Wege set an example for the rest of the country
By Emma Palova
EW Emma’s Writings
Lowell, MI- A real friend without pretense, an honest, generous man at ease with himself wherever he went.
That best describes philanthropist Mr. Peter Wege, who passed away on July 7th at the age of 94.
Most people in the greater Grand Rapids Area knew of Wege, but very few met him in person or knew him directly.
I belong to the smaller privileged group. I met Wege in person at the Franciscan Life Process Center on April 23, 2008 at a community breakfast in honor of his preservation efforts.
“One couldn’t help but be touched by his presence,” I wrote at the time in an article for the Lowell Ledger and other freelance publications.
His personality was shining through and lighting up the meeting room on a dark gloomy April morning. It lit up a ray of hope for the Heffron family, who were one of the first farm families to preserve land in Grattan Township.
“We should have been preserving since 1950,” he said time. “It should be as normal as kindergarten. It has taken us 40 years to get it started.”
Wege, an astute businessman, was first and foremost, a visionary. His father Peter Martin co-founded Metal Office Furniture, now Steelcase, and the largest office furniture manufacturer in the world. Wege joined Steelcase in 1946 and worked in different executive posts including sales, research and design, and as an officer on the Board of Directors of the Steelcase Foundation. He retired as vice-chairman of the Steelcase Board in 2000. Wege made Steelcase famous as one of the earliest environmental manufacturers in the world. The office furniture maker went “green” long before it became trendy.
Wege always made sure that people knew it was his father’s innovative genius that provided the wealth he gave away to make life better for others.
Wege’s passion for the environment originated in his service to the country as a World War II pilot. While flying from Dallas on a training plane, he wanted to stop in Pittsburgh, but couldn’t find it in the smog in the middle of the day.
“That jarred me,” he said at the preservation breakfast.
Inspired by Health Education and Welfare Secretary John Gardner, Wege embarked on a lifelong mission to save the planet in 1967. That year he established the Wege Foundation in honor of his parents Peter Martin and Sophia Louise Wege.
Wege was a firm believer in doing things together for the better of civilization and to preserve the planet.
“We have to think about what we are doing to this country,” he said in 2008 at the Franciscan Center.
Wege loved the northeast Kent County area that he helped preserved.
Driving around the farmland in Vergennes in Grattan townships you will find bright blue and green signs with a red barn on it. These designate the preserved land through easements funded by Wege. They include area farmers from Heffrons to Konings and Wilcox.
In donating farmland preservation easements, and other conservation efforts Wege wanted to set an example for the entire country.
Wege often visited with the Franciscan Sisters. When the Franciscans came to the area in the early 1970s, he donated 230 acres to what had become the Franciscan Life Process Center.
“He believed in our mission,” said center director Sister Colleen Ann Nagle. “He helped us meet people in the area and to raise money.”
Wege served as the chairman of the advisory board for the Franciscan Center. He participated in many fundraisers.
“He was genuinely interested in anything that would help people,” said Nagle. “He was one of those special people where you do not have to put on any pretense.”
And Wege, who kept a farmhouse on the Franciscan property, always stayed in touch with the center and its mission. He attended events and meetings on regular basis, and moreover Wege brought people with him to the area.
“He would just stop in the kitchen for a cup of coffee,” said Nagle. “That’s the kind of person he was.”
Most people will remember Wege for his unbelievable generosity and honesty, as well as for his versatility. Although best known as an environmentalist, Wege was also an author, poet, painter, photographer and an accomplished athlete.
He liked to say, “Educate, Educate, Educate.”
That is why he co-founded the Wittenbach Wege Agriscience and Environmental Education Center in Lowell along with many of other nature centers.
A business man, Wege coined the word economicology to define his advocacy for striking the right balance between a healthy ecology and a profitable economy. He wrote two books titled Economicology, the first in 1998, and the sequel in 2010. In both books Wege wrote his version of the Eleventh Commandment:
“Thou shalt not commit abuse against the environment, but rather honor it with respect for sustaining life.”
That commandment summarizes Wege’s life philosophy.
“He will be missed for the person he was,” said Nagle.
Thank you Mr. Peter Wege for living in our times, and for giving us the inspiration, passion and love to follow you.”
Copyright © 2014 story and photos by Emma Palova