Traverse City Business Legends Hall of Fame: Meet the new inductees

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Traverse City Business Legends Hall of Fame. Since 2013, the TCBN has paused to honor business giants, civic and community champions and philanthropists – both deceased and living – who have made lifelong contributions to the economic growth and long-term vitality of the Grand Traverse area. What launched with a 10-member charter class has grown by two inductees every year.

For 2023, our collective round of applause goes to the late Ralph E. “Boots” Wolff, Jr., who was a stalwart supporter of downtown and whose family name was synonymous with pharmacy in Traverse City for half a century, and the late Mary Jean Brick, whose compassion, empathy and can-do spirit improved – and continues to improve – the lives of disabled individuals in her beloved community.

Ralph E. “Boots” Wolff, Jr. – “Downtown’s Caretaker”

Ralph “Boots” Wolff, Jr. (1928-2020) took great care of Traverse City – as a pharmacist at Petertyl Drug, and as a respected leader in two organizations that continue to steward the vitality of downtown.

Born in Muskegon on June 18, 1928, Wolff graduated from Traverse City Central High School in 1946 and went on to Michigan State University for his undergraduate studies. After marrying high school classmate Barbara MacIntosh in 1950 and Barb completing her nursing degree, they moved to Ann Arbor so Boots could attend the University of Michigan’s School of Pharmacy. After graduating in 1953, the couple moved back to Traverse City and he began his career at Petertyl Drug.

Fifteen years later and with a family that eventually grew to include six boys, Boots and Barb purchased the Front Street drugstore from founder Milton “Butch” Petertyl – who had opened it in 1932 at the location now occupied by Brilliant Books – and worked alongside each other for many years. When it was time to retire, the couple passed ownership in 1993 to son Jim, who had earned his pharmacy degree from Grand Valley State University. He and wife Dixie followed in his parents’ footsteps – operating Petertyl Drug together until their retirement in 2018, when the store permanently closed.

While being an owner of a vital downtown retail establishment, Wolff was also a founding member of the Traverse City Downtown Development Authority (DDA) in 1979 and served on its board for 31 years, including time as chairman. He is recognized by those who have followed him for helping to create many of the things people enjoy about Front Street and the surrounding area to this day. Wolff was also a member of the Downtown Traverse City Association and an early recipient of its Lyle DeYoung Award for his significant contributions in support of downtown’s business district.

Past and current Traverse City leaders have noted the key role the Wolff family played downtown, including toughing it out as business owners during several economic downturns when the area struggled mightily, and through the decades when retail business was rapidly shifting to malls.

Wolff was active in local and state pharmacist associations, the Rotary Club, the Parish Council at Traverse City St. Francis, and was a Boy Scout leader.

Wolff died on June 1, 2020, in Traverse City, 18 days shy of his 92nd birthday.


Mary Jean Brick – “The Advocate”

“We exist to ensure that local family members with disabilities remain a part of our community — not apart from it.” –Mary Jean Brick

Mary Jean Brick (1923 – 2009) had heart. A lot of it. And, by most accounts, did not take no for an answer. Those qualities, combined with unstoppable spirit and rock-solid faith, took a vision Brick had for a better life for marginalized people in her community and built it – literally.

Inspired by personal experiences with both a sister and a son with special needs, Brick laid the foundation that has improved the lives of adults living with physical and developmental challenges in the area for nearly 50 years.

Under Brick’s guidance, passion and tireless advocacy, the area’s first-of-its-kind Community Living Center opened in 1978 in Traverse City. It was a place where residents could learn daily living skills and grow their independence in a family atmosphere, as well as engage with the larger community.

Born into one of Traverse City’s oldest families, Mary Jean (nee Walters) Brick was a daughter of Herman and Clarebelle Walters. Her father was co-owner of Walters & Hemming Plumbing, still in business today. She was trained as a teacher, earned a master’s degree in special education and worked as a regular substitute teacher for more than 25 years. She and husband Robert had six children.

The Community Living Center was the first very large step for the not-for-profit organization known today as BrickWays – a corporation and foundation that serves adults with developmental disabilities through housing and a continuum of support. And it was a very far cry from the large facilities that used to house hundreds, or even thousands, of disabled people – in most cases isolating them from society.

Mary Jean and Robert’s eldest son John ultimately ended up living at the Traverse City State Hospital (aka Northern Michigan Asylum and the Traverse City Regional Psychiatric Hospital), but Mary Jean desperately wanted better for him, according to family interviews on the BrickWays website.

When some of these large facilities across the nation started to close in the 1970s, Brick started looking and advocating for better living situations to allow for John and others like him to live more fulfilling, dignified and engaged lives. Today, 48 individuals live at the Community Living Center (which became a housing model replicated elsewhere) and five other unique housing situations around town – all dedicated to providing essential support services to residents as well as fostering independence.

“Mary Jean inspired in me the connection that makes BrickWays special today,” said Executive Director Susan Onan-Swartz. “Staff and tenants are family. We don’t have to always get along but we are there for each other. Yes, there are times when it is tough love but the vast majority of tenants and all of the staff feel that they are cared for. It is more like, ‘How can we say yes rather than defaulting to no.’ This is from Mary Jean.”

And Mary Jean’s legacy lives on, Onan-Swartz added, through her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren still serving and living her vision of everyone – especially those with disabilities – being a part of this community.

For the entire list of past inductees, please see the January 2023 issue.