May 31, 2013

Three Titans: Jack Finn, James Fisher & Frank Gerace

We usually try to make the Weekly Message not specific to just one of our campuses or locations, but last week in Michigan we lost three titans whose influence and generosity forever changed Northwood University for the better: Jack Finn, James Fisher, and Frank Gerace.

Jack Finn (1928-2013)

With the passing of John B. “Jack” Finn on Friday May 24, the Northwood University community lost one of its most successful football coaches and athletic directors. But even more, it lost a teacher and a “giant” of a man.

To say “Northwood athletics” is in fact to say “Jack Finn” and vice-versa. Without Coach Finn, NU athletics in Florida, Michigan, and Texas would not be what they are today and, even more, nor would Northwood University. While his resume speaks volumes about his abilities in the world of football X’s and O’s and athletic administration, it was his understanding of sports as a key component in the education of future leaders that made his impact so powerful.

The lessons he imparted were the product of a life well-lived and observed. A native of Escanaba, Michigan, Jack was a four-sport star athlete in high school before playing football and track at Michigan State University. Following college, he coached at the high school level before being recruited by NU’s founders Drs. R. Gary Stauffer and Arthur E. Turner to come to Northwood in 1968 to, is own words, “help develop a college!” And develop he did, instituting high standards and expectations on day one—on the playing field, in the classroom, and in life outside both.

Jack is the second winningest football coach in Northwood history and our operational fund in support of Northwood athletics bears his name. It should be no surprise that he is enshrined in five different sports halls of fame, including our own. But if Jack was here to say so himself, he would likely remind us that the greatest tribute one can ever pay to another is to live a “hall of fame life” by teaching others to do the same.

Without a doubt, we will miss Jack’s presence and friendship but his legacy will guide us and those who follow for generations to come.

James Fisher (1923-2013)

For decades, the Fisher family of companies—which includes brothers Bill, Ralph, and Jim and is now led by Jim’s son J.W.—has supported Northwood in myriad ways, so when Jim passed away on Saturday, May 25 his loss was felt far and wide.

The president of Fisher Sand and Gravel in Midland, Michigan, Jim owned and operated several successful businesses with his brothers. The three were quintessential entrepreneurs whose success culminated in several noteworthy accomplishments including their recent induction into the Michigan Construction Hall of Fame.

Together with his brother Bill, the Fisher family of companies made several generous financial gifts over the years for campus facilities and specific projects and programs, including much of the road and sewer infrastructure on campus; the Gerstacker Athletic Complex; and the renovation of the football stadium and track, which included the addition of an elevator for the press box.

And Jim’s leadership and influence did not end there. As an active and engaged member of the Midland community, Jim served on the boards of several local business and non-profit organizations, including eight years on the Bullock Creek School Board and four as president. Like his entrepreneurial acumen, he passed his dedication to community investment and leadership on to those around him, including his son and daughter-in-law J.W. and Yvonne Fisher who contribute to NU in a number of important ways—including personally creating paths and spreading wood chips for miles, at no cost to NU, throughout our campus woods for use by our cross country teams.

The void left by Jim’s departure cannot be filled but the effects of his life and work will benefit Northwood beyond what any of us can foresee.

Frank Gerace (1922-2013)

Dr. Frank Gerace’s influence as an entrepreneur, community leader and supporter, and devoted father, grandfather, and husband is well attested so it is not surprising to see an abundance of tributes to him following his passing on Saturday May 25. Here at Northwood, there is much we can say about “Dr. Frank” for his dedication to our University, but perhaps the most powerful tribute of all is to simply look around our Michigan campus. Just about everywhere we look, we can see the generosity, hard work, and love that marked his life and spirit.

A native of Rockaway Beach, N.Y., Frank grew up in Canton, Ohio. He served our country in the U.S. Navy during World War II and settled in Midland in 1958. In 1963, he and wife Helen (whose name adorns the auditorium in our Bennett Center in Midland) launched Gerace Construction which has worked in all 50 states and built some of the most well-known edifices in the Great Lakes Bay Region.

In addition to his leadership role on the Northwood Michigan Board of Governors, Frank supported NU through project work, company donations, and personal donations. In athletics, he and his company built Gerace Baseball Stadium; the press box and dugouts in our softball stadium; the Hantz Stadium renovations; tennis courts; the basketball suite; and the football coaching offices. 

In addition to his impact on athletics, Frank was also involved in other projects on campus including the transformation of the former Automotive Hall of Fame facility into the Richard M. DeVos Graduate School building; a total renovation of the Gerstacker Student Union; the new Dow Commons cafeteria; the Sloan Family Building for Aftermarket Studies; the NADA guest room renovation; the Mid-Café; Recognition Park; and the new clock tower. Naturally, Northwood remains grateful for all Frank did for us, and through the years we endeavored to demonstrate that appreciation in various ways, including the following honors:

  • Silver Circle Awardee (1994)
  • Honorary Doctorate (2006)
  • NU-Michigan Athletic Hall of Fame (2010)

 Frank will be dearly missed but his “get it done and done right” and “speak by action rather than word” approaches to life will continue to light our way toward lasting success and happiness in business and life.

The passing of these three gentlemen will be a great loss to our University but their legacies will forever be a part of us.

Have a great weekend.


Keith A. Pretty, J.D.
President and CEO
Northwood University
4000 Whiting Drive
Midland, MI 48640