Peter M. Wege Passionate And Compassionate

June 21, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — He defines generosity and is a true visionary. He is passionate about giving and compassionate about those living in the community. And he tells a great joke.

Those who know Peter M. Wege will recognize him in that short character sketch shared by Micki Benz, Ellen Satterlee and Dennis Sturtevant. The few who don’t know Wege should have a better understanding of why he gives so much of himself after reading this.

Benz has worked closely with Wege and those at the Wege Foundation for much of the past decade in her position as vice president of community development for Saint Mary’s Mercy Medical Center.

“Not only has he been generous financially, but Peter has a vision of health care that I really believe is far ahead of where the industry is, but where the industry is going. He believes that health care needs to be attentive to mind, body and spirit,” she said.

Benz added that the foundation bearing his family name divides its annual gifts into those three categories — mind, body and spirit — to ensure that all of Wege’s passions get funded.

“He was really one of the driving forces behind our Institute for Complementary Healthcare, the idea that medicine is more than great technology and great doctors. It’s also about paying attention to the spiritual and psychological needs of the patient, their families and the community,” said Benz.

The institute is in the Peter M. Wege Center for Health and Learning on the Saint Mary’s campus. Inside the institute, patients and family members find complementary therapies prescribed right along with traditional practices in an effort to treat the mind and spirit while the body is being healed. That holistic pattern reflects what the Wege Foundation represents. “Supporting organizations and people who create waves of enlightenment” is the theme that underlines Wege’s thinking and the foundation’s giving.

“He loves this community,” said Benz. “He loves this community in every way.”

Her statement is backed by the various groups the foundation has helped over the years. Besides Saint Mary’s, Aquinas College, Catholic Central High School, St. Andrew’s and St. Stephen’s elementary schools, the Grand Rapids Art Museum, the Wealthy Theatre and the National Wilderness Foundation are just a handful that have received support.

The areas of health care, the environment, education and the arts, however, aren’t the only recipients, as Wege also builds communities in the physical sense. He has shown a special fondness for Heartside, an impoverished neighborhood just south of downtown with many of the city’s poorest residents. But it is a neighborhood that is rapidly improving, partially because of his gifts.

“I think he feels like part of his roots are there. When he was born, his parents lived on the corner of Wealthy and Division. Steelcase had its first plant down there,” said Satterlee, executive director of the Wege Foundation and a longtime associate of Wege’s.

“I think he feels like there are some roots there for him. Of course, the strong influence of the Catholic church and the Catholic high school is there,” she added. “And I think he genuinely feels compassion for the folks that are not as privileged as others are in life.”

Sturtevant, executive director of Dwelling Place Inc., also is close to Wege. He has seen the son of a Steelcase co-founder fund projects in near-downtown areas time and time again, and largely on an anonymous basis.

“He has such a good attitude about gifts like this,” said Sturtevant. “I’ve seen philanthropic gifts before and these have always had the giver’s mission involved, that things had to be done in a certain way.

“But Peter comes in and he does things like this without having a clue as to how it’s going to all end up, but knowing that something needs to be done. Peter leaves that to the community and the neighborhood to figure out how it can be done best,” he added.

The Wege Foundation has been in existence since 1969. Satterlee has the distinction of being the very first employee the foundation hired in 1988.

“I think Peter is genuinely one of the most compassionate people I’ve ever met. He truly has a heart for the people of the community on all levels,” said Satterlee. “I think that’s why he gives. He truly is compassionate.”

Satterlee said that Wege favors gifts that overlap areas. Mixing the environmental with the educational and having health care touch the arts pleases his acute sense of giving.

“When he supports Saint Mary’s Hospital, he likes to see that they’re also using gifts from the art museum to help in the healing process. He likes to see that holistic approach when he gives a gift to anything,” she said.

“And he doesn’t ever want to be the only funder. He wants to know that it’s a collaborative effort within the community and within the organization,” said Satterlee. “That’s very important to him. And it has proven to be important to the organizations because it make them stronger organizations.”

Benz agreed and described the affiliation that Wege has with Saint Mary’s as a reciprocal partnership, one that has each helping the other to reach each other’s goals.

“Peter is generous in the most global way. I have said this about him so many times. He generously gives his money and then he trusts that the organization will do what they say. Without him we couldn’t do our work. And he does a lot of his work through us. His vision, we hope, is fulfilled somewhat through us,” said Benz.

“To me, he really defines generosity,” she added. “And he has great jokes, and sometimes you don’t even know when one is coming.”

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