Human Resources, Manufacturing, and Nonprofits

Steelcase heir, philanthropist Peter Wege dies

July 8, 2014
| By AP |
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Steelcase heir, philanthropist Peter Wege dies at 94
Peter Melvin Wege. Photo via wegefoundation.com

Peter Wege — heir to the Steelcase fortune whose philanthropy kept much of the office furniture maker's money in Grand Rapids — has died. He was 94.

Peter Melvin Wege died Monday at his home in Grand Rapids, Terri McCarthy, The Wege Foundation's vice president of programming, said Tuesday.

Wege's father, Peter Martin Wege, founded Steelcase in 1912 and died in 1947. Steelcase and rival office furniture makers Haworth and Herman Miller anchored the Grand Rapids area's economy for decades.

"The great success of my father's company gave me the opportunity to give back to the community that supported my entrepreneuring father . . . a century ago," Wege wrote on the foundation's website.

As Steelcase's largest shareholder, Wege — a fervent environmentalist — was able to commit millions of dollars toward "green" causes.

He retired as vice chairman of the Steelcase board of directors about a decade ago to work full-time on his foundation, which he created in 1967. It has given away millions, much of it in his hometown.

In 1998, he wrote a book called "Economicology" — a word combining economics and ecology — that spelled out his ideas about corporate environmental responsibility.

He donated $20 million toward the new Grand Rapids Art Museum building, which opened in 2007, on condition that it receive LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.

"I want to be remembered as one of the people who tried to wake up the country on the environmental problems," Wege said in 2004, according to The Grand Rapids Press.

"I'm doing it for my children and my grandchildren," Wege said. "It's got to be taken seriously this time."

His gifts ranged from $60,000 to renovate and stock a library in the small Michigan community of Chase to the mammoth Grand Rapids Art Museum donation.

"He gets more pleasure out of the small gifts he gives than the great big ones," Ellen Satterlee, The Wege Foundation's CEO, once said.

Wege is survived by seven children, 17 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.

Visitation is planned for Thursday, and a funeral will be held Friday, both at the Cathedral of St. Andrew in Grand Rapids.

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