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.

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.


“You have to give back somewhere,” says Nicole Eisenberg who, at 41, is among a younger generation of contributors. She has been involved with the DIA Founders Junior Council and now the DIA Board of Directors, and who also donates monetarily to this and other charities. “If you don’t give back, you’re missing the boat. This is how you teach your children. This is how it goes on. This is how you leave a legacy.”

Not since the 1930s, perhaps, has such help been so needed. It’s not easy being a big city in the 21st century, to begin with. But the economic crisis has hit metro Detroit hard. State, federal, and corporate funds for cultural institutions, nonprofits, and public schools have receded. Population (and tax base) in the city is declining. As if all that weren’t enough, Time magazine decided to set up camp here and do a series on Detroit, with the lead article headlined “Notown.” After that came the Dateline NBC report on Detroit, “America Now: City of Heartbreak and Hope,” a report that angered area stalwarts.

As they will tell you, Detroit is about giving, loyalty, resilience, and, more than ever, philanthropy.

Who are our philanthropists? Some of the names, like those already mentioned, are well-known: Manoogian, Karmanos, Ilitch, Fisher, Ford, Van Elslander, Dodge, Davidson. Others may be less famous, but they’re equally crucial. Those mentioned here include Allesee and Eisenberg; Roy Roberts, former GM executive; Kristine Mestdagh, of the Boll family; Gretchen Valade; Richard and Linda Kughn; Lee and Floy Barthel; Gilbert and Lila Silverman; William Pickard; Yousif Ghafari; and Rick Williams.

All those cited here represent a much larger group of Detroit’s philanthropists, the people who help, who appreciate Detroit’s jewels, traditions, and strengths and help keep them going. Call them the benefactors — or the saviors.

This year, call them Hour Detroit’s 2010 Detroiters of the Year. It’s a recognition earned through leadership, giving, and caring.

In the words of U.S. District Judge Damon J. Keith, a former Detroiter of the Year, who donates to the DSO and DIA and led an effort a few years ago to save from bankruptcy the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History: “You’ve got to believe in something. And these people believe in the city, and thank God. They won’t let it go down. The help means so much to Detroit. Anybody can jump off a sinking ship. But you know, you have to stay there. As long as I’m able physically and emotionally, I want to give back to the community. I’m gong to stay here and try to make it a better place to live.”

That kind of sentiment is typical of Hour’s Detroiters of the Year. Certain themes emerged as these Detroiters shared their stories. First, virtually all had those parental examples and some early childhood memories — whether they grew up in modest or wealthy homes.

A hard-to-beat early-childhood example is that of William Pickard, chairman and CEO of VITEC in Detroit, and one of the largest donors to the Wright Museum. Pickard also is a substantial donor to Grand Valley State University, U-M, numerous Flint-based organizations, and smaller agencies such as the Sphinx Organization, which pays for minority children to learn to play stringed instruments.

Pickard’s roots are mainly in Flint, but his earliest years were in a tiny Georgia town in the 1940s. As a child, his first exposure to community responsibility was the Annual Homecoming at his local church and cemetery. The day brought the entire African-American community together for a church service, loads of food — and a fresh tending of every family’s cemetery plots in a graveyard that bore ancestors going back to the 1880s. “What it said to me was that, as we grew up, this was our responsibility to take care of our cemetery; this was our responsibility to take care of our community,” Pickard says.


Julie Fisher Cummings and Edsel Ford II, children of two of Detroit’s most famous citizens, Max Fisher and Henry Ford II, grew up never knowing anything but giving. Cummings says that by the time she was a small child, her father already had decided to stop working and start giving the rest of his life.

“It was just what we did. It wasn’t like, ‘Do we do it or don’t we do it?’” says Cummings, who divides her time among Florida, New York, and Detroit. Cummings has served on numerous boards, and, with her parents’ foundation, the Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Foundation, she champions teaching philanthropy in schools; this includes “empowering” underprivileged children to give to others as well. Her husband, Peter Cummings, was instrumental in getting The Max addition to Orchestra Hall several years ago.

Giving to others — including giving of your time, not just money, Cummings says, “is just part of not being a selfish person.”

