Tribute to Roger & Phyllis Kesseler and the Kesseler Family
The Kesseler Family
The Kesseler family has been giving back to their alma mater, the Crawford AuSable School District, for years.
George, Roger, Jim and Tom established two endowed scholarships in memory of their parents in 1997. In recognition of their gifts, the GMS Administrative Center was named in memory of their father, G. Jerome Kesseler, and the GES Early Childhood Center was named in memory of their mother, Loretta Sorenson Kesseler.
Roger and his wife Phyllis took their philanthropy to an astoundingly generous level when, in 1999, they established the Kesseler Centralis Scholarship. Each year the award gives one GHS graduate a four-year full-ride scholarship to Central Michigan University.
The family also made a major donation to the CASD to complete the high school’s weight room – dedicated in 2008 and named “The Kesseler Family Fitness Center” to recognize their generosity.
Roger and Phyllis, along with their family, donated to CAEEF at the "summa cum laude level," giving them naming rights for the GHS Cafeteria. The GHS Indoor Concession Stand was named in honor of James Kesseler and his wife Rosalie in recognition of gifts to CAEEF by them and their family.
And to recognize donations from their two children, the GMS Cafeteria was named in memory of George J. and Nancy Caris Kesseler.
DEEP GRAYLING ROOTS
The Kesseler brothers’ local roots run deep. Their father’s family moved to Grayling when
Jerome was five. Grandpa Louis owned a restaurant and pool hall next to the Shoppenagon Hotel, which was owned by Thomas Cassidy, the brother of Roger’s grandmother, LuLu Cassidy Kesseler.
Mother Loretta was born in Grayling to George and Anine Sorenson. George and his brother James owned the Sorenson Brothers Mortuary and Furniture Store; George ran the funeral home and served for many years as a probate judge.
Jerome worked for 36 years as assistant postmaster; then, after retiring, he founded Mill Town Realty.
Roger and Phyllis were born during the Great Depression — he at home and she, the daughter of Jens and Frances Ziebell, at Mercy Hospital.
“Our roots are modest, and we both worked hard to establish ourselves,” said Roger.
They held jobs as they grew up. Starting in third grade, Roger had a paper route, shined shoes at Olson’s Barber Shop and washed dishes at Wert’s Lone Pine Inn. He pumped gas, changed tires and worked the grease rack at Alfred Hanson’s Chevrolet dealership all through high school.
Phyllis babysat, served sodas at Dawson’s and worked at the Grayling Laundry — first washing laundry, then doing office work. After high school she was hired by the superintendent, Frank Bond, to be the school secretary, a position she held for six years. During the summers she worked at the Camp Grayling PX and in the Bear Archery office.
“Being the school secretary was the best job I ever had,” said Phyllis. “I loved it.”
Along with their work obligations, the two participated in high school activities. Roger was involved in sports, school plays and band and was class president his senior year. Phyllis played French horn in the band and was the senior class treasurer.
“We treasure our life experiences while growing up in Grayling,” said Roger. “We both developed a strong work ethic and a feeling of independence in the small town atmosphere.”
COLLEGE AND WORK
After graduating from GHS in 1954, Roger attended CMU. He received a $300 per year scholarship from the State of Michigan that he said paid about 30 percent of his annual costs. He also received an ROTC stipend and worked for the campus theatre as a stage hand and for the school’s music department setting up practice equipment.
“Basically, I paid for my entire college expenses,” he said.
He graduated cum laude with a business administration degree that included a major in accounting and minors in mathematics, economics and geography.
He completed CMU’s ROTC program as a distinguished military graduate and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Medical Service Corps. After a short tour of duty with the Brooks Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, he eventually completed his reserves obligation in 1968 at the rank of captain.
After his active military duty, Roger joined Dow Chemical Company in the controller’s department. He held various staff and management positions in the Midland division and then transferred to the Texas division in Freeport in 1971. In 1979, the Kesselers returned to Midland when he was named global manager of corporate reporting. In 1981 he was promoted to vice president and corporate controller for Dow Chemical, the position from which he retired in 1998.
