Human Resources, Manufacturing, and Nonprofits

Peter Wege leaves a powerful community legacy

Philanthropic titan’s impact is felt throughout the region.

July 11, 2014
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Steelcase heir, philanthropist Peter Wege dies at 94
Peter Melvin Wege. Photo via wegefoundation.com

Peter Melvin Wege, a man who embodied the word “generosity” for several generations of West Michigan residents, passed away at home Monday. Wege, the Steelcase Inc. heir and founder of the Wege Foundation, was 94. 

Wege’s financial impact on Grand Rapids was substantial. The amount of money he gave away during his lifetime to develop his foundation’s five pillars — education, environment, arts and culture, health care and human services — was so massive, even his closest colleagues couldn’t fathom the amount.

“I couldn’t even imagine how much he’s given to the community. He loved giving money away — loved it. I think he loved seeing what it could do,” said Micki Benz, vice president of regional communication, Mercy Health Saint Mary’s. “We have lost a giant, but he will never be forgotten in this community.”

Even Ellen Satterlee, CEO of The Wege Foundation, was at a loss to put a figure to Wege’s generosity. “I can’t even guess at the dollar amount … many, many millions.”

Befitting his nature, Wege, who is survived by seven children, 17 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren, asked that instead of sending flowers for the funeral, members of the community make donations to their favorite charity. That’s classic Wege, Benz said.

“He just made such a huge impact on everything that happened in this community, in big ways and small ways — and not just in Grand Rapids,” Satterlee said. “He has a powerful legacy.”

That legacy was smartly summarized in Wege’s mantra, Satterlee said, an expression often repeated: “Do all the good you can, for as many as you can, for all the right reasons.” It’s a condensed version of a quote commonly attributed to Methodist theologian John Wesley. 

“It was his life philosophy,” she said. “He lived it.”

Wege was born in Grand Rapids Feb. 12, 1920, the only child of Peter Martin Wege and his wife, Sophia. In 1912, his father co-founded Metal Office Furniture, a company that would become furniture manufacturing titan Steelcase.

Wege’s father was a brilliant entrepreneurial leader, and his mother was devoutly religious, Benz said. It was the marriage of his parents’ principles that shaped Wege’s altruistic character, she said.

“His mother was a very devout Catholic, and he went to St. Stephen School in East Grand Rapids. (She) really instilled him with that faith, and I really believe that his philanthropy came from his Catholic faith,” she said.

“His father instilled in him the fact that just getting rich for the idea of getting rich doesn’t do any good. When you take care of yourself and your family, you really need to be generous, and that (world view) plus his mother’s faith — what a powerful combination.”

Wege was studying architecture at the University of Michigan when Pearl Harbor was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941. Like many other young Americans, Wege left school immediately to join the military. He served in the Army Air Corps as a transport pilot, achieving the rank of first lieutenant. On a flight he made to Pittsburgh in 1943, he was unable to land the aircraft due to heavy industrial smog. That experience sparked one of the great passions of his life: environmentalism.

After the war, Wege returned to Grand Rapids to work at Steelcase and held a series of positions in sales, research and design. He eventually became the company’s largest shareholder and chairman of the board. His leadership not only shaped Steelcase’s national role in design but also enhanced its environmental awareness.

“Peter's visionary influence on Steelcase put the manufacturer on the map as one of the world's earliest environmental manufacturers,” his obituary read. “Peter's prophetic view of preserving Earth's finite resources led to Steelcase becoming renowned for its environmentalism long before ‘green’ became mainstream.”

Wege was one of the key voices encouraging the company to go public, which it did in 1998. Wege gained about $214 million when he sold his Steelcase shares. He gave about $140 million of that money to The Wege Foundation, which he had founded in 1967, according to Hoover's Inc., a research company and subsidiary of Dun & Bradstreet.

“He felt he was blessed to be born into a family who started a company that was doing well — and then he took it over and did even better,” said Dana Friis-Hansen, director and CEO of the Grand Rapids Art Museum.

