Wege among giants in sustainability efforts

April 19, 2010
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As Earth Day is contemplated around the globe this week, it is important to note this community’s legacy in environmental efforts — long before it was ‘trendy” to be so associated.

Sustainability has been the issue for both Steelcase and Herman Miller in most aspects of office furniture manufacturing, from fabrics to “green” facilities and “exotic” wood preservation efforts. Many from the industry have been leaders in efforts throughout the region and the world, even assisting in the original writing of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certifications for the U.S. Green Building Council.

Few, however — anywhere — have made as big a mark or created such measurable leadership as Peter M. Wege, the former Steelcase leader and board chairman.

Wege, who is a pilot, earned his wings during World War II, but a day of reckoning was the day he flew to Pittsburgh in 1943 and could not see to land because of the industrial smog. By 1968, he had created the Center for Environmental Study to focus on clean air and water in the Grand Rapids region. It was the first organization to also invite business leaders to the table of environmental leadership.

Wege has said that Rachael Carson’s “Silent Spring” made an indelible impression on him, and although he quotes world-renowned authors often, Wege wrote his own book in 1998: “Economicology: The Eleventh Commandment.” Last month he added “Economicology II.”

Despite holding world conferences with U.S. leaders in the rain forests of Costa Rica, involving clergy in fundamental environmental efforts, leading Michigan water protection and tirelessly dissuading Great Lakes water diversion, the Grand Rapids native is most often cited for his leadership in creating the world’s first fully LEED-certified art museum, the new Grand Rapids Art Museum.

The extreme difficulty of this task can be exemplified by a single example: the preservation of historic pieces of art using eco-friendly means. The GRAM board pressed upon him permission to name the museum for him. Wege writes his response in one of his books: “This art museum doesn’t belong to the Wege family. It belongs to the people of Grand Rapids and that’s how the name is going to stay.”

Wege also was instrumental in the renovation and building reuse in the Heartside neighborhood, long before the new arena gentrified the downtown region to the south.

In the 1980s, George Heartwell directed the Heartside Ministry and had asked Wege for a modest grant for agency mental health care services. But Wege said he was appalled by the ramshackle building and told Heartwell, “If you want to dignify these people, then give them a place that dignifies them.” And then he raised $1 million to do so.

Now mayor of Grand Rapids, Heartwell celebrates this week with the announcement that the city is one of nine U.S. communities being considered for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Business Civic Leadership Center Siemens Sustainable Community Award. Grand Rapids, holding rank as the community with more LEED certified buildings than any other of its size, is competing with Davenport, Iowa, and Hoover, Ala., for the mid-size community award. Atlanta, Dallas and Philadelphia are large city contenders.

The seeds were planted by Peter M. Wege. The city and its residents owe honor to him, even as he regards clean air and water efforts and environmental stewardship reward.

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