercial application he had invented was what brought Herbert Dow from Cleveland to Midland in 1890, and, well, the rest is history. The legacy from that felicitous gift of nature is not just the headquarters of a civic-minded Fortune 50 corporation, but also a remarkable repository of wealth created through that company and then dedicated to so many worthy charities.
In 1936, Grace A. Dow created a foundation in memory of her husband, who had passed away in 1930. It was Grace’s vision and commitment that established the foundation and focused its resources on the needs and opportunities in the state of Michigan. And her vision continues to guide the work of the foundation these decades later. It is now the eighth largest charitable foundation in Michigan and, together with partners such as the Gerstacker Foundation and others, has made Midland a truly extraordinary place.
Grace Dow was an original trustee of the foundation, and for the succeeding 79 years it has been governed and guided by a board constituted largely by Dow progeny. In recent years, their grandchildren, including Alden Dow, Herbert Dow II, Herbert “Ted” Doan, and Margaret “Ranny” Riecker, led the foundation, and each established an admirable record of community leadership.
The current chair of the foundation, Macauley “Mike” Whiting, Jr., is a great-grandson of the founders. Like those who preceded him, he understands the responsibility that position carries: “We try to do what Grace and Herbert did with their own money before the foundation was created—supporting the arts, education, libraries, and churches, among other things. Our intent is to continue to honor what they did and cared about.”
Midland and the entire region have been blessed—not a word chosen lightly—by the resources and creative leadership of this foundation. Take away assets and institutions such as Dow Diamond, the Midland Center for the Arts, Dow Gardens, the Midland Area Community Foundation, The Grace A. Dow Library, and a host of others—all aided, initiated, or made possible by the foundation—and the entire region would be so much less and so much poorer.
Beyond these highly visible and “signature” projects, there are hundreds of other educational, religious, charitable, and health care institutions and organizations that have been nourished or enhanced by the Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation.
The foundation has also provided educational opportunities for students in public schools and colleges, improved diagnosis and health care for the sick and frail, enabled cultural and recreational programs, and created beauty and wonder for those who seek it in their home community.
Just one example of this human impact can be seen in the West Midland Family Center. Executive Director Greg Dorrien says, “During my 28 years, I have seen the Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation transform our community, by helping families break the cycle of generational poverty by providing funding so their children could attend childcare and preschool programs, a college opportunity program, parent education programs, and other needed social services.”
The current generation of trustees continues to see their work as investing in people and communities. As foundation chair Whiting observes, “There is a spirit of generous volunteerism here. It’s wonderful to be able to help people who have creative ideas and a passion for making Midland and Michigan a better place.”
There may be a lot that is wrong with American culture these days. We hear about it all the time. Perhaps we are too vulgar and too violent; sometimes we do celebrate celebrity more than accomplishment or virtue; and, to be honest, we are often self-absorbed and self-indulgent. But there is also deep in the American psyche something that is quite unique and wonderful: a spirit of generosity.
There is more than $335 billion in private giving each year in this country. Nowhere else is there anything like, for example, the United Way, where people voluntarily pool contributions to lift up the lives of folks they don’t know. And there are bequests like these where people dedicate hard-earned life’s savings to create sustenance, opportunities, and experiences for others who they will never meet and from whom they will never hear thanks.
Here in our Great Lakes Bay Region, these foundations have profoundly shaped our communities and uplifted our lives and the lives of our neighbors. These benefactors and others whose names we may also recognize, names such as Andersen, Morley, Pardee, Krantz, Strosacker, Smith, Wickson, and others, created legacies of good works. And there are thousands of charitable trusts in financial institutions and funds in community foundations created by other generous people that annually support good causes and good works.
The impact of their generosity will be as important in shaping the future of this region as in the past. And the legacy of these benefactors should inspire others to create legacies of their own.