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William James Wildern III | Courtesy External Affairs

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.