Wilson Foundation marks 20 years under Powers’ guidance

By: 
JACKIE KOCH

Theresa Powers has found great passion in supporting the arts as foundation manager. Photo by Jim Lincoln.

When Elizabeth Wilson passed away in March 2001, her friend and neighbor, Theresa Powers, took on the responsibility of managing the Elizabeth Ruthruff Wilson Foundation that Wilson set up in 1997 at the age of 92. That foundation has now promoted music and the performing arts in Lenawee County to the tune of almost $3 million in grants. This month marks 20 years since Powers took over managing the foundation.

Wilson had spent part of her childhood in Tecumseh and then Jackson. After her graduation from high school in 1923 she spent a year each at Albion College and the Toledo Conservatory of Music, and her lifelong love for music led to her encouraging others to pursue and enjoy it. After retiring in 1968, she moved back to Tecumseh to the family home and pursued music full time, teaching violin lessons into her eighties. She was instrumental in founding the Tecumseh Pops Orchestra and in building the Civic Auditorium, which is now the TCA, and because of their friendship and her desire to see Wilson’s dreams realized, Powers has continued the foundation’s work.

Powers said that Wilson left the bulk of her estate, approximately $2.8 million, to the foundation. “We have never had to do fundraising. The funds we grant have come from the investments with Merrill Lynch of the original funds,” she said.

Some of the foundation’s biggest achievements and proudest moments have been helping kick off the building of the Madison Performing Arts Center, and funding and helping start the Tecumseh Schools Orchestra and the Madison Schools Orchestra. “And we would love to start more orchestra programs in the county. That is my dream!” said Powers.

The foundation has granted funds to every school system in the county, the Adrian Symphony Orchestra, Adrian College, Siena Heights University, the Croswell Opera House, the Tecumseh Pops Orchestra, the Adrian City Band, the Tecumseh Center for the Arts, the City of Tecumseh, and the Madison Schools Performing Arts Center, by kicking off that campaign with a $50,000 pledge.

The Wilson Foundation has supported such programs as Tecumseh Music and Movies in the Park, the Lenawee County Fine Arts Festival, Adrian City Band concerts, Adrian Symphony Orchestra Children’s concerts and fourth grade trips to the ASO, Siena Heights Youth Symphony, the Tecumseh High School Sculpture Garden, Veterans Day concerts, the Tecumseh Youth Theatre, the Tecumseh Big Band, and the Tecumseh Schools Orchestra.

“We have bought every instrument you can think of including steel drums, Orff instruments, guitars, ukuleles and tubas… lots of tubas because they are so expensive,” she said. “We have supported such things as microphones, sound equipment, uniforms, stage curtains, music stands, risers, chairs, sheet music, music computer programs. We helped support renovations at the Croswell and the TCA.”

Because most of the county’s schools are now better equipped with instruments, in recent years the foundation board, which consists of Powers, her daughter-in-law Sheri Powers, Jeanette Meyer, and John Waltman, has been searching for bigger projects to support, such as a new stage at Adams Park, and is open to any ideas for arts-focused grants. Scholarships are also an important aspect of the foundation’s work, including the Elizabeth R. Wilson Memorial Scholarship, the Elizabeth Wilson Dedicated Musician Scholarship, and camp scholarships so students can attend summer camps for music and performing arts, covering up to half of camp tuition. In an average year they grant approximately 65 scholarships to places like Blue Lake or Interlochen fine arts camps.

“This coming year we will go over $3 million we have granted since the foundation was established,” said Powers. “This is more than the original investment into the Foundation.”  The foundation’s value is now over $5 million. “Merrill Lynch has been a great partner for us and we are so thankful for all they do for the foundation. “We couldn’t have done it without them,” she said.

“I really feel Elizabeth would have been blown away by all the things we have accomplished. We have always tried to be true to her wishes and keep that mind with all we do,” Powers said. “For instance, she always believed everyone should do their part – no handouts – so full grants are never given. They have to always be matched and she was also very frugal, so we try to be that way with the foundation expenses.”

She remembers lawyers telling Wilson that if handled properly, the foundation could go on forever. “From the look on her face I don’t think she really believed them,” Powers said. “She loved music and loved teaching it to children. She never understood why orchestra was not a part of the school curriculum and before she passed away, she knew there was a group of people working to change that.”

Wilson’s dream did come true with help from many others. “Every time the entire Tecumseh Schools Orchestra plays Canon at Christmas I always whisper to myself, ‘Just listen Elizabeth, you did this and this is for you!’” said Powers.

For more information on the Elizabeth Ruthruff Wilson Foundation, visit ElizabethWilsonFoundation.org.

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