GRAND RAPIDS, MI — Peter Melvin Wege loved giving away his money.
And give it away he did — millions of dollars in grants large and small — a fortune he had amassed as the former chairman and largest stockholder of Steelcase, Inc., the office furniture company his father founded.
Wege, of East Grand Rapids, died Monday, July 7, at the age of 94, having made an indelible mark on Grand Rapids and much of the world.
Wege (pronounced Weg-ee) was an unconventional industrialist, sometimes at odds with the area’s other prominent business leaders. He wrote poetry and supported liberal, as well as conservative, candidates and causes. Saving the environment was his greatest passion.
“I want to be remembered as one of the people who tried to wake up the country on the environmental problems,” he said in November 2004, after sponsoring a nationwide conference of environmental leaders aimed at restoring the Great Lakes.
“I’m doing it for my children and my grandchildren,” he said. “It’s got to be taken seriously this time.”
Related: As last direct descendant of Steelcase’s founding families, Peter Wege focused on environment
His gifts ranged from $60,000 to renovate and stock a library in Chase, a tiny Lake County community, to more than $20 million for the new Grand Rapids Art Museum, which opened in 2007.
“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.
When the art museum’s board offered to name the new museum after him in exchange for his gift, Wege declined, although it later christened the area outside the building the Peter M. Wege plaza.
“That’s not his way of doing things,” Kate Pew Wolters, co-chair of the museum’s fundraising campaign, said at the time. Mr. Wege was motivated by “having a quiet impact,” she said, “of using his resources to make change, not with the thought that he’s going to get a lot of recognition for it.”
After giving millions to Saint Mary’s Health Care (now Mercy Health Saint Mary’s) he reluctantly agreed a new building could be named The Peter M. Wege Health and Learning Center, but privately said it was named not for him but for his late father, Peter Martin Wege.
Related: Peter Wege’s ‘profound influence’ pushed Mercy Health Saint Mary’s development
Peter Melvin Wege was born into privilege Feb. 19, 1920, in Grand Rapids eight years after his father co-founded the Metal Office Furniture Co., forerunner of Steelcase Inc.
During the difficult pregnancy before his birth, his mother, Sophia Louise, a devout Catholic, prayed, “Oh, Lord, if you help me out, I’ll devote my child to the Blessed Mary.”
“I got stigmatized right there,” Wege once joked.
His mother instilled in him a deep religious faith, which in later years would guide his philanthropy.
As a teenager, he attended the San Diego Army and Navy Academy, then in 1940 enrolled at the University of Michigan, where he set a record for the javelin throw, which stood for 32 years. He interrupted his education to enlist in the U.S. Army Air Corps in December 1941 following the attack on Pearl Harbor. He became a transport pilot, ferrying aircraft from one place to another during World War II.
It was in that capacity that he became concerned about the damage pollution was inflicting on people and their planet. He often told about piloting an airplane into Pittsburgh in 1943. The smog was so thick, he could not see to land.
After the war, Mr. Wege spent six years as a salesman for the company his father founded, loading his station wagon with Steelcase chairs and other supplies and heading across the country. As the founder’s only son, he was the company’s largest shareholder, and he rose through the management ranks to become chairman.
But he never forgot the smog that shrouded Pittsburgh, a sign of prosperity in those years before the environmental movement.
“Pittsburgh’s smog was my introduction to environmental pollution,” he once wrote.
In 1967, Wege created The Wege Foundation and built its mission on five pillars: education, environment, arts and culture, health care, and human services. He gave its first gift to Aquinas College and remained closely tied to the Catholic college until his death. In 1969, he founded the Center for Environmental Study in Grand Rapids.
At his urging, Steelcase went public, allowing him in 1998 to sell $214 million of his stock, most of which he gave to his foundation. In 2000, he resigned as the company’s vice chairman to work full-time on his foundation. But he continued to use his economic leverage to push Steelcase and other companies to recycle and take other environmentally responsible steps.
Many of his gifts, even those not directly tied to environmental causes, came with the requirement that they be environmentally responsible. He insisted that the buildings his money helped construct be LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified, meaning they were energy efficient and met other green standards.
Related: Peter Wege: West Michigan’s dreamer was ahead of his time, Catholic leaders say
“He was on to green building when nobody knew what LEED meant,” Satterlee said in 2010.
Inspired by his example, the Grand Rapids Art Museum, which opened its $75 million building in 2007, became the first newly-built art museum in the world to achieve the top gold-level LEED certification.
“The gold standard was always our goal,” Wege said afterward.
He coined the word “economicology,” combining the words “economy” and “ecology.”
“There’s no doubt you can make money and prevent pollution,” he explained.
In 1998, he published a book, “Economicology: The Eleventh Commandment,” offering his premise that a healthy economy and healthy ecology are compatible.
