2010 Detroiters of the Year

Philanthropists help keep afloat the city’s cultural, humanitarian, and educational jewels, which could very well sink without their time and money. But to them, it’s not just giving, but giving back, that motivates their generosity.


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For Al Taubman, it all started in the 1930s with that little blue tin box.

Most Jewish families had one of those boxes. They were used for collections for the Jewish homeland in Israel, Taubman says of his boyhood days in Pontiac, “and we collected change. When I went to the store for my mother and came back, she’d say, ‘Put the change in the box.’ And when the box got filled, she gave it to whoever was in charge in those days. They planted trees and bought land in Israel. This was in the ’30s and ’40s, and we didn’t have a lot of money in those days.

“That was the first real philanthropy I ever saw.”

It was hardly the last. Taubman is widely recognized as one of metro Detroit’s most generous philanthropists. He’s a primary supporter of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), the College for Creative Studies (CCS), the University of Michigan (U-M), and a host of other places.
Taubman’s roots are not unlike those of another philanthropist, Maggie Allesee, who has supported Oakland University, Wayne State University (WSU), Hospice of Michigan, the Detroit Historical Society, Michigan Opera Theatre (MOT), and Henry Ford Hospice’s SandCastles, a grief-support program for young people — among other institutions. 

“My mother was one of the founders of the Junior League of St. Petersburg,” Allesee recalls of her native Florida town. “Back then, we used nickels, dimes, quarters, 50-cent pieces, and dollars to collect for charity. I learned to count by sitting around the edge of the fireplace, and I’d put money in piles of 10 because I was helping my mother, who was Junior League treasurer. I was 4.”

Rick Williams, managing partner of the law firm Williams, Williams, Rattner & Plunkett in Birmingham, remembers the time he was a kid in the late ’40s and early ’50s, when tremendous floods ravaged the Netherlands, causing dikes to break and wreaking widespread damage. “I made things to sell out of a wagon, and gave the money to Queen Juliana,” says Williams, who supports the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO), the MOT, and, with his wife, Karen, places such as Grace Centers of Hope in Pontiac and City Mission in Detroit.

Yousif Ghafari, chairman of Ghafari Associates in Dearborn, and former U.S. Ambassador to Slovenia, recalls his early childhood in a village in Lebanon. “Actually, it was a very poor village, and my parents and uncles and aunts, whatever limited things they had, they shared. Whether it was sharing a meal or small things you would not even talk about, they were just given to the people around them. I watched this growing up, in an environment where you learned to always give, if you can.” Ghafari has done so, especially to his alma mater, Wayne State University, and to the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn.

Taubman, Allesee, Williams, and Ghafari are just a few among a hard-to-quantify group of metro Detroiters who have stood fast for Detroit in one of its worst hours. They are people who have stepped up to the plate and donated time, talent, and money — some giving hundreds of dollars, others millions — to support everything from Detroit’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and International Jazz Festival to the DIA, MOT, the Detroit Zoological Institute, the Detroit schools — public, charter, private — and neighborhoods, nonprofits, universities, and more. They have given willingly, often quietly, but with great faith in this city and region.

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