Roger received an honorary doctor of commercial science degree from CMU as one of the top graduates of the College of Business, and in 2013, he and Leonard Plachta, former CMU president, were the first two members inducted into the CMU College of Business Hall of Fame.
Roger credits his parents for modeling a dedication to volunteerism: “My dad was involved in the community with the Kiwanis Club and the Chamber of Commerce.”
And, throughout the years, Roger has served on various work-related boards, including the MidMichigan Regional Health System, Midland Cancer Services, M-20 Alliance Highway
Expansion Committee, Midland Senior Services, CMU board of trustees (for 16 years) and CAEEF since it inception.
He has often been tapped to raise funds for good causes. He said the largest sum was when he chaired the CMU capital committee that raised $81 million in 2001-2005, the largest campaign in the university’s history.
Another significant — and very different — challenge was raising money to fund a millage election to widen M-20 between Midland and Mt. Pleasant. Although the millage failed, the M-20 Alliance prevailed with the State, and the road was completed in the mid-1990s.
Now Roger – with the help of his brother Jim, who is chair of the CAEEF board – is working to raise $1 million to benefit the students of the CASD. Fundraising began in fall 2016 with a silent campaign and has continued with outreach efforts since spring 2017. As of March 2019, the board is approaching three-quarters of the way toward the goal set by the board.
Roger and Phyllis were married in 1957 at the rectory of St. Mary’s and spent their first year as newlyweds in CMU married housing while he completed his senior year. Throughout the decades their family has grown, presently boasting four children, ten grandchildren and three great grandchildren.
Roger said his belief in the importance of education did not begin with his generation;
rather, his parents had a strong influence on him: “My father was on the board of education for Grayling for 18 years, and he served a term as president. And my mother was an RSVP volunteer at Grayling Elementary School for many years.”
Also, Jerome and Loretta encouraged their four sons to continue their educations after high school: Two of his brothers earned bachelor degrees, and his youngest brother earned an associate degree.
And Roger and Phyllis, in turn, encouraged their children to go to college. All four earned bachelor degrees, and two earned master degrees. Nine of their ten grandchildren also pursued higher learning, and the youngest – a high school senior – plans to attend college.
All the grandchildren who have completed college thus far are debt free, thanks to the financial support they received from their parents and grandparents. And now, through the family’s donations to the CASD and Roger’s work with the CAEEF, the Kesselers can assist more Grayling High School graduates in lowering their college costs.
“We are giving the opportunity for a higher education to the students of GHS, and that is an opportunity I never had,” said Phyllis.
SUPPORT FOR CASD
To their great delight, all the Kesseler children and grandchildren are also “into philanthropy,” said Roger. “I asked all of them to consider making a gift to the CAEEF in lieu of one to me for Fathers’ Days, my birthdays and Christmases. I told them that I have enough ties and shirts, so why not support the students in Grayling who want to advance their education?”
“Phyllis and I want to continue to support education, and there is not a better place to start than in Grayling, where we both went to school and since have benefited from the education we received here. With most of our family obligations completed, we want to direct some of our resources to support the CAEEF in a major way.”
Although Roger and Phyllis no longer live in Crawford County, they maintain ties with friends, family and the CASD.
“We are very impressed with the quality of education students in Grayling are receiving from the CASD,” said Roger. “The rankings by independent agencies and the students’
performance on the AP exams are proof that Grayling, an economically disadvantaged
area, can still provide an education that allows the graduates to compete in today’s competitive environment. We want to do our part to help CAEEF and CASD to succeed.”
By Nancy Lemmen, 2019
(The photo at the top is of Roger, Phyllis, George and Jim Kesseler at the dedication of the Kesseler Family Fitness Center in 2008.
The photo toward the bottom is of Jim and Roger Kesseler in August 2019.)