The Wege Mission Carries On

Let there be no doubt that Peter M. Wege’s has legacy bearers who continue to do “all the good” they can.  Two of them said it best themselves.

The September issue of Grand Rapids Magazine featured an article about Erin Wilson (pictured left), director of Wealthy Theatre, an historic landmark saved by Peter M. Wege and the family foundation.  Boarded up for 14 years in 1989, the former vaudeville showhouse was about to be demolished when neighbors came to Wege for help. As usual, Peter had a bigger idea. Let’s restore the theatre, clean up surrounding buildings, and rejuvenate the once thriving Wealthy Business District.

Now it’s a bustling street of businesses and homes anchored by the theatre Peter rescued. Erin told the Magazine Peter is an “iconic figure,” for the “direction our neighborhood has taken.”

Eric continued: Mr. Wege did some chess-like things on the block that transcend the theater support when he paid an inflated price to buy and then shut down a store that served as a drug ring in the 1990s. He made this neighborhood livable by doing proactive things in a surgical manner with his resources.

The second mission carriers are Christian and Kathryn Birky who attended Healing Our Waters conferences as teenagers.  Kathryn graduated from Brown with a Masters of Environmental Science and now runs a non-profit in Gambia, the Gambia Horse and Donkey Trust.

Here is Christian’s recent note to Dear Mr. Wege,

I am a West Michigan native and avid environmentalist. I attended the first few HOW conferences while in high school, and remember meeting you at breakfast at the Amway with my sister Kathryn before the very first one. Since then, I have gone on to study politics and environmental studies at Princeton, where I just graduated. I am moving back to Michigan, and recently I have come across your influence in several places, from innovative business practices at Steelcase to great work by the Wege Foundation. I wanted to express my gratitude for your leadership on environmental issues. There is still much work to be done, but please know that you have inspired another generation of environmental leaders. We will benefit from the example you set, and we appreciate it!

Peter’s mission thus carries on in these two bright and passionate young people. How thoughtful of them to tell him so.

Erin Wilson, theatre Director, born in Muskegon Heights, he now lives within five blocks of Wealthy Theatre, where he’s raising a family with his partner, Amy, who is a ballet dancer and instructor.
At the May 2004 meeting that created the Healing Our Waters movement to save the Great Lakes, Peter M.Wege, organizer of the conference, is pictured welcoming the 70 assembled environmental scientists. Wege told his audience that HOW “is the most important single project of my life as an environmental activist since starting the Wege Foundation in 1967.”

Three Aladdin’s Three Wishes and the PAC

The noisy chatter of children filling the seats on three sides of the stage quickly turned to hushed attentiveness as six Arabian princesses appeared in gauzy costumes. Circle Theatre’s summer performance of The Mystic Tale of Aladdin had begun.

Middle-schoolers, grade-schoolers, and pre-schoolers sat mesmerized by the lush setting in the Sultan’s treasure room heaped with piles of jewels and gold. Aladdin and his magic lamp came to life when his three wishes appeared as three bejeweled belly dancers.

Aladdin is one of six summer performances – the only children’s show – for Circle Theatre’s 61st year of live theater. Now housed in the handsome Performing Arts Center at Aquinas, Circle Theatre’s name and history go back to its 1953 first season in the old Rowe Hotel. The theater lovers who came up with the idea rented space that summer in a room at the Rowe that happened to be round. Presto! Theater in the round, aptly named Circle Theatre, was here to stay in Grand Rapids.

But when the theater’s organizers lost their hotel space, they moved to an unlikely venue. Remodeling an old pavilion, Circle Theatre opened its 1964 season at John Ball Park Zoo! Building a theater-in-the-round stage was, of course, part of the renovation. For the next four decades playgoers were entertained not only by the live stage shows, but also by the night sounds of the zoo’s residents.

By the early 2000s, Circle needed a permanent home. Peter Wege stepped in with one collaborative condition. The new PAC would be shared – and it is – by Circle, Aquinas, and the Catholic Secondary Schools for all their performing arts programs. The PAC gift thus honored The Wege Foundation’s mission of promoting both arts and education.

Since the PAC’s first 2003 season, audiences have filled the 418 surrounding seats to enjoy live theater. Who knows? Maybe the PAC itself was one of Aladdin’s three wishes that came true!