In 2010, he published a sequel, “Economicology II,” coinciding with his 90th birthday in February.
In between, in the spring of 2004, he sponsored the “Healing Our Waters” conference in Grand Rapids, a meeting of some 70 environmentalists and scientists to develop a plan for dealing with what they saw as the three primary threats to the Great Lakes: invasive species, declining water quality and concentrations of toxic sediment.
“The lakes,” Wege said at the time, “are our life support system, and we’ve got to treat them that way. People take it for granted. We have to protect them.”
The result was a report, “Healing Our Waters: An Agenda for Great Lakes Restoration” — a “Magna Carta for Great Lakes restoration,” Wege called it — urging the federal government to take the lead on a massive, $30 billion dollar restoration of the big lakes.
Robert Kennedy Jr., senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, called Wege “One of my heroes. I just treasure his wisdom and his advice.”
Carl Pope, former executive director of the Sierra Club, said: “Mr. Wege’s doing his part. I think this is a test of whether we’re as committed to this as Mr. Wege is.”
As it turned out, the rest of the country wasn’t as committed. Wege didn’t live to see his beloved lakes restored to their natural state.
Undeterred, he continued his activism. Over the years, he donated numerous tracts of land to nature conservancies, gave the National Wildlife Federation $1 million to create a national schoolyard habitat program to teach young children about nature, more than $1 million to protect the Muskegon River watershed and an estimated $1.5 million to buy ecologically sensitive forest in Costa Rica.
He gave millions to the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources, including a $1.5 million gift in 2011 for a graduate student fellowship and a professorship in sustainability. He gave millions more to Michigan State University, Grand Valley State University and other colleges for environmental programs. At his urging, Aquinas College created a degree in sustainable business.
But Wege didn’t limit his giving to environmental causes. The many organizations that benefited from his generosity include: The Grand Rapids Symphony, the Grand Rapids Ballet Company, the American Cancer Society, Saint Mary’s Health Care and countless schools, elementary through college.
In 2008, at the dedication of the new Cathedral Square Center, the headquarters of the Grand Rapids Catholic Diocese at 360 S. Division Ave. downtown, Wege stood and pointed across the street to the building at 359 S. Division Ave.
“I was born and raised in that third floor 88 years ago,” he said.
Then he stunned the crowd by pledging to give whatever was needed to complete the $22 million project, a promise that could have totaled close to $4 million on that day.
Despite all of that, he tended to keep a lower profile than some of the area’s other philanthropists. He preferred to keep his personal life private, including the fact that he was married and divorced seven times. He had a sensitive, literary side, as seen in his poems many drawn from nature:
If mankind could only realize
That we all are a small part of the whole,
And we fit in the overall plan
Like a glove fits the hand.
He professed that his personal wealth was only as good as what it could accomplish, a sentiment he learned from his father, who “felt that the accumulation of wealth was not in the interest of anybody,” Mr. Wege said in a 1999 interview. “When you had enough for your retirement, you certainly should be generous with the community.”
Some years ago, he made it clear he planned to leave his entire estate to his foundation so it could continue functioning after his death.
“I’m going to give away a lot,” he once said, “and there will be a lot left over.”
Despite his advancing age, he continued running his foundation well into his 80s. He once said he wanted the foundation’s board, composed mainly of his children, to become more active in the decision making, but it soon became clear he wasn’t interested in relinquishing control.
“It was obvious that wasn’t what he wanted,” his oldest son, Peter Martin Wege II once said. “All we do is say, ‘Great job, Dad. Keep it up.’ He keeps saying he’s going to retire, but he never does. We don’t believe him anyway. This is what keeps him alive and keeps him going.”
But age eventually forced him to slow down. In 2004, he considered moving the foundation offices to a farmhouse he had restored near Lowell, but decided it would be better, given his age, if he kept it in his rambling East Grand Rapids home overlooking Reeds Lake.
That same year, he was hospitalized briefly due to an irregular heartbeat.
Still, he kept the foundation’s small staff busy, leaving them stacks of material to read when they arrived at the office each morning, assigning them projects to look into, almost as if he was driven to make a difference before he died.
Terri McCarthy, the foundation’s vice president in charge of programs, once told him: “If you stopped today, you could look back and say, ‘I don’t need to do one more thing,’”
Mr. Wege responded: “Oh, my goodness. I still have so much to do.”
Wege is survived by seven children: Mary Goodwillie Nelson, Susan Carter, Peter Martin Wege II, Christopher Henry Wege, Diana Wege Sherogan, Johanna Osman, Jonathan Michael Wege. He also is survived by 17 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.
Pat Shellenbarger contributed to this report.
Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk covers arts and entertainment for MLive/Grand Rapids Press. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter, Facebook orGoogle+.