Traverse City Business Legends Hall of Fame: Hilty, Boardman join annual list

This year the TCBN inducts two more Traverse City business legends to join the list that’s been celebrated for nine years now: entrepreneurs who have made lifetime contributions to the economic growth of the Grand Traverse area.

In 2013, we introduced the 10-member charter class. This year, we induct the late Bob Hilty, longtime Traverse City business leader and visionary who influenced the development of Rotary Charities, Munson Medical Center, Northwestern Michigan College, Traverse City Area Public Schools and much community development during his lifetime; and Captain Harris “Harry” Boardman, who shaped the region’s earliest days when he purchased property and a waterway that would become his namesake, the Boardman River, building a sawmill on land that would become Traverse City. Here are their stories.

Bob D. Hilty  – “The Humble Leader”

Bob Hilty (1913-2001) was a quiet leader whose visionary touch benefited almost every aspect of modern Traverse City.

During his lifetime, he influenced the shaping of Northwestern Michigan College, decades of growth leading to the Munson Healthcare system, creation of NMC’s University Center and Culinary Institute, founding of the Presbyterian Church, northern Michigan operations for Consumers Power and, most notably, development of Rotary Charities as a philanthropic powerhouse.

“He was a visionary,” said Bruce Rogers of Traverse City. “Bob could see the future and could see what you should do to achieve those dreams.”

Visionary was a term echoed by many who remember him.

“He was a true community builder … a quiet visionary and wise steward with a good heart,” said Robert Collier, former Rotary Charities executive director from 1987-1995. “I will never forget the call I received from Bob and Bruce Rogers explaining the purchase of the Park Place Hotel (by Rotary Charities). It was a visionary decision to help the future of Traverse City.”

Collier says that Hilty enjoyed making site visits to nonprofits and putting people at ease.

“Supporting the development of regional initiatives like the Community Foundation and Land Conservancy, Bob lived the principle that when we act together, anything is possible,” he said. “He believed in collaboration and in seeking it out. He wanted the entire region to be successful.”

Hilty was born in 1913, grew up in Birmingham, Mich. and attended the University of Michigan, graduating with a business degree in 1936. While a student, he was a member of Phi Kappa Psi fraternity and a water boy for the UM football team during the same years that future president Gerald Ford was a star player. He married Margaret “Peg” Connelan in 1938 and had two children, Peter and Patricia.

Hilty spent most of his professional career with Consumers Power Company (now Consumers Energy) where he was a longtime executive. He and his family moved to Traverse City in 1949 when he was promoted to regional manager for northern Michigan. He was responsible for all power operations north of Grand Rapids, leading management during the era when local power companies were merging into Consumers’ system. Hilty continued in this role until his retirement in 1971.

Hilty quickly began volunteering after arriving in Traverse City, playing an active community role during a pivotal time of regional growth. He was an early volunteer as Northwestern Michigan College was forming, serving on the Citizens Advisory Committee as lead for the business program during the mid-1950s.

His NMC contributions continued throughout his life, most notably in envisioning the Culinary Institute and forging a unique partnership with Rotary and NMC to reopen the Park Place Hotel, which was a key to downtown Traverse City’s revitalization during the late 1980s.

Leadership roles also included serving on the Traverse City Area Public Schools Board of Education, many committees at the Presbyterian Church and 46 years of service on the boards of Munson Hospital, Munson Medical Center, Munson Healthcare and NorthFlight. During his Munson tenure, which ended in 1997, he watched a local community hospital grow into a regional medical center, then emerge as the major health care system it is today.

Hilty’s most notable relationship was with Rotary. He joined the Rotary Club soon after relocating to Traverse City, serving as president in 1959 and 1960. His voice was instrumental when oil was found on property owned by Rotary. He urged fellow Rotarians that “…they had the chance to make a real difference” in the community by using the profits to create Rotary Charities and benefit nonprofits throughout the region. He brought his experience in the power industry and commitment to community to Rotary Charities formation and evolution, committing decades of service until 1998.