NEWS FLASH on Improving Children’s Reading Skills: ART

How many people know that studying fine art not only enhances artistic skills, but also raises reading scores? Some 1500 third-graders from the Grand Rapids Public Schools do because it worked for them last year! And this year almost 2,000 8-9 year olds are making new visual and verbal connections in the Grand Rapids’ Art Museum’s Tour Program.

In a synergistic partnership, GRAM, Kendall School of Design, and the GRPS are into their second year of a highly organized curriculum helping 3rd graders improve both their visual-arts and reading skills. It all begins with the third-grade teachers and the art teachers in each of GRPS’s 26 grade schools.

This year GRAM chose six pieces of art depicting animals or birds for the children to learn about weeks before their Tour date. One favorite is the Stalking Panther bronze by American sculptor Alexander Proctor given to GRAM by Peter M. Wege.

When the GRPS bus unloads the 60 third-graders at GRAM, the docents – who have spent long hours learning the Tour curriculum – take over.  “Why did the artist select this pose?” the docent asks and hands go up. “Why would an animal behave like this?” More hands.

After more questions and answers, the students use their new GRAM pencils to write down what they see happening in the sculpture.  This becomes the middle of a story. Next, two students partner to create a beginning and an end for their collaborated tale about the panther. Thus the sculpture is teaching the third-graders about story and descriptive writing.

When the bell rings signaling time for students to move on, another docent is waiting to talk about comparison and contrast using two horse paintings by American artists Mathias Alten and George Hartmann. Here students write down what they see as similarities and differences in the paintings.

The Tour Program is triggering these third-graders’ young brains to actively make new synapses connecting what they see, hear, and write. Indeed, this literacy-visual connection is to powerful that teachers can actually project reading strengths just by looking at a young child’s drawings.

**Docent Judy Tyner (adove photo) demonstrates the muscular extension the sculptor of Stalking Panther captured during a recent Tour Program at GRAM.

(This video shows Barb Wisse, GRPS literacy coach, presenting Carlos Ramos from Cesar E. Chavez School with one of two Tour awards last May. Carlos reads the story he wrote explaining his drawing of Croc-Zilla, a combination of a crocodile and Godzilla)

In teaching about comparison and contrast, docent Alice Gilbert shows students two different paintings that have horses as the main subject.
In teaching about comparison and contrast, docent Alice Gilbert shows students two different paintings that have horses as the main subject.
Jerry Mears, volunteer docent, talks to the third-graders about why this painting shown here is one of his favorites.
Jerry Mears, volunteer docent, talks to the third-graders about why this painting shown here is one of his favorites.

Looking Back on a Theatre and a Friendship

Wealthy Theatre is honoring its 100th anniversary that began with years of magical entertainment, followed by a time of decay, and now celebrating its renewed stardom. From the day it opened in 1911, Wealthy Theatre was its neighborhood’s main attraction – even claiming its own streetcar stop.

Originally named the Pastime Vaudette, the ornate theater hosted live entertainment. But before long, vaudeville was gone and the Pastime’s 400 seats were used by silent-movie goers. During World War I, Pastime closed down entirely, its large spaces storing equipment for the Michigan Aircraft Company.

In 1920, the Pastime reopened as the freshly painted baroque Wealthy Theatre. The new owners happened to be Oscar and Lillian Varneau, parents of Peter Wege’s best friend Gordy.

But by the 1950s, Wealthy Theatre began losing customers both to TV and to the new big screens built in the suburbs. In 1973, Wealthy Theatre closed and stood empty for 14 years.

The boarded-up eyesore soon became a public hazard as the area was taken over by gangs and drugs. In 1989, Grand Rapids’ City Commission voted to demolish Wealthy Theatre.

That’s when the area’s concerned residents and business owners formed the non-profit South East Economic Development to save Wealthy Theatre. They knew razing it would further damage their once vibrant neighborhood and business district.

The cost to repair the destruction done over years of vacancy and vandalism was daunting.  But SEED had one shining hope.  They knew Peter Wege as an environmentalist committed to restoring, not destroying. One can only imagine the SEED leaders’ joy when they discovered Peter also had strong personal affection for Wealthy Theatre because it was about Gordy Varneau and his parents.