Ford grew up steeped in the early philanthropy of the Ford family: Henry Ford Hospital was established by Henry Ford in 1915, at the time one of the largest hospitals in the U.S.; and in 1936 came the establishment of the Ford Foundation, still one of the nation’s largest, most generous foundations.

Edsel Ford II is especially known for his role in leading the Detroit 300 celebrations, and now its subsequent Detroit 300 Conservancy, and his leadership for building Campus Martius Park. Ford and his wife, Cynthia, also donate to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, the Salvation Army, and the Boy Scouts. For many years, Ford chaired Caring Athletes Team for Children’s & Henry Ford hospitals, (CATCH), a charity set up by former Detroit Tigers Manager Sparky Anderson.

Edsel says Detroit’s charitable nature is evident everywhere, but was especially visible during the recent turnout for the Detroit Free Press-Detroit Public Schools Reading Corps, a massive volunteer-tutoring initiative, for which Cynthia volunteered. There were about 3,500 people who showed up at the first meeting — those of all ages, economic levels, and races, Edsel says. “It took my breath away. To me, this is the definition of what Detroit’s all about.”

Concern for Detroit’s public image provided a different kind of motivation for Gretchen Valade, CEO of Mack Avenue Records, chairman of Dearborn-based Carhartt Inc., and owner of Dirty Dog Jazz Café in Grosse Pointe Farms (which, incidentally, was Hour Detroit’s 2010 Restaurant of the Year).

In 2005, Valade, a lifelong fan of jazz, heard that the Detroit International Jazz Festival was about to fold for lack of funding. Upon hearing this news, she told a close friend, “Detroit doesn’t need another black eye.” She stepped up to sponsor the festival, and, eventually, to set up a $10-million endowment to keep the event going.

But Valade has a more basic reason for giving. She grew up in a fairly modest home until her grandfather’s business, Carhartt, prospered in the 1940s and after. “I saw a lot of the factory workers in urban Kentucky,” where one of the Carhartt factories was located. “They thought that if you’re warm, have three meals a day, a roof over your head, you don’t need a lot more than that. That’s what really got me going, more than anything. It was just, all of a sudden, I’ve got more than I need. I was more than comfortable. What more do I need?”


Her first major philanthropic action was to fund the restoration of the Noguchi Fountain in Hart Plaza, which had not worked for about 20 years. Johnson Controls Inc., helped, as well. Valade has since made major donations to St. John Hospital and Medical Center, and the Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts. She also supports smaller causes, such as COTS (Coalition on Temporary Shelter) Detroit, which provides services to the homeless.

Valade normally prefers to remain private about her philanthropy, as do most. But, speaking for all of these Detroiters of the Year, she says she hopes these examples will inspire more people to give. “It’s really needed. People need to step up. They have to look around and see what needs to be done. It’s there; you could fall over it.”

Perhaps one of the most visible acts of philanthropy in recent Detroit history came in 1990, when Art Van Elslander, founder of Art Van Furniture, stepped in to save Detroit’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. That action, he says, still resonates for what it has given him, not the other way around.

“It’s probably one of the nicest things I’ve ever done, not in terms of what I’ve done for Detroit and the parade alone, but what it’s done for me personally,” Van Elslander says. “The amount of personal gratification that we, my family, and employees have gotten is just unbelievable.”

Nearly 20 years later, Van Elslander is even more involved in philanthropy. He supports hospitals, special-needs children, and humanities organizations. Most recently, the company has launched the Art Van Charity Challenge. In 2009 — the retail furniture company’s 50th anniversary — it raised money to fund 50 nonprofit organizations. They’re continuing the program again this year.

Van Elslander’s advice? “If it’s possible for you to write a check, don’t hesitate, not only for the good you do, but for the amount of personal gratification it brings to you.”

Eisenberg’s decision as a younger-generation donor came to some degree from difficulty, she says. When her first child went to kindergarten, Eisenberg became an empty nester — although not from choice. She and her husband had a very difficult time having their second child. During those years between her two children, now ages 11 and 2, Eisenberg says, “shopping became very old, very fast. How much can you exercise? How much can you shop?”

Her father-in-law, Kenneth Eisenberg, asked if she would be interested in joining the Founders Junior Council at the DIA, which is made up of younger DIA volunteers and donors. Eisenberg decided to give it a try — and has been forever grateful. “The DIA got me through this incredibly difficult time by allowing me to think about something other than myself. I met the most interesting people, learned the most interesting things, expanded my social life. It gave me confidence as a woman and powers that I didn’t even know that I had.”

