We Say Goodbye to Mrs. Edith Blodgett - Article on Mlive.com
We Say Goodbye to Mrs. Edith Blodgett - Article on Mlive.com
Written By Garret Ellison
GRAND RAPIDS, MI — There was always some kind of musical event to attend when Wendy Greeney would visit her mother, Edith, in Grand Rapids.
Often, it was an orchestra performance. Maybe it was a theater play, or something at the opera. For a mother whose name has become synonymous with the Grand Rapids Symphony for the last 30 years, it really was not a surprise.
“She was always involved in music in some way, either playing, teaching or trying to promote the arts in any way she could,” said Greeney, of Milwaukee, Wis., who has returned to Grand Rapids this week for the funeral of her mother, Edith Blodgett.
Mrs. Blodgett, 95, died Monday at her residence in the Beacon Hill retirement community in Grand Rapids.
Her death came as a surprise to family and friends, some of whom had just attended the symphony’s classical series performance with the feisty nonagenarian Friday night at DeVos Hall.
Her death marks the end of an era, a severed link to the gilded days of old Grand Rapids. Mrs. Blodgett was the last of her storied family to live in the historic Brookby Estate in East Grand Rapids and friends who helped establish a preservation trust for the property say the stately manor would have been demolished in the early 1990s without her saving grace.
The family she married into was West Michigan aristocracy long before the DeVos or Van Andel families rose to prominence. The Blodgetts' philanthropy and business movements are reputed to have softened the city's blow during the Great Depression and the set the bar for major investments in Grand Rapids.
John and Minnie Blodgett, the parents of her late husband, lumberman John Blodgett Jr., established Blodgett Hospital in East Grand Rapids. John Blodgett Sr.'s father, lumber baron Delos Blodgett founded the D.A. Blodgett Home for Children orphanage built in 1908, which now houses the Inner City Christian Federation on Cherry Street SE in Grand Rapids.
In October, Mrs. Blodgett was the guest of honor at the Camp Blodgett 90-year celebration for her years of support toward a children’s camp established by her family in the 1920s as an outgrowth of the D.A Blodgett Home.
But Edith Blodgett will be best remembered as the strong-willed former Grand Rapids Symphony Board of Directors president who stepped in while the orchestra was struggling in the 1970s and helped craft the organization into what it is today.
“What a life she lived,” said Sam Cummings, a Grand Rapids developer and friend to Mrs. Blodgett who purchased the Brookby Estate in 1997 and donated the property to Aquinas College last year.
“What an impact she had on Grand Rapids,” he said. “She was such a champion of the performing arts. You couldn’t talk to her for more than five minutes without her saying something about music or the symphony.”
Grand Rapids Roots Run Deep
Mrs. Blodgett was born in 1916 as Edith Irwin, the daughter of a prominent Grand Rapids physician named Thomas C. Irwin, whom she liked to brag was one of the last doctors to make house calls in Grand Rapids.
The family lived in what’s now the south end of Heritage Hill, near the corner of Wealthy and Union Streets SE. As a girl, she studied piano at a local fine arts school, and later, graduated from Central High School. She attended Grand Rapids Junior College, (now GRCC), and studied harmony and music theory under Karl Wecker, the Grand Rapids Symphony’s first conductor.
She moved out east after that, graduating from the Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School in Boston in 1937, finding secretary work at Barnard College, the University of Michigan and the Railway Express Agency.
Her brother, Robert, introduced her to William Ferris, her first husband and father to Wendy and a son, William Jr., who died in 1949 at age 3 from leukemia.
William Ferris died unexpectedly in 1964 after surviving World War II. A few years later, Edith married John Wood Blodgett Jr., grandson of D. A. Blodgett, who originally accumulated the family's great wealth, kept a third and split the rest between his children, Susan Blodgett Lowe and John Wood Blodgett Sr., when he died.
Love for Music Finds an Outlet
The marriage to John Jr., whom she affectionately called “Jack,” allowed Mrs. Blodgett to patronize the arts in an entirely new manner.
John Blodgett Jr. graduated from Harvard in 1923 and joined his father in business. Blodgett served as chairman of the Blodgett Company Ltd. from 1932 to 1937 and as president of the Michigan-California Lumber Co. in Camino, Calif. from 1936 to 1965. Edith was his second wife.
"He was a lumberman and he took that responsibility very seriously," she said in his 1987 Chicago Tribune obituary. "He also inherited wealth and he felt very responsible about giving it away."
Mrs. Blodgett and her husband were principal donors to the Grand Center and they purchased the old Midtown Theater and gave it to the Grand Rapids Civic Theatre.
She became a Grand Rapids Symphony Society board member in 1969, and in 1974 became the first female president of the board — the same year the symphony began hiring full-time players. She served until 1978 and has remained as one of the few honorary board members since, regularly attending board meetings until late last year.
Her influence on the symphony has been low-profile but profound. Among the opportunities which the Blodgett's charitable donations have created are loan funds that allow musicians to purchase instruments on an interest-free basis.
She fostered the orchestra development through the Blodgett Foundation. To her, investing in the arts was investing in the economic vitality of the city.
Building a vibrant orchestra “has helped tremendously to build local pride,” she said during an interview with The Press in 1977. “Only last week I was talking to a corporation official who says his company has more to offer top executives it wants to attract here because the symphony orchestra has become a great cultural asset, one that can be appreciated even by those who come from the large cultural centers.”
“And it is getting better all the time.”
In 1993, she pledged $1 million to the symphony to fund operations. The foundation sponsors the Principal Percussion Chair and Friday's guest violinist, Jessica Lee, was sponsored by Blodgett’s guest artist fund.
She would often entertain musicians at her home and was a wealth of wisdom for those seeking advice. Peter Kjome, symphony president, said he would seek her “wise counsel” at her home over coffee.
“Having highly-trained, expert musicians that live and work here helps strengthen our vibrant community,” said Kjome. “She is one of a very short list of honorary board members of the symphony in recognition of that understanding, and her contributions to the orchestra.”
Life After John
Edith again lost a husband in 1987 when John died. For the last decade, she formed a special friendship with William Easley, a Grand Rapids dentist who died last April while Edith was attending a symphony performance.
“They would kid like teenagers,” said Wally Knack, a former symphony board president. “It was a very cute and loving relationship.”
Knack, who attended dinner with Mrs. Blodgett at the University Club prior to Friday’s symphony performance, said she took Easley’s death hard.
Daughter Greeney said she fell and broke a hip last year, but despite showing some symptoms of aging, Cummings said she remained “incredibly lucid, sharp and happy” during dinners they had together recently.
“She had a ‘use it or lose it’ thought process about aging,” said Greeney, who added that her mom continued to exercise every day.
“She was very independent her whole life. Extremely feisty,” she said. “I think she promoted that in me.”
In addition to her daughter, Mrs. Blodgett is survived by grandsons Daniel Greeney of Milwaukee and Jonathan Greeny of Portland, two great-grandchildren; as well as son Rodney Ferris and daughter Cynthia Casner.
The funeral is scheduled for Saturday at the Mayflower Congregation Church, 2345 Robinson Road SE, at 11 a.m. A visitation will take place Friday from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Metcalf-Jonkhoff Funeral Home, 4291 Cascade Road SE in Grand Rapids Township.