Peter Wege led the campaign that raised $2.2 million allowing Wealthy Theatre to reopen in 1997 as a performing arts center.

Peter Wege with lifelong friend Gordy Varneau. Peter has great memories growing up watching Westerns with Gordy at Wealthy where they earned 25 cents an hour as ushers.
Wealthy Street Theatre – 1936
“The Rick Beerhorst Band” at (or rather, on) the Wealthy Street Theatre in Grand Rapids on April 14, 2010. The show got shut down by the calling of the police. Apparently, it was causing a bit of a hazard as the cars drove by and slowed down/stopped to gawk at the folks playing a show on top of the marquis.

New GRAM Leader Having Fun Already

Dana Friis-Hansen is pictured at the welcoming reception with Ellen Satterlee, CEO of The Wege Foundation. Peter M. Wege made the major gift that led to the award-winning new Grand Rapids Art Museum.
Dana Friis-Hansen is pictured at the welcoming reception with Ellen Satterlee, CEO of The Wege Foundation. Peter M. Wege made the major gift that led to the award-winning new Grand Rapids Art Museum.

Dana Friis-Hansen left his job as Executive Director of the Austin Museum of Art this summer to take over as CEO of the Grand Rapids Art Museum. In an interesting confluence of art museums, GRAM’s new chief executive will be both exhibitor and presenter during this fall’s ArtPrize. Among the 32 ArtPrize entries to be housed at GRAM will be one Friis-Hansen helped create for the Austin Museum called “The Mona Lisa Project” by photographer Rino Pizzzi.

The GRAM board and the community had the chance to welcome the 50-year-old Friis-Hansen at an open reception July 15. The new director told his audience that the people he’d met here during interviews and the exciting visions they have for GRAM’s future helped him decide to leave Austin for Grand Rapids. And the museum itself, the nation’s first LEED Gold Certified museum opened in 2007, completed the irresistible offer.

For the Massachsett’s native, GRAM’s flexible, open spaces, its environmentally progressive design, and its downtown location make it an ideal community art museum. Friis-Hansen has already taken advantage of the expansive entrance by showing “upside down” films on the outdoor porch ceiling. The first night it didn’t take long for people to spot the movies and come lie down to watch them.

That’s typical of Dana Friis-Hansen’s creative approach to making GRAM a family gathering place. In Austin he created The Family Lab bringing in experts from biologists to chefs who helped him expand the boundaries of what an “art museum” is.


The Wege Foundation is honored to support Mark Heckman’s “Sooper Yooper” because Peter Wege believes the problem of exotic invasive species is the single biggest threat to the Great Lakes. Mark Heckman’s remarkable talent and his own love for the Great Lakes makes this book vitally important to the young people who are our future.

To learn more about Sooper Yooper & the Sooper Art 2010 contest go to

To read the Mlive artilce – click here

Artist Mark Heckman (above) has attracted attention to a host of environmental and social issues through creative billborads that have appeared across the country. Featured on the pages of both Time and Newsweek by the age of 27, Mark built a career that spanned a wide variety of projects, from designing the logo for actor Dustin Hoffman’s production company to painting the portrait of President Gerald R. Ford for the Michigan State Capitol building project.

To see more of Mark Heckman’s artwork go to

sooperyooper heckman


gramexteriorAfter one year in operation as the world’s first art museum to win a Gold LEED medal from the United States Green Building Council, the Grand Rapids Art Museum has doubled its attendance. The new GRAM welcomed twice as many people to its galleries in one year as the number of those who visited GRAM in its last year in the former federal building.

Over those twelve months, the 70,000 viewers to the old GRAM have grown to 140,000 people who came through the doors of the new “green” art museum. Even more significant for the future is that 1,000 new people have signed on to become members of GRAM. Another sign of success in its first year is that 185 tour groups, including visitors from Germany, visited the art museum this year.

GRAM earned national recognition when Newsweek Magazine named the 125,000 square-feet new art museum one of the “Six Most Important Buildings of 2007.” Its location in the heart of Grand Rapids overlooking the Rosa Parks ice rink—the city’s own Rockefeller Plaza—has made GRAM a popular destination. After walking through the galleries, visitors browse the gift shop and watch the skaters over lunch in the cafeteria.

