Charles Blackman remembers sitting attentively in the lobby of Blair Hall mulling over his future while listening to his professors explain how a post-World War II society could unfold for him.
In 1942, Charles was a social science major who had intended to pursue a career in highway traffic safety. The curriculum included education, engineering and enforcement components. He was at Olivet College for less than a year when he took on the informal role of math tutor. This led to Charles taking a serious look at teaching as a vocation. Charles said the decision worked out perfectly.
“The quality of interaction, the openness to be able to discuss and listen, that’s (the appeal) of education,” he said.
Charles credits education for his ability to recognize the value of philanthropy, and how he’s become an Olivet College donor for 30 consecutive years.
A 1946 graduate, Charles began sorting through college options after the family moved from Maine to Columbus, Ohio, nearly eight decades ago. After eliminating Ohio State University as being too large, a friend of Charles’ father suggested Olivet.
At that time Olivet had less than 240 students, but to Charles it wasn’t the size of the school that was the attraction. In the end, he scrapped his original plans for spending two years at a small liberal arts school and then transferring to MIT in favor of Olivet. One of his priorities was finding a college with a small professor-to-student ratio.
“The whole intimate experience had an appeal for me,” he said. “I had grown up being around the Ohio State campus and 17,000 students and I didn’t think I belonged there. I looked for other options with a small-school component. I was looking for a college that was small, but that had unique programs. Olivet came into the picture and I decided that’s what I liked.”
Charles would eventually teach at the middle school level in North Muskegon, complete graduate work at Ohio State and then teach for 35 years at the Michigan State University College of Education before retiring in 1991.
“I became comfortable with education,” he said. “I became a tutor and then when a teacher mentioned my work, I thought, ‘This is something I can do.'”
Though Olivet was undergoing what Charles called “an unsettled time” during and then following World War II, he kept in touch with many of his classmates, including 50 years with his roommate, Rudy Hirt of Grosse Pointe. After graduating, Charles kept up with many professors, too.
I enjoyed my time there,” Charles said. “Being involved as a professor later, I think Olivet represented kind of a lab for me to play with.”
Charles had been a donor to Olivet College since graduating, but an inheritance left him looking for new causes to donate. Among the lessons he had learned from his parents was the need to serve others, both monetarily and with service.
“My dad had always served people in working with farmers as a dairy cattle specialist at Ohio State University and I knew I wanted to serve others in the same way,” said Charles, who after marrying Peggy Riethmiller was one of three major funders of the Riethmiller Blackman Art Building.
His ability to assume philanthropic work was actually formed by a tragedy. When his cousin, Clarence Gregory, a chemist for General Electric, passed away in 2005, Charles inherited enough money to begin searching in earnest for venues for his donations.
Charles said Peggy had been an artist and wood carver who wanted to see Olivet reflect that interest. At that time, the arts facility was small and housed in a facility next to the maintenance building. Charles said that situation had to change.
“Peggy was very creative and I knew she had an interest in the arts so we looked (at funding) as something we could do together,” he said. “There was a commitment but also a knowledge that art needed a higher visibility. Arts ought to be on ‘Main Street,’ because after all, isn’t this a liberal arts college?”
While his donations have helped Olivet College grow, Charles said his definition of philanthropy has always included more than monetary help. His contributions have stretched from volunteering with the American Friends Service Committee serving displaced persons, to the Urban League in Muskegon, to serving on the Okemos School Board and serving on the Community and Engagement Ministry Committee with the People’s Church in East Lansing.
“The idea of philanthropy is not just money but also time,” he said. “The notion of giving transcends money.”
Charles served three terms and 12 years on the Olivet Board of Trustees before becoming a Trustee Emeritus at Olivet. He said at least part of why he poured so many years into that work came down to a commitment.
“A commitment to the institution and a desire to see Olivet thrive, he said. “My work with things such as the curriculum and course study had an aura with it, which made it unique. You just don’t walk away from that.”
As for the importance of why alumni should give back to their college? Charles said it comes down to students passing along their values to the next generation of students.
“I think colleges develop a cluster of students who value the educational experience,” he said. “They can appeal to continuing the nature of an institution and the qualities of it. You have to keep this going.”
Charles picked Olivet College during what he called “the tumultuous years” of World War II. Charles, born in Portland, Maine, chose Olivet because of the close relationship between students and faculty.
He became a member of Kappa Sigma Alpha and Olivet College student college president as a senior. Charles said his original intention was to transfer to MIT, but instead fell in love with Olivet. He later worked for the North Muskegon School System and Michigan State until his retirement in 1991. He is the recipient of the 1844 Award, Distinguished Alumni Award, and Leadership for Individual and Social Responsibility Award and has been a major donor since 1987. Among his contributions was funding for the Riethmiller Blackman Art Building. One of Charles’ greatest passions is Packard automobiles. After a virtual lifetime of research, he can account by body style distribution of all Packards from 1931 – 1947.