Craig McDonald

Prologue: Craig McDonald, Director of the Alden B. Dow Home and Studio, is an example of how the Community Foundation can form long-standing relationships with community members. As a recipient of a Community Foundation Scholarship, Craig was able to achieve his postsecondary goals, putting him on a path to success. Craig went on to become the Board Chair of the Midland Area Community Foundation between 2011 and 2014, using his talents and skills to give back to an organization that provided him with resources to pursue postsecondary education. Through his hard work and dedication, Craig has helped to create a culture of philanthropy in the Midland area, inspiring others to give back to the community they love. His story serves as a reminder of the vital role philanthropy plays in developing community, providing support, and building a brighter future for everyone in the region.

A coffee chat with Craig Mcdonald by Renee’ Deckrow

The timing of this conversation couldn’t be more perfect. As we take time in March to reflect on the outstanding contributions women have made in our communities, I felt so grateful hearing Craig McDonald, director of the Alden B. Dow Home and Studio, say, “Grace & Vada Dow got things done, and they are still impacting us all today.  Grace Dow started a foundation that is the largest foundation in Midland. Vada Dow is the one who started what is called the Alden & Vada Dow Creativity Foundation, which owns and operates the Alden B. Dow Home and Studio. It was her vision to share the building and its legacy. She had a background and love for education. She held a bachelor’s degree from Kalamazoo College and then a Master’s degree that she got in one year’s time at Columbia Teaching School, and she even started a school system in Midland that lasted until the war came that tore everything apart. But it was part of her lasting legacy because she and Alden were definitely a team.”

“Alden had great vision and was very productive but realized his potential with her. Mrs. Dow was very proud of her role as Mrs. Alden Dow and being that quiet strength behind him without ever wanting any glory. She said early on that she could see that he just saw the world so differently, which was terrific. And she was joyous about that journey for him and her role in that. Because of her, we are here today in this home, everything is preserved, and we share things in a very accessible way.   Although it is a National Historic Landmark and House Museum, Mr. and Mrs. Dow knew that people would learn best by experiencing it. So we’re sitting on the furniture, we use all the artwork, we use the books, we are this hands-on learning laboratory. Because that’s how we learn and grow the best. And it’s because of Mrs. Dow that we’re doing all of this. She was very subtle but had great strength behind her and was always kind and focused on others.”

As I look around the Alden B. Dow Home, I see a beautiful charcoal portrait of Vada from 1931… as Craig notices my glance, he says, “She’s right there with us. She believed if you make one person feel like they were heard, that they matter, then we have done well.”  

Craig McDonald and I shared an inspiring conversation about his impactful friendship with Vada Dow, a true community builder, mother, PTA member, and teacher. As I listened with an eagerness to hear more, a quote by Brene’ Brown kept coming to my mind, “We must be guardians of spaces that allow students to breathe, be curious, and explore the world, and be who they are without suffocation. They deserve one place where they can rumble with vulnerability, and their hearts can exhale.“

And exhale we did as we sat in Mr. Dow’s office, a colorful room lined with books on science, architecture, art, and philosophy, and were delighted as a miniature train whimsically traveled above our heads. Inspiration, a sense of playfulness & intrigue ignite my mind to ask all the questions… so buckle up; this is a long one.

Craig shared countless stories of gratitude for how he got to this place; the following are parts of how his adventure began, lessons he learned from mentors like Vada & Alden, and some visions for the future.

“Many things led to where I am today, but with the Community Foundation, my first interaction was with applying for a scholarship when I was in high school at Dow High.  I received an anonymous donor scholarship from the Midland Area Community Foundation, which helped me immensely.”

“I had to pay for my own schooling, and it was $1,000, which back then paid for more than a semester, which is amazing, and books as well,” Craig says with laughter.

“And so it was this incredible gift to me. I’d been saving for college, knowing I’d pay for it myself. But it was massive and helped me to get started and be the first person in my family to get a four-year degree. I remember Esther Gerstacker shaking my hand at the ceremony that I attended with my mom. From this experience, mentorship from Esther, and how my mom and grandfather lived with a philosophy of helping other people, a whole new avenue opened up for me. I went to college and, after graduating, returned to Midland to work for the Dow family. Around that time, Mr. Dow passed, and Mrs. Dow and her family began considering what would happen to this building long-term.”

“Mrs. Dow wanted to return it to the community that helped them build it. She said she wanted it shared and had no idea what that meant, but knew that I could help them with that idea. And so then I wanted to get involved in the community coming back to it and having benefited from it in every way growing up here.”

“Midland creates these incredible resources for all ages. I found a haven in the Center for the Arts and the Dow Library. So when asked to become involved with the Willard and Martha Dow Scholarship Committee as a trustee and help bring Mrs. Dow’s vision to life for the Alden B. Dow Home & Studio, it was an easy yes.”

“I am so fortunate to work here. But, again, it’s the people that you interact with that have made it so great. I think the foundation has allowed me to see more broadly and to be more inclusive and aware of people around me.”

I was amazed by Craig’s personal experience as a recipient of the Community Foundation Scholarship. It led him on a journey that resulted in a lifelong relationship with Alden and Vada Dow, leading him to be the Director of the Alden B. Dow Home & Studio and the Alden and Vada Dow Family Foundations. It’s incredible to see how pivotal receiving the scholarship was for him.

