After serving Hillsdale College in philanthropic outreach for many years, William James Wildern III died unexpectedly of a brain aneurysm on Wednesday, June 8, at the University of Michigan Hospital in Ann Arbor at age 80.
“He was probably the most gracious and humble person you could ever meet. He was a constant learner, but he was a great teacher. He was a great listener. He was a people person. When you talked to him, you knew you were the only person he was talking to,” Legal Counsel and Administrative Director, Gift and Estate Michael Murray said.
An attorney by trade, Bill spent the bulk of his career in development for Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. He was intellectually curious, a constant learner. He established the Wildern family scholarship to assist the education of others.
Though he was devoted to people and remembered everyone from Larry Arnn to Saga Steve, his son John remembers him as strict while they grew up; a father before a friend to his children.
“My siblings and I still laugh to this day about the intelligent doses of tough love he gave. He had an artful way of instilling tough love,” his son John Wildern said.
But these stern lessons taught his children many important things, namely: integrity, the importance of the effort more than the result, and the significance of caring for others.
Bill once told John, “It’s important to notice how others feel about themselves when you interact with them.”
“He wanted to make other folks around him happy, and by doing that he enriched them and his relationship with them,” John said. Bill always “went the extra mile” to aid those he loved, using his law background to help friends with estate planning among other things.
Almost as clearly as John remembers his father’s lessons and character, he recalls his father’s quirky interests.
Despite a busy career and big family, Bill golfed frequently (and well), read incessantly (“he would read thousand page books regularly,” John said), memorized hundreds of addresses and phone numbers, and could quote almost any baseball statistic imaginable from the past 100 years (“a walking baseball almanac,” John said.)
Bill was passionate about politics, free market and conservative values, and Hillsdale as an institution.
“He has handed out over 2,000 $2 bills as gifts because this beautifully crafted note displays a rendition of the founding fathers signing the Declaration of Independence. He’d say, ‘Is there a better gift to share as a memento of one the most significant events in modern history than a $2?’” his son, Bill IV, said in the eulogy.
He was “conservative in values and guiding principles…liberal with his time, his teachings, and his willingness…” his son Bill IV said in the eulogy, a perfect fit for a man working in Institutional Advancement at Hillsdale College.
Bill III certainly had a powerful impact on Hillsdale College.
“He made a significant impact to the college by raising money and raising awareness. He would get people to a point where they would support the college,” Murray said.
His success was derived from outstanding character. Chief Administrative Officer Richard Péwé said Bill was effective because he truly cared about the individuals he worked with, and they could tell. According to John, he was “more interested in you than he was interesting for you;” he’d rather invest in a person than put on a show.
“When you have people representing the college with those inward qualities Wildern had, it does the school a service. People associate someone of their character with the college,” Péwé said.
He was a “good man,” a “decent, Christian man,” but he was also a funny man, never allowing his coworkers to take themselves too seriously.
“His quick wit and caustic sense of humor disarmed all of us on a regular basis. During our semi-annual staff pow-wows, Bill would wear some out-of-control paisley-pattern pants with a bright orange, long-collar shirt, as if he had missed the last helicopter out of the Sixties. But he knew it would draw a smile from the hardest among us,” Executive Director of Planned Giving Bill Phillips said in an email. “He made an invaluable addition to the college and he will be sorely missed by all of us.”
A road warrior and avid traveler, Bill often spent time with people he knew driving. He drove three million miles in his life — almost 47,000 miles a year — and traveled to all 50 states and all seven continents.
He epitomized the “God, Family, Country” paradigm: active in St. Elizabeth Catholic Church, dedicated to his children, and served in the Navy.
“He was a first-class guy for sure. There aren’t too many people like Bill,” Péwé said.
Wildern is survived by his wife, Linda Kay, six children: Mary “Molly” Margaret Reid, Eileen Elizabeth, William James IV, Melanie Marie Gerzema, John Michael, and Erinn Elizabeth Hess; two sisters, Theres Margaret (William) Miller and Catherine Ann (Danne) Jewell; 15 grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.