“When Steelcase went public and the shareholders received their stock, that allowed him to leverage the legacy of his family and do good. He really was a believer of giving back. He felt he wanted to make a mark and make the world a better place.”

Anyone who drives through Grand Rapids may spot Wege’s name, and even if his name isn’t there in big letters, it’s likely he was somehow involved. Take, for example, Grand Rapids’ “La Grande Vitesse,” the iconic sculpture most people know as the “the Calder.” Wege co-chaired the drive to bring that piece to the city in 1969.

Bringing art into the city was a major passion of Wege’s. When Friis-Hansen started at GRAM, Wege invited him over for breakfast and told him, “I see no reason why the Grand Rapids Art Museum can’t be one of the best art museums of its size in the world.” He backed up his vision in 2007 with a $20 million donation, the largest philanthropic donation to Grand Rapids’ arts ever made by an individual. That gift not only brought GRAM to the center of downtown, but also enabled it to become the first LEED Gold certified art museum in the world.

“He pursued ideas we now take for granted — and for a small city, what big ideas!” Friis-Hansen said. “He thought of (GRAM) as a cultural beacon and civil anchor. … Having the museum downtown played a role in (the growing strength of downtown).”

One of Wege’s other passions was health care, to which he donated generously. Benz said one instance stands out so strongly, she can remember the chair she was sitting in when it happened. 

“The Lacks family had offered a challenge grant for us to start a cancer center. We sat down with Peter and Ellen Satterlee, and we were telling him (about it). He said, ‘I’m going to make a donation of seven figures,’ before we’d even asked him,” Benz said.

“And then he said, ‘And that’s going to be each year for five years.’ That was sometimes Peter’s impetuous generosity because he was so passionate about good health care and he had a special place in his heart for Saint Mary’s.”

Another memorable moment came in 2008 during the dedication of the Cathedral Square Center at 360 S. Division Ave. in downtown Grand Rapids.

“Bishop Walter Hurley was standing at the podium for the dedication, I think. ‘We have this much more money to raise,’ he said, and Peter stood up and pledged the rest of the money right there,” Benz said. “I remember we all looked at each other like, ‘What?’ That’s what Peter would do sometimes.”

His generous spirit was tempered with a “jovial” sense of humor, said Benz, describing Wege as someone who “was not impressed with himself.” When Saint Mary’s named him an honorary physician and gifted him with a white coat, Wege joked, “I hope this means you’re going to let me do physicals.”

“He was very outgoing, very social. Sometimes he was kind of loud because he was a loud talker, and he was funny,” she said. “He loved to tell jokes, and I might add that some of them were a little off color, and he got a big kick out of that.”

Wege was widely known as an environmental activist and major supporter of protecting the Great Lakes. In 1968, he created the Center for Environmental Study to work on sustaining clean air and water in the region. In 2003, his foundation announced it would only give capital gifts to projects that applied for LEED certification.

Wege’s resolve and commitment to sustainability gave Grand Rapids the means to jumpstart building a holistic bedrock on which the future could be built, Benz said.

“Think about how many LEED-certified buildings Grand Rapids has,” Benz said. “I think we have some of the most in the country because of Peter Wege.”

Wege’s first book, “Economicology: The Eleventh Commandment,” was published in 1998 and explored his passion for a holistic view of the economy and ecology. He released a sequel, “Economicology II,” in 2010.

“He was a man ahead of his time. We all read (those books) because we knew Peter, and then the more time passed, the more you realized that he cared about things way before people knew that they were supposed to,” Benz said. “He was truly a visionary and an integrated thinker. He saw relationships between people and causes, economics and the environment.”

Wege also helped publish a children’s book, “Sooper Yooper: Environmental Defender,” which follows a superhero trying to protect the Great Lakes. Super Yooper’s alter ago, Billy Cooper, is aided by a supportive philanthropist called “The Wedge,” a character based on Wege.

“His passion was saving the planet,” Satterlee said. “He really was a superhero. … He was The Wedge.”

“He always made us think beyond what we could do and he had the generosity to make it happen and he inspired others to make it happen,” Benz said. “I’ll miss him.”

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