Prologue: The Midland Area Community Foundation allows folks to dream big and make a difference in their community. Whether it’s in the role of fundholder or volunteer, we believe anyone can be a philanthropist. Jim Malek, the 2015 Philanthropist of the Year, has worn both hats with honor. It’s folks like Jim that embody the spirit of Your Foundation.
A coffee chat with Jim Malek, by Renee’ Deckrow
Entering Jim’s warm home, I was immediately delighted by the stories his place told. From stunning photographs of fireworks worldwide to pictures of his family, books on chemistry, puzzles in progress, books on beer brewing, and a large blanket of the periodic table of elements, my curiosity was piqued. I was eager to begin our coffee & conversation.
Philanthropist of the Year (2015), Jim Malek, welcomed me with a kind calmness and an unassuming, gentle presence. It only took a short time of chatting to see how vital service is to Jim, giving back to his community and education and allowing his interests, passions, and heartbreak to ignite good things for the world. From the microscopic molecular to grandiose fireworks, Jim Malek is truly a man who encompasses this quote, “The most authentic thing about us is our capacity to create, to overcome, to endure, to transform, to love and to be greater than our suffering.” – by Ben Okri.
Jim Malek attended the Rose Polytechnic Institute in Terre Haute, Indiana, and was recruited to Midland, Michigan, 56 years ago. Jim loved his 33-year career in chemistry and working for Dow Corning but retired in 2000 and has since been doing things he enjoys, like working with the Midland Area Community Foundation.
“I married my wife in 1968. She was a teacher, and we had two daughters and now a three-year-old granddaughter. Unfortunately, my wife developed breast cancer and passed away in 1983. My daughters were only two and seven, so I got involved with the Community Foundation because I wanted to do some things to remember her and show my daughters how we can honor her life by giving back to others like she would have liked.
I was looking for ways to help the Foundation and showed some interest in Fireworks, so they said, ‘great, we need someone to take over the fireworks [at] River Days,’ I have been doing that for 20 years now.”
Fascinated, I ask, “Have you always loved fireworks?”
“My love for fireworks started in junior high school. My dad worked at a University hospital in Cleveland. He picked up some glassware & chemicals, and I set up a little lab in the basement of my folks’ house. Of course, back in the early 1960s, you could buy things in the drugstore and make your own fireworks. I enjoyed being able to experiment during those years. I didn’t have the time during college and early in my career to do much more with this, but after I retired and had some free time, I went back into it and was able to meet some of the folks at Wolverine Fireworks. I convinced the Foundation to contract with Wolverine for the River Days fireworks, which allowed me to get to know those folks pretty well. I became an honorary member of the Polish Pyros; the Dobrowski brothers were four brothers who called themselves the Polish Pyros and were in charge of the River Days fireworks for a long time. And they let me do some hands-on kinds of things. I also helped out at the Bay City fireworks for a few years.
With my chemistry background, I got interested in more of the chemistry of fireworks. So I joined the Pyrotechnics Guild International and attended some nationwide conventions. Amateur Pyro people put together and make their own fireworks. So you can see things you’ll never see in a professional show because these guys spend the time making things that a professional just needs more time for. And I really enjoyed it. I haven’t gone for a few years but still a member. But it’s one of the things that I am proud of having in my background.”
One of the things I am struck by is when people take a passion for something and create something that so many people can partake in and enjoy. How has it made you feel you can create a show so many people across Midland can enjoy?
“It’s a good feeling. I enjoy making things that have never been available before. I would synthesize a molecule that the world had never seen. That felt like a personal success that only made me feel good. Fireworks are community-wide. So it’s the same kind of feeling but in a broader sense.”
With a humble smile and a twinkle in his eye, Jim shared, “Yeah, and then for some unknown reason, the Foundation gave me an award in 2015. And I still don’t understand why they did that, but that was very nice, and it made me want to continue doing things for them.”
It is easy to see you are passionate about giving back to your community. If creating entertainment for our entire community and developing molecules wasn’t enough, I am told you have generously opened six Scholarship opportunities for students! Can you share why you are passionate about helping others get an education?
“As a Scientist and Chemist, I firmly believe that science is tremendously essential to everyone; everyone should be as knowledgeable as possible. So four of my scholarships are strictly for science-related, chemistry-related scholarships – students that want to go into the sciences.
You can’t deny science; science doesn’t care what you believe; science is the fact. And the more I can convince people that you have to rely on scientific principles… So I hope to convince a few more students to go into science by giving them a scholarship.
I have one in honor of my wife at Central Michigan. She was able to get her Master’s degree at Central, so I have one for her. And I also have one at Delta for Public Media.
I started volunteering at Midland Community Television (MCTV) early on as well. And I’ve been there for over 20 years. I enjoy helping to get a product out that many people can access; community television allows people to see what the high schools are doing regarding sports and enjoy local concerts & orchestras. Using this kind of technology returns to my love for science and technology.”
I enjoyed chemistry from a young age and was able to attend college on a full-ride scholarship. Accepting a job at Dow Corning as a chemist, I was able to pursue a career that was fulfilling, rewarding, and fun all at the same time. In addition, my wife obtained her Master’s degree from CMU in education, so we both had great backgrounds as models for our children.
I continued my passion for chemistry by becoming involved with pyrotechnics and brewing beer. In addition, I was able to provide both my daughters with the benefits of university degrees and see them grow into productive adults.
When STEM careers – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math – became something to promote, I was able to provide several scholarships in hopes of giving some local students the same opportunities that I had, both in a career and as a life-long interest.”
As a committed member of this community and a person so invested in not only your time but also your resources, what do you love about the Midland community?
“Coming from Cleveland, a much larger city, I enjoy the smaller city and the engagement here. Participating in the community and getting to know people more personally is easier. I got involved with the foundation when Denise Spencer was the President, went through Jan McGuire, and now Sharon Mortensen, but they’re all very easy to talk to and willing to speak with you and open to new ideas. Just a very welcoming community and that’s what they want.
I think that’s perhaps the only reason why they considered me a philanthropist. I was able to get involved and meet so many people in so many ways, from maple syrup at the Nature Center to help at Delta College and Northwood University. As a home brewer, I decided to become a partner and start a brewery, so I’m part owner of Tri-City Brewing. I was on the Board of Directors for the Red Cross for a term, and because I enjoy riding my bike, I was also on the Board of Directors for the Friends of the Peré Marquette Rail Trail. There are so many opportunities to connect with our community in a way I was most comfortable, behind the scenes. I can do things I am interested in and make a little difference.”
You have made more than a “little difference”; your impact is immeasurable, a beautiful legacy for our community, and a lovely way to honor your late wife. So, what is next for you? What are you excited about for Midland’s future?
“I am excited about investing in and updating the riverfront, including the new pedestrian bridge by East End across the river happen for our community. It will be a pleasant two-mile walk or bike ride and improve the accessibility for both sides of the river.”
Thank you for your time, talents, and generosity, Jim. I will think fondly of you and your family whenever I see a firework illuminating the night sky.
Together, Forward, Bold… we go.