West Michigan: An Axis Of Generosity

October 22, 2004
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In its monthly report on West Michigan’s economy, The Right Place Inc. points to a recent study showing the Grand Rapids-Holland-Muskegon triangle as standing second in the United States in terms of giving.

West Michigan almost literally tithes, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, giving an average of nearly 10 percent of its household income to churches and various charities.

In this edition of the Business Journal, three items bring special attention to this national standing.

One is the Focus section, which deals in part with the innovative ways that successful West Michigan people routinely give to the community and — as Grand Rapids’ skyline shows — give often and often give hugely.

The stories themselves are somewhat technical, but the lawyers and financial planners quoted in the stories weren’t being hypothetical or theoretical. Rather, they were able to illustrate what they were saying by selecting from a whole treasury of local, if anonymous, case studies.

Second, one story in the Focus section concerns the case of the late Harold J. Englehardt, of Lowell.

Englehardt lost his cashier’s job in a Depression bank collapse, went on to help found a new bank, eventually became its president and spent his career and the rest of his long, long life giving to others. In the wake of his death, his gifts still are forthcoming, challenging citizens and officials of his hometown with the interesting annual problem of how to use those gifts productively, with yet more gifts on the horizon.

Third is the story about how the Louis Padnos Iron and Metal Co. of Holland and its employees are in the hands-on process of building and giving a new house to Grand Rapids’ Baxter neighborhood.

The firm is undertaking the Habitat for Humanity project to commemorate its own centennial next year. And as the story points out, the Padnos company, which has supported Habitat for two decades, is outright donating $50,000 in cash for the Baxter neighborhood project while setting up a dozen 10-member teams of its employees — roughly a quarter of its work force — to do the actual construction.

Padnos’ namesake and founder migrated to the United States to seize the American dream: to strive for personal independence and to have a home, his personal castle, instead of a hovel owned by a Russian duke. Now his multi-million dollar legacy is making the home component of that American dream available to others who are less than fortunate.

Like so many other West Michigan cases, the Padnos and Englehardt stories are archetypes of the Carnegie legend: people who started with little, had the intelligence, guts and drive to make it big, and who came to realize that great wealth brings with it the responsibility to re-invest in the nation in which such things are possible.

Wonderfully, the modern Carnegies — the Gateses of the nation — follow that tradition. But because West Michigan is unique in having so many family business success stories, that same tradition seems to have unique force here. It’s a tradition we all should remember in the approaching observance of Thanksgiving.    

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