“Bob Hilty was my friend, my mentor and the driving force behind transitioning Rotary Charities from a volunteer group to a professional organization run by trained, skilled individuals,” Rogers said. “The growth and contributions to the five-county area are beyond the wildest dreams of those that served on the board in the early 1970’s. Bob was a key player from the beginning.”

“Bob was always ‘there’ …. quietly working on some project, but never, ever, pushing an agenda or, worse, letting his ego get in the way of Charities’ purpose,” said George Bearup, a fellow Rotarian and community leader. “Bob’s constant presence and quiet leadership style provided stability and respect for Rotary Charities in its formative years.”

Hilty received many awards in recognition of his service, including the Traverse City Chamber of Commerce Distinguished Service Award in 1970, the James Decker Munson Award in 1998 and the naming of the Bob Hilty Center for Interactive Education at NMC’s University Center in 1994.

Referred to as a “humble humanitarian,” Hilty is especially remembered for his wisdom, integrity, compassion, mentorship and quiet, effective leadership, personally and professionally.

“He was the most loving father,” said his daughter Pat Warner. “He set very high standards about respect, diligence and responsibility but was also very open-minded and supportive. He always encouraged us to explore and grow. 

Warner recalls her early years of work, when her father acted as her mentor.

“I was doing things women weren’t doing (in the 1960s and 1970s),” she said. “He advised me to create my list of principles to guide me, to separate out what to personalize … and recognized I might have a tough go of it at times.”

Bearup calls Hilty the “soul” of Rotary Charities.

“Like so many of the Greatest Generation, Bob epitomized the principle of quietly going about the task of helping his community without ever seeking personal recognition,” he said. “Bob was a true community leader whose actions gave meaning to his vision for a better community.”

Captain Harris “Harry” Boardman –  “The Pioneer”

Captain Harris “Harry” Boardman (1792-1877) is credited as being one of the first white settlers of Traverse City when he purchased property in 1847 and ventured to lands that had long been settled by the native Ottawa, Ojibwa and Potawatomi tribes. The earliest local white settlement dated back to 1839 on Old Mission led by Rev. Peter Dougherty and Rev. John Fleming.

Historians referred to Boardman as a thrifty farmer living near Napierville, Ill. who purchased a tract of land from the U.S. government at the mouth of a river then known as the Ottawa which flowed into Grand Traverse Bay. That property would become Traverse City.

Boardman was born in Burlington, Vermont in 1792 where he met and married his wife Lavina C. Walker. The couple moved to the Chicago area, settling near Naperville to farm and raise their family. The Boardmans had six children, three living to adulthood.

In June 1847, the newly widowed Captain Boardman sent his son, Horace Boardman, to sail from Chicago to the new property in northern Michigan with plans to erect a sawmill. The small vessel was known as the “Lady of the Lakes” and carried several carpenters along with two couples and a young girl who joined Horace Boardman in creating that first small settlement and building its first structures: a rustic log cabin, a sawmill, a dam and several tents and lean-tos.

The sawmill was completed first, contributing its first planks to a blockhouse and subsequent buildings. A second sawmill followed. The waterway began to be called Boardman’s River.

Horace Boardman managed sawmill operations for four years with Captain Boardman visiting periodically. Records indicate that it was not a very profitable enterprise which led Captain Boardman to make plans to sell. Concurrently, Chicago businessmen Perry Hannah, Albert Tracy Lay and James Morgan partnered to create Hannah, Lay and Company for the purpose of carrying on the lumber trade.

Learning of Boardman’s operation from one of its original mechanics, Hannah, Morgan and Captain Boardman traveled north from Chicago to view the property in May 1850. Shortly after, the sale was made for all of Captain Boardman’s holdings, including the sawmill, structures and 200 acres of land, for $4,500.

The Hannah Lay Company began upgrading the mill and, by the following spring, a new steam-powered mill had been erected on the strip of land between the river and the bay.

Following the sale of their property, both Captain and Horace Boardman left northern Michigan and returned permanently to Illinois. Captain Boardman died in 1877 in Napierville at age 85.

See all past inductees in the January issue on newsstands now.