Walking around the Alden B. Dow Home, it was evident how influential art, creativity, curiosity, and play are and how fortunate we are as a community for this model of positive values. Simply put, because of the Midland Area Community Foundation and Craig’s opportunity to be mentored by the Dow Family, the trajectory of his life was directed on a path of learning and opportunities to share with others his unique gifts.

Craig McDonald holds a psychology and public relations degree from Western Michigan University but laughed as he shared, “I should have gone into business or art history with the job I have now. But learning about people and psychology helps you in every realm to understand people and their needs, and the great gift of working for a foundation or working with a foundation is the humans you get to meet. The Dow Family impacted my life in every way, from their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, with whom I enjoyed working. It is just built into them this desire and love to help other people.”

“And there’s a great quote by Mr. Dow from the 1940s that says, ‘I sincerely believe we were put here on this earth at this time to be of benefit to each other.’ I think this quote expresses that we all have talents and gifts; when we recognize them, we can develop them. Then we have something to add and are all richer when we’re all working together and looking at each other’s strengths. Mr. and Mrs. Dow did that so effortlessly.”

“They got tired of me sometimes because of how often I asked, do you know how rare this is? I observed them working on grants to help people learn how to read through a literacy program that can change their trajectory and the generations past them.”

“It’s exciting to see how the foundation will help people gain skills & a sense of pride. And it’s not just financial; we all know how we feel when we do something for someone else and that sense of pride we gain. The Dow family did this effortlessly and shared a “A Way of Life Cycle” that states’ everyone is creative and does things uniquely to everyone else.’ So we have to celebrate that.”

“Mr. Dow taught us the best approach is to be playful and open.  Although he lived to be 79, he never grew old. He retained a vision about the possibility and the wonder children have that we sometimes lose as adults if we’re not constantly reminded or have that playful spirit, which some folks don’t.  He wanted us to remain open, like, ‘Look how amazing the world around us is!”

“When kids walk into this building, there are audible gasps. They get excited seeing all the colors, angles, and surprise toys. This building is almost 100 years old but still dynamic and exciting. It’s hard to date this building, but that’s who they were. He was always thinking about the future and how something works well, not just for today but into the future.”

“And so their buildings stand up just like their philosophies, ‘you learn, you earn, and you return,’ they did this effortlessly; they taught their children and grandchildren by example. Herbert and Grace Dow and Mrs. Dow’s parents, the Bennets, taught them what blessings meant. It’s just truly a part of them and inspires us all.”

“We all uniquely see the world. Alden’s parents greatly impacted him, his siblings, and our city. They thought about things holistically; Mr. Dow did this through architecture, and Mrs. Dow through education. And Herbert did that too because he didn’t say I just want to start a company and make money. He said, ‘I want to create a city, and he started the symphony, and he started baseball teams and all kinds of things.’ It was about quality of life, which the Community Foundation focuses on, and enriching its people. Midland is a fantastic community; we can trace much of that back to Herbert and Grace.”

“When we think of philanthropy, it doesn’t always have to be about money. It is also about service or mentoring. The Community Foundation has been spectacular with programs, whether it’s preschool or the college access program. We can often forget that some people in their home environment aren’t taught about the possibility or even shown what options are. The Community Foundation is phenomenal at recognizing and assessing community needs, saying this is where we have a need and getting people engaged in doing something about it.”

“Alden and Vada were terrific people, yet they were quiet and understated. Alden always wanted to be just one voice. He didn’t ever want to be the lead voice. So it was about how every voice needs to be heard. And the individual’s importance was so essential in many ways.”

With goosebumps, I couldn’t help but notice a metaphor. Like the Home and Studio, which has a low profile and blends naturally with its surroundings, the Dow Family possesses many of the same remarkable traits that Craig had mentioned.

“Yes,” Craig agreed. “Those silent giants we have in our lives and our community. Low profile, big impact.”

After almost an hour of listening to Craig enthusiastically share what he loved about working with Alden and Vada, dedicating his life to sharing their story and preserving their legacy, I think Craig is also a “silent giant.”  

So what are you excited about? What’s next for Midland? 

“I’m excited about education and its revitalization. I want us to be this exceptional community. We’re a City of Modern Explorers. So let’s live our moniker, and let’s be daring. Let’s challenge the world around us in respectful, constructive ways so we can grow and live this ideal. We have so much potential here. It’s about your curiosity. And so in raising or teaching children, it’s about learning about them and what inspires them, and that’s what will lead it. It’s not about saying you’re going to do this or that. It’s going to be like, what excites you?”

“I love saying to the person, tell me what you’re passionate about. And you know, and I’m horrified when someone says, ‘what do you mean’? Please tell me what you are passionate about learning, and then you can help them recognize it and help them grow. Sadly, some people don’t grow up in an environment like that.”

“One of my personal goals for anyone who comes here, especially young people, I want every young person to know that how they think and how they see the world is perfect and that there’s nothing wrong with it. I want them to know that if something they think is odd or weird about themselves, it will become their superpower. It will be their strength, not a weakness, and you need to express yourself. I go back to Alden’s quote often,  ‘I sincerely believe we’re put here on this earth at this time to benefit each other so that we can help each other recognize gifts and talents and work together for everyone.”

“I am excited because if there’s a great idea that will benefit humans, it can happen in Midland. It can happen here with our resources and the people willing to roll up their sleeves.”

Thank you, Craig & the Dow Family, for the reminder to “go wander, look, explore….” 

Together, Forward, Bold… we go.

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