Traverse City Business Legends Hall of Fame – Meet the Inductees: Thirlby and Marsh Sr.

This year the TCBN inducts two more Traverse City business legends into the list we’ve been building and celebrating for seven years now: the 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 Dr. Edwin Thirlby, whose pioneering partnerships brought post-graduate medical knowledge to practicing physicians in northern Michigan and throughout the state. And Bill Marsh Sr., the charismatic leader who built an automotive dynasty that continues to thrive today, and is remembered as a visionary valuing family and people.

Dr. Edwin “Ted” Thirlby – “Medical Pioneer”

When Dr. Edwin “Ted” Thirlby began practicing medicine in Traverse City in 1906, it wasn’t unusual to see him making house calls in a horse and buggy. By the time he died in 1965, he had reshaped local medical expertise and sown the seeds for the regional reputation Munson Medical Center enjoys today.

Edwin L. Thirlby was born on Nov. 19, 1879, the son of Benjamin and Elizabeth Thirlby, who relocated their young family from Grand Rapids to Traverse City in 1882 when Benjamin joined partners in a foundry that would later become Traverse City Iron Works.

As young Ted grew, his best friend was James Frederick Munson, son of psychiatrist and Northern Michigan Asylum superintendent Dr. James Decker Munson. The elder Munson sparked both boys’ interest in medicine, encouraging their pursuit of medical studies at University of Michigan after graduating from Traverse City High School in 1898.

Following his graduation in 1903, Thirlby continued studies in England and returned to the United States in 1906. He practiced medicine in Traverse City at the hospital now known as Munson Medical Center for the rest of his life, except for World War I, when he served in the U.S. Army Medical Corps.

He is remembered as a pioneer in bringing modern medicine and surgical practices to Traverse City, as well as a patron of post-graduate medical education in Michigan.

The Michigan State Medical Society selected Thirlby as the state’s foremost family physician in 1960.
A Sept. 29, 1960 editorial in the Traverse City Record-Eagle noted the honor was “belated but well deserved.”

“As far as Traverse City is concerned, Doctor Ted has been foremost for a long, long time,” wrote the editors. “Doctor Ted brought a solid medical education and a tremendous vigor to the local community and it is upon this ability and aggressiveness that the present Traverse City medical center was founded.”

Thirlby is remembered for his pioneering partnerships with Dr. Frederick A. Coller, chair of general surgery at the University of Michigan, and Dr. Grover Penberthy, professor of surgery at Wayne State University. These relationships brought post-graduate medical knowledge to practicing physicians in northern Michigan and throughout the state.

Thirlby and Coller founded an annual medical conference in 1921 to share knowledge and forge stronger relationships between the local medical community and the former University Hospital in Ann Arbor. Later known as the Coller-Penberthy Conference and then the Coller-Penberthy-Thirlby Conference, it continued each July in Traverse City until the 1990s with medical experts invited from academic medical centers in Michigan and across the United States.

In addition to his medical career, Thirlby served in many community endeavors and leadership roles including mayor of Traverse City from 1933 to 1935. He was named the Chamber of Commerce Distinguished Citizen of the Year in 1934, the same year that Thirlby Field opened and was named in his honor.

Thirlby was married for 55 years to his wife, Elsie, who died in 1971. They had two sons, Walter Marshall Thirlby, who died in 1944, and Dr. Richard Thirlby, who followed in his father’s footsteps to study at University of Michigan Medical School and returned to Traverse City to practice urology until his retirement in 1984.

Bill Marsh Sr. (seated far right) with Henry Ford II (middle) and Lee Iacocca at a Ford National Dealer Council meeting at Ford’s World HQ in the early 1970s.

William Francis Marsh Sr. – “The Classic Entrepreneur”

Bill Marsh Sr. was well on his way toward the legal career he planned when life intervened.
Recently married, the 1958 Yale graduate and star athlete had begun studies at Dickinson Law School when his father became seriously ill shortly after purchasing a struggling Ford dealership in Newtown, Pennsylvania.

Marsh left his legal books behind and set off on a journey that led to tremendous personal and business success in Pennsylvania and, later, Traverse City where he built an automotive dynasty that continues to thrive today under leadership of three of his sons.

“My dad often said, ‘I didn’t choose this business … the business chose me,’” said Bill Marsh Jr. who has co-owned Marsh Auto Group with his brothers Jamie and Mike since 2005.

The Newtown dealership was near bankruptcy when Marsh Sr. took control, learning the auto business while also leading it. He quickly embraced the industry and transformed the struggling business into a solid economic success and popular Pennsylvania dealership.

As he became successful, Marsh Sr. represented the northeast U.S. region on Ford’s National Dealer Council. A meeting in Dearborn at World Headquarters led to a chance meeting with Traverse City’s Julius Sleder, who invited him to visit Traverse City.

Marsh Sr. loved the water he grew up near as a youth on Long Island. The visit to northern Michigan and Grand Traverse Bay set the wheels in motion to move to Traverse City. The family relocated from Pennsylvania to Traverse City in 1980, with Marsh purchasing Ward Liebler Buick in 1982.

As he did 20 years earlier in Newtown, he transformed a struggling dealership into a very successful one in record time, moving from last place to first place in sales in just one year. Growth continued throughout his career, expanding to acquire the franchises for GMC, Ford, Chrysler-Plymouth, Dodge, Jeep, Pontiac, Saturn and Hyundai, and becoming the largest automotive dealership in northern Michigan.

Marsh is remembered as a visionary and as a classic entrepreneur with a strong moral compass and positive energy who valued family and people.

“He was always very clear on what was right and wrong,” Marsh Jr. said, noting the strength of his character in all business and personal relationships.

“He taught us to value every customer,” Jamie Marsh said. “He used to say, ‘The day you guys get so big and so successful that you think you don’t need to call someone right back … then, that’s the day you need to sell the company.’”

The senior Marsh built a reputation as an effective and motivating leader.

“It’s not what he did but how he did it,” Mike Marsh said. “He was charismatic, involved people and showed his character in everything he did.”

The elder Marsh used his people skills to build his business, said Jamie Marsh.

“He was very good at assessing people and aligning [with the business needs],” he said, noting his father’s ability to surround himself with good people, energize them and empower them to use their talents.

“He said that to be successful…to be your best… [you needed] to push in and live with the creative tension of where you are today and where you are going,” Marsh Jr. said, noting the urge to always be willing to grow and improve.

Beyond business, Marsh Sr. loved recreational boating, especially cruising the Great Lakes and offshore powerboat racing. He served as president of the Grand Traverse Offshore Racing Association and was instrumental in bringing the Northport 200, a nationally sanctioned American Power Boat Association race to Grand Traverse Bay during the late 1980s.

Other civic commitments included leadership on the St. Francis parish council and as a board member of NBD Bank as well as volunteerism individually and with employees on projects and fundraisers benefiting numerous Traverse City nonprofit organizations.

Throughout his life, Marsh was always committed to his family, including his wife, Ann, daughter Terry (Winship) and sons, Bill Jr., Jamie, Mike and Dan and their families. Terry currently lives with her family in Casper, Wyoming while Dan is executive chef and owner of Red Ginger.

“Family was always first and foremost,” Mike Marsh said. “He was always strategic planning … but the end result was always family.”