Eisenberg stayed on the Junior Council for six years, was vice president for three, and now serves on the DIA Board of Directors, which has helped raise large amounts of money. Meanwhile, she still gives significant personal time to the DIA.


Says Eisenberg: “I’d like to stress: All the giants are gone — Max Fisher, Bill Davidson, David Hermelin — they’re all gone. These people gave millions, and the community relied on this. Now there are my in-laws, the Eisenbergs, the Taubmans, the Karmanoses. But this is the time for [my] age group to step up.”

One younger-generation donor who has done so is Kristine Mestdagh, 44. Like many younger donors — children or grandchildren of significant donors — Mestdagh is involved in her parents’ foundation, The John A. and Marlene L. Boll Foundation. John Boll came from modest means as a “rugged construction worker,” Mestdagh says, who, without any higher education, was able to establish Chateau Estates, which reinvented mobile-home communities.

“Only in America, he says, can somebody do that with a wheelbarrow and a shovel. He’s definitely the American Dream story. That’s why he feels so indebted to Michigan.”

Mestdagh follows suit in her own life. She and her husband, Jim, regularly and generously support several Christ-centered causes, including SpringHill Camps, and Young Life. They also support the Grosse Pointe Public Schools.

Lee Barthel started giving after falling in love with the DSO. Owner of Barthel Contracting, a road-building business in Northville, Barthel first heard the symphony during a children’s concert in the 1950s. A bit later, he skipped school once in awhile to catch the bus downtown for other concerts.

After marrying his wife, Floy, in 1960, he learned from her the beauty of opera. In the 1970s, ’80s, and part of the ’90s, MOT lacked a home base, and had to hopscotch among various rented venues. When MOT leaders considered buying the former Grand Circus Theatre downtown, Barthel offered to do a great deal of renovation work for a very small amount of money. The beautifully renovated theater, which was re-christened the Detroit Opera House, opened its doors in 1996. The Barthels have supported MOT ever since, and more recently have funded a classical and jazz music radio station, 90.9 WRCJ-FM. The loss of Detroit’s previous classical station, WQRS-FM, was the impetus.

“I think it’s pretty simple,” Barthel says. “If donors don’t donate the money, the art form will go away from our city.”

One of Ghafari’s special messages as a major donor is to his fellow immigrants, who often came from countries where philanthropy is all but unknown, or where government agencies and public institutions cannot be trusted because they are not well monitored.

“I really encourage the immigrants who come to this country to really take full advantage of what we have to offer, to get more involved,” says Ghafari, who came to Detroit when he was 19, and, along with other family members, was able to get an education at WSU because it was so reasonably priced.

“I tell them to support whatever they believe in, whether it’s education, religious institutions, whatever it is, they should be more involved. Here, we have so many checks and balances, we have very strong institutions, we have strong boards, everything is transparent. When you give money, you know where it’s going. It’s not going to be wasted.

“The immigrant must give back. We have a joke here. We say, ‘The immigrant comes here and thinks the U.S. is an ATM machine; you just take it out.”

That parallels Roy Roberts’ motivations, especially when it comes to the Wright Museum. Roberts, a former and longtime GM executive, who now serves as managing director of Reliant Equity Investors, says he learned first from his father, who was of meager means, “that you have to give back or you have to give forward, but you have to give. You have to help other people because other people helped you.”

Roberts says he also admired GM’s corporate giving philosophy, which is why he joined the firm years ago. He and his wife, Maureen, have long donated to the United Negro College Fund and the United Way. They are especially supportive of the Wright Museum, though, “because African-American kids don’t learn about their real history in any of our schools, public or private.

That’s the responsibility of African-American people to teach their kids the culture. I think it’s also important to teach non-black kids. I seethe Wright Museum as being central to that process, so, early on, we got involved, and we try to do what we can every year to foster the museum.

“If we can tell these stories,” Roberts adds, “we can show people there’s a need. I have a strong belief that African-Americans should not ask for anything until we have given first. So I have to give first, so young people can see that we have set an example.”

James is a Brighton-based freelancer. E-mail: editorial@hourdetroit.com.

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