Ralph and Mary Wilson’s philanthropy honored at Legacy on the Lake

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published July 1, 2019

 Philanthropists Ralph and Mary Wilson were honored during this year’s Legacy on the Lake event, organized by the Grosse Pointe Chamber of Commerce.

Philanthropists Ralph and Mary Wilson were honored during this year’s Legacy on the Lake event, organized by the Grosse Pointe Chamber of Commerce.

Photo provided by the Grosse Pointe Chamber of Commerce

 Marlene Boll shares a laugh with Mary Wilson as Boll presents Wilson with the Legacy on the Lake award June 19 on the grounds of the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House in Grosse Pointe Shores.

Marlene Boll shares a laugh with Mary Wilson as Boll presents Wilson with the Legacy on the Lake award June 19 on the grounds of the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House in Grosse Pointe Shores.

Photo by K. Michelle Moran

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GROSSE POINTE SHORES — The Grosse Pointe Chamber of Commerce’s annual Legacy on the Lake honors some of the Grosse Pointes’ most noteworthy philanthropists, so it comes as no surprise that this year’s recipients were the late Ralph C. Wilson Jr. and his wife, Mary.

Although he died in 2014 at the age of 95, Wilson continues to give back through the Ralph C. Wilson Foundation, which supports initiatives in caregiving, community assets, youth sports, and design and access — issues that were important to Wilson, who owned the Buffalo Bills football franchise.

Mary Wilson, who still resides in the Grosse Pointe Shores home she shared with her late husband, was on hand for the sixth annual Legacy on the Lake event June 19 on the grounds of the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House in Grosse Pointe Shores. Legacy on the Lake is a fundraiser for the GPCC’s nonprofit arm, the Grosse Pointe Chamber Foundation, and funds from this year’s event will go toward an endowment to support and promote sports-based recreational spaces at the lakefront parks in the Grosse Pointes.

Dr. David S. Balle serves on the Grosse Pointe Chamber Foundation and chairs the Legacy on the Lake Committee.

“We are blessed to honor Mary and Ralph C. Wilson Jr. as this year’s recipient of the Legacy on the Lake award,” he said. “The Wilsons and their philanthropic work for the Grosse Pointes, the state of Michigan and Buffalo have been landmark in their scope and depth. We, as a community, are so fortunate to have them as our neighbors and friends, and they are well-deserving of this recognition.”

Presided over by Mary Wilson and a handful of other trustees who knew Ralph Wilson well, the foundation in his name has been tasked with distributing a substantial amount of his estate — $1.2 billion — to organizations in metro Detroit and the Buffalo area over a 20-year period, which will end Jan. 8, 2035. Last year alone, the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan reported that they awarded nearly $1.2 million in grants to 46 organizations thanks to Wilson’s foundation. 2018 recipients included the Chamber Music Society of Detroit, Grosse Pointe Artists Association, Grosse Pointe Historical Society, Services for Older Citizens — now The Helm at the Boll Life Center, Full Circle Foundation and University Liggett School, which was Ralph Wilson’s alma mater.

“I was very honored and excited that they would think of honoring Ralph and me,” Mary Wilson said of her husband, who enjoyed living a quiet and relatively simple life in the Shores. “Ralph was so amazing. He wanted to improve the life of people living in these communities (he called home, Buffalo and Detroit).”

Ted Everingham, chair of the Grosse Pointe Chamber Foundation, said that the generosity of Ralph and Mary Wilson “is legendary.”

“This is an evening of deep and abiding gratitude … for the men and women who have made this community what it is, and what it is to become,” he said.

Bob Hoban, president of Ascension St. John Hospital — the event’s title sponsor — also thanked the Wilsons for being “tremendous benefactors to this community.”

Mary Wilson’s friend, Marlene Boll, presented her with the Legacy on the Lake award. Marlene and John Boll, of Grosse Pointe Shores, also legendary local philanthropists, were honored as 2016’s Legacy on the Lake recipients.

Mary Wilson, a tennis instructor who met her husband circa 1989 and married him a decade later, remembered him as “a dynamic person with great vision.”

“Ralph woke up every day laughing and looking to make a difference,” she said.

Jeffrey Littmann, a life trustee with the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation who started working with Ralph Wilson in 1982, said Wilson had businesses in 10 different industries, including real estate, trucking, thoroughbred horse breeding stables and broadcasting.

Attorney Eugene Driker, who worked for Wilson during the last 20 years of Wilson’s life, is also a Wilson Foundation life trustee.

“Ralph was a man of tremendous generosity, but it was not painted on his forehead,” Driker said. “Many (of his contributions) were under the radar.”

Attendees of Legacy on the Lake likewise attested to the personal qualities and giving nature of the Wilsons.

Eugene Gargaro, of Grosse Pointe Shores, chairs the Detroit Institute of Arts’ Board of Directors.

“What Mary and Ralph Wilson have done for so many wonderful causes is just inspiring,” Gargaro said. “And the fact that Mary is carrying on for Ralph in Detroit and Buffalo is very gratifying. We always enjoy recognizing and thanking the Wilson Foundation for all that it does for the community. The Wilson Foundation has been very generous, not just to the DIA, but also to so many different causes.”

Another nonprofit that has gotten funding from the Wilson Foundation is The War Memorial in Grosse Pointe Farms.

“We’re very grateful for their generosity and vision for investing in the community,” War Memorial President and CEO Charles Burke said. “Mary is fantastic.”

Grosse Pointe Shores Mayor Ted Kedzierski echoed that sentiment.

“You think of all of the philanthropic projects that the Wilsons have supported over their lifetime,” he said. “We are so pleased and honored that they have lived in our community. Mary Wilson has continued that legacy of her husband, establishing a foundation that is going to leave his legacy equally divided between metro Detroit and the Buffalo region … I only wish the Buffalo Bills could have won a Super Bowl (during Ralph Wilson’s lifetime).”

Kedzierski noted that Ralph Wilson was the first person honored by the Shores as a member of the city’s Hall of Fame. He said they plan on installing a brass plaque near the Osius Park tennis courts in honor of the Wilsons as well, a nod to the couple’s shared love of tennis.

Shores City Manager Mark Wollenweber — who called Mary Wilson “a super Grosse Pointe Shores resident” — said a bench with the plaque in honor of the Wilsons will likely be installed in the park this month.

Bob Bury, of Grosse Pointe City, is not only involved with many local nonprofits — he’s the retired executive director and CEO of the Detroit Historical Society and current president of Fair Lane in Dearborn and president of the Grosse Pointe Foundation for Public Education — but he and his wife, Mary Ann, are also friends of the Wilsons. He said Mary Wilson gave them a collar that says “Buffalo Bills” for their Goldendoodle, Elie, which the young dog wears with pride.

“We got to know Mary through a lot of different opportunities,” Bury said. “She has been so supportive of the Grosse Pointe Foundation for Public Education. She was a strong supporter of the Detroit Historical Society. She just is a person who loves to be supportive, not to be recognized, but because she wants to (help). She’s a wonderful friend.”

Entertaining attendees of the sold-out Legacy gala were Grosse Pointe Theatre actors from the musical “Annie” and the Grosse Pointe South High School choir.

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