Biederman, Oleson and Schmuckal: More than just names on a building

Long before their names were on plaques and buildings, Jerry Oleson, Les Biederman and Art Schmuckal and their families started businesses, raised children and volunteered often.

Today, their descendants lead philanthropic efforts and family foundations that continue to support the causes and community they loved.

“My most indelible memory of my father’s community commitments is each year at the college barbecue,” said Ross Biederman, Les Biederman’s son. “He would ring the bell every time another thousand people went through the line.”

Brenda Biederman, Les Biederman’s daughter-in-law, says being a part of the Biederman family has been gratifying.

“It is the most gratifying thing in my life to be part of a family which has dedicated itself to the betterment of the community,” she said.

Brenda Biederman believes Les Biederman’s most important project was Northwestern Michigan College (NMC), which opened its doors in 1951.

“[The college has] far-reaching benefits that are still being felt,” she said, noting the Great Lakes Maritime Academy, Great Lakes Water Studies Institute, Dennos Museum Center, Great Lakes Culinary Institute, and the aviation and nursing programs have launched since NMC’s founding.

The Biedermans at the dedication of the Les Biederman Health and Education Center at NMC in 1976.

Today, the Les and Anne Biederman Foundation and family members have continued supporting the college with grants and donations.

The Oleson Foundation, Les and Anne Biederman Foundation, and Art and Mary Schmuckal Family Foundation have supported regional projects large and small for generations. They are among more than 40,000 family foundations in the United States granting more than $21.3 billion annually, according to the Foundation Center and the Council on Foundations.

This marks an increase over 2001 statistics showing only 3,200 foundations with $6.8 billion in assets. The Council on Foundations estimates that family foundations account for more than half of all private foundations (family, corporate, independent and operating) in the U.S. The Michigan Council of Foundations’ membership includes more than 150 family foundations, representing 40 percent of its membership.


A family foundation meets the same IRS criteria as any private foundation but is funded with family assets and is often led by second and third generation family members who serve as officers and trustees while also participating in charitable grant-making.

Gerald and Frances Oleson established The Oleson Foundation in 1962, 36 years after opening their small Front Street grocery store in 1926. Today, the foundation board is led by their sons, Don and Jerry Oleson, with additional representation by their children. All participate in grant decisions and carry on the philanthropic tradition of their parents and grandparents.

Favorite funded projects include Long Lake Islands conservancy easement, Timbers Recreation Area, the Acme Shoreline project, Thirlby Field facilities and Food Rescue with Goodwill.

“We feel lucky to live in this area and we want to see it prosper, but we also want to protect and steward the land and water that makes it so great,” Don Oleson said.

In addition to the land, the Oleson family has supported those in need as well as educational initiatives.

“We must also help people who are hungry or homeless or abused or in trouble because it lifts the entire community,” he said. “We continue to support education projects and initiatives because we feel that education is a pathway to success.”

Jerry Oleson says that a “stronger, greater” community is the result of helping others.

“People that were helped along the way, pass that on to others and makes for a stronger, greater community,” Jerry Oleson said. “We have passed this legacy on to our children and grandchildren.”

Staff in front of the Schmuckal Building at NMC’s University Center shortly after opening in 1995.

The Schmuckal Foundation board is similarly led by multiple generations, including Art and Mary Schmuckal’s four children and three of their grandchildren, with granting guided by community need as well as the founders’ core beliefs.


Commitment to community began early and was modeled in each family through volunteerism as well as giving, before and after their foundations were started.

Leelanau County Administrator Chet Janik remembers working with the Olesons, Biedermans and Schmuckals during his early career at Northwestern Michigan College.

“I met each of them when I was in my 20s, fresh out of college and working at NMC,” Janik said, “I will always remember how very gracious and generous they were and how they treated me, and everyone involved with such respect.”

He says he noticed many were frequent volunteers at the NMC Barbecue, school campaigns and other community projects.

“All had tremendous vision, a strong work ethic, supportive families and high involvement with the community,” he said.
Many times, the benefactors did not want to be known, Janik said.

“There were many causes each supported financially and often didn’t want credit,” Janik said, “but that support changed lives.”

Andy Olson and Jerry Oleson at the first NMC barbecue.

Don and Jerry Oleson remember Jerry and Frances Oleson starting the barbecue in the 1950s because they felt the college gave local young people the opportunity for higher education and wanted to help NMC in its infancy. Their goal was not to just raise funds but to get the community onto the campus. They helped by donating the food, a tradition that has continued for more than 50 years.

NMC wasn’t the only recipient of the Oleson’s generosity.

“[My parents] would always give food away to organizations that were having fundraiser dinners,” said Jerry Oleson.

The donated food was because of an Oleson credo: “Help people that help themselves,” Jerry Oleson said.

“Every church, club, or nonprofit that was trying to raise money, Oleson’s would donate the food,” he said, noting that much philanthropy got done by walking into Oleson’s Food Store and striking up a conversation with his father.

“Whether you were a Boy or Girl scout, a 4-H Leader or the executive director of a nonprofit, he would always find a way to help,” Jerry Oleson said.


Ross Biederman says that fundraising has changed “dramatically since the early days.”

“It has now become the purview of professionals,” he said. “The Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation and professional fundraisers can do many things that local family foundations cannot do, and they can do them better.”

Family giving options have expanded since the Oleson Foundation was founded in 1962, the Les and Anne Biederman Foundation in 1987 and the Art and Mary Schmuckal Family Foundation in 1999.

Donor-advised funds through community foundations or public charities like Fidelity Charitable offer alternatives. These accounts function like a charitable investment account. After making an irrevocable contribution, the donating family can make grant recommendations to any IRS-qualified public charity with no restrictions on annual disbursements.

According to Alison Metiva, vice president for strategic engagement and programs at the Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation, approximately 50 funds, representing 23 percent of the foundation’s assets, are donor-advised endowments. While most giving decisions are made by the original funders, she and her colleagues are seeing increased involvement of younger generations. She credits the increasing maturity of the foundation, which just passed its 25th anniversary, as a factor.

Partnering with a community foundation can offer added value for family giving. Metiva noted commitment to donor stewardship, sharing community knowledge and connections, and generational legacy an endowment fund provides.

“Our perspective is to elevate giving and encourage supporting our communities,” she said. “Family giving – whether through a family foundation or donor-advised – shows how philanthropy can support strong and vibrant communities.”

Don Oleson agrees.

“We continue to be amazed at the generosity of people in this area,” he said. “Because we are a family foundation, we have the ability to be nimble and timely, and help address immediate needs that arise.”

And as the number of non-profits has risen, so has the “collaborative spirit” of the community, Don Oleson says.

“The number of nonprofits in the area has grown considerably, but so has the collaborative spirit that helps us all work together to get things done,” he said. “The Traverse City area is unique because we do work together for the larger, greater good and take on major projects that alter the face of the community forever. “