Peter Wege, President of The Wege Foundation, donated the lead gift that initiated the campaign to give his hometown a world-class new building to house its only art museum. His one stipulation: “I want it to be the first LEED-certified museum in the world.” The U.S. Green Building Council’s historic announcement that GRAM had earned the first Gold rating ever awarded to a museum honored Peter’s request—and fulfilled his dream.

Read more on the history and wonderful gift given by Peter M. Wege @ Fast Company Magazine


PHDegreebig (1)The University of Michigan paid its highest tribute to lifelong East Grand Rapids resident Peter M. Wege by awarding him an honorary degree as a Doctor of Laws. Mary Sue Coleman, president of the University, gave the Honorary Doctorate to Peter M. Wege during the University of Michigan’s winter commencement ceremonies on December 15, 2007.

In introducing Wege to the graduating seniors and guests in Chrysler Arena, Dr. Coleman said this to the crowd:

Peter Melvin Wege has dedicated his life to improving global ecology through relentless persuasion, prodding people and organizations into undertaking initiatives and achieving results that never would have occurred without his advocacy. He has devoted over half a century of his own energy and resources to the University of Michigan and the State of Michigan.

Dr. Coleman told the audience that Wege left the University in his sophomore year to join the U.S. Army Air Corps after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. “He not only defended our nation against enemy forces,”Dr. Coleman said, “but also realized we needed to protect our country against the harsh consequences of our own pollution…Mr. Wege became an early activist regarding the ecology of Michigan, incorporating the University in his motto of “Go Blue—Think Green!”

In 1967, she said, he started The Wege Foundation to honor his parents, Sophia Louise and Peter Martin Wege, principal founder of Steelcase. In citing The Wege Foundation’s support for the University, Dr. Coleman talked about his service as the first chairperson of the advisory board for the National Pollution Prevention Center in Ann Arbor, now the Center for Sustainable Systems.

Coleman described him as “a robust supporter of the University’s School of Natural Resources and Environment.” Among his gifts, he sponsors the annual Peter M. Wege Lecture on campus. Speakers for the Wege Lecture have included Nobel Laureate Al Gore, the Prime Minister of Norway, and this year William Clay Ford, Jr., Executive Chairman of Ford Motor, Inc.

According to President Coleman, Wege considers one of the Foundations “best success stories” the environmental renovation of the century-old Dana Building that houses the School of Natural Resources and Environment. In 2005, the Dana Building received a gold rating from the USGBC making it the greenest academic building in Michigan. The new Ph.D. Wege calls the “the greening of Dana” the perfect example of his motto, ‘Go Blue, Think Green.’”
President Coleman noted that Wege is finishing his second book on economicology calling it “a word he coined to promote a balance between a healthy ecology and a profitable economy.”

In presenting the Doctor of Laws diploma, Dr. Coleman concluded:

Mr. Wege, your extraordinary vision and deep-rooted commitment have made our planet a better place for future generations. You have shown us that it is not enough to be passionate about a cause, but that we need to translate our enthusiasm into action. By devoting your support to educational efforts as well as specific projects, you are ensuring that your mission will continue far into the future. You represent the best ideals of the University of Michigan, and we are proud to welcome you back in order to present you with the honorary degree.


GRmagizineThe December issue of Grand Rapids Magazine published brief profiles on the 25 people their staff considered the city’s most important. The first person listed was Peter M. Wege. In Peter Wege’s biography titled “Looking Beyond Horizons,” reporter Curt Wozniak gave him credit for making Grand Rapids, Michigan, the greenest city in the country for its size.

The article explains: Years ago, The Wege Foundation decided to stop capital grants for any building that is not environmentally friendly. As a result, Grand Rapids boasts the most square-footage per capita of buildings certified by the U.S. Green Building LEED program, including the new Grand Rapids Art Museum which exists thanks to Wege’s support.

The writer goes on to recognize Wege for his environmental outreach that extends beyond his home city of Grand Rapids. In particular, the article cites Wege’s leadership on protecting the Great Lakes. Wozniak concludes by writing about Wege’s successful efforts, “His Healing Our Waters Coalition is backed by several U.S. legislators working to establish a united strategy for Great Lakes restoration.”