Who will stand as the next philanthropic pillars?


Death is inevitable. Last week’s passing of Peter Wege, at age 94, conclusively proved that fact once again.

Life is what you make of it, however, and by all accounts Mr. Wege made much of his time on earth. His philanthropic efforts, to which he donated countless millions of dollars, helped shape West Michigan and forged the region as a leader in several fields far into the future.

Mr. Wege’s five philanthropic “pillars” covered a wide cross-section of the community: education, environment, arts and culture, health care and human services. That he was able to stay true to those ideals over the long course of his philanthropy was truly remarkable. That he was able to do so, for the most part, right here in West Michigan was astounding.

The Wege Foundation certainly will carry on that work for the foreseeable future, much to the benefit of West Michigan. The absence of the man — and his passion and leadership — leaves a vacuum, however.

One by one, West Michigan’s pillars of philanthropy are disappearing. Jay Van Andel, Fred Meijer and Peter Wege represented a large part of the foundation upon which West Michigan is built. Their vision, generosity, leadership and passion were more important than the dollars they put behind specific projects.

Grand Valley State University (another of Mr. Wege’s beneficiaries) this fall will begin a graduate program for working professionals — a master’s degree in philanthropy and nonprofit leadership. Somewhere in each of those classrooms should be a plaque inscribed with Mr. Wege’s personal mantra: “Do all the good you can, for as many as you can, for all the right reasons.”

Successful philanthropy is not taught in a classroom, however; it comes from the heart. The right reason is not to get one’s name in the newspaper or on a building. It blooms from a burning desire to help your fellow man, to make the place you live better and to put to use the gifts you’ve been given.

That’s a difficult task and not everyone is cut out for the challenge. 

“I couldn’t even imagine how much he’s given to the community. He loved giving money away. Loved it. I think he loved seeing what it could do,” said Micki Benz, vice president of regional communication, Mercy Health Saint Mary’s.

Grand Rapids is on the cusp of becoming part of the national discussion of great American cities. It’s becoming a destination for travelers, home to world-class events and still remains a great place to raise families.

Those things will not change because Peter Wege is gone. However, if West Michigan is to thrive in the coming years, it will need more champions in the same league as the Van Andels, Meijers and Weges — people whose vision, generosity, leadership and passion far outweigh their dollars.

Who will stand as West Michigan’s next philanthropic pillars? It’s a question that needs asking.

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