Retired teacher donates $1M to bring 'pure joy' to Michigan community

Hollanders have many lovely reminders of their city’s Dutch heritage. There’s Tulip Time in the spring, lakes and rivers that provide great recreation in summer, and a majestic windmill that rises above a tree line ablaze in fall colors in autumn.

Winters can be a bit of a snooze, but as early as winter 2023, Holland residents may have a visual reminder of Mary Mapes Dodge’s famous story, Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates — plus a slick opportunity for frosty fun.

The Holland City Council has accepted a $1 million donation from Franklin Delano Kraai, 86, that is designated for the construction of an outdoor refrigerated ice-skating rink. Kraai’s colossal gift will be added to the $116,000 he’s given toward the project over the past decade.

“There’s no place I love more than Holland,” says Kraai, a retired West Ottawa Public Schools elementary educator who’s lived along the Lakeshore his entire life. “But the thing I think could make Holland even better is having an activity that people can do downtown, in the outdoors, in winter.”

As a child growing up across New Holland Road from North Holland School, Kraai says his siblings and friends would enjoy subzero days by hiking a quarter-mile into a field near his house, where water tended to pool and freeze. They’d shovel off the snow and spend hours skating.

Kraai has never taken for granted the ability to play. As a toddler, he contracted polio. The virus caused temporary paralysis and left him with a permanently weakened left leg. He couldn’t play competitive sports in school, but he reveled in recreational pursuits like ice-skating, cross-country skiing, and softball.

Frank Kraai, of Holland, poses along the Window on The Waterfront park in Holland, Michigan where a new ice rink will be built after he donated $1 million toward the effort.

Retirement dream

Kraai’s dream of bringing an ice-skating facility to Holland took shape after his retirement from West Ottawa Public Schools, during the 15 years he spent observing and evaluating Hope College and Western Michigan University education majors who were student teaching in West Michigan schools. 

That work often took Kraai to South Haven, which has a popular pavilion-covered ice rink within walking distance of downtown businesses. Kraai saw people of all ages enjoying the ice rink. He even took curling lessons there. 

He resolved that an ice rink is the wintertime amenity that Holland must have.

“Skating is pure joy,” says Kraai, who has kept his ice skates, even though he now resides at the Inn at Freedom Village, a senior community. “I wish everybody a chance to experience that joy.”

Now that he’s given enough money to ensure that an ice-skating pavilion will be built, his main goal is to live long enough to skate a lap there on the arm of each of the 10 people who have already requested that privilege. 

Additional gifts will be necessary to complete the project, but the city is having architectural plans drawn for a covered ice rink at Window on the Waterfront, a 30-acre park along the southern edge of Macatawa Marsh, near Windmill Island. The rink will be on the north side of Sixth Street, across from EV Construction.

Asked whether he’d like the ice rink named in his honor, Kraai vigorously shakes his head “no.” His Dutch surname means “crow,” which suggests the wrong kind of chill, he says.

A millionaire outlier

A thread of philanthropy is woven into the greater Holland area’s history. The family names attached to building projects funded by philanthropic dollars — Prince, Haworth, Miller, DeWitt, DeVos, Donnelly, and others — are often the same family names on the area’s most prosperous businesses.

In the world of deep-pockets giving, Frank Kraai is an outlier. 

“It was only a year or so ago that somebody I knew at Macatawa Bank asked me if I knew I was a millionaire,” Kraai says. “I said, ‘Don’t you talk to me like that. I certainly am not. I am a teacher.’”

Elementary school teachers aren’t paid enough to be able to save up $1 million, he believed. Enjoying life in Holland was important to Kraai; getting rich was not.
Tallying up Kraai’s assets revealed a different story. Kraai admits being quite surprised when he read the numbers in black and white.

His earnings increased the few years he was principal of the now-demolished Beachwood School. However, he soon arranged to return to the classroom, where the satisfaction of seeing children learn eclipsed an administrative boost in pay. 

A lifelong bachelor, Kraai realized that he had not spent a lot of his earnings. He owned a house on Holland’s north side for a few years but realized he much preferred the simplicity of renting. Kraai took trips to Florida but didn’t otherwise desire to travel much. Everything he valued most was close to home.

‘Spirit of generosity’

Kraai also had an inexpensive hobby — volunteer work. 

“There was no one waiting for me to get home, and I was content to spend my non-work hours doing volunteer work,” Kraai says. “That’s how I got connected with so many different parts of the community.”

Kraai’s affiliation with Holland’s annual floral extravaganza, Tulip Time, eclipsed 45 years. During this tenure, he pretty much did it all, from narrating motorcoach tours to directing costumed students to the correct buses at the end of the Kinderparade and marshaling all three parades.

He sang with the Holland Chorale for 30 years. He was a member of the Holland Farmers Market board of directors for more than 20 years. He was active with the Community Foundation of the Holland/Zeeland Area (CFHZA). He co-hosted a cable TV program called “Lakeshore Living.” He devoted summers to the Michigan State University’s Cooperative Extension Service by supervising children in the 4-H program and working at livestock auctions at Ottawa County fairs in Holland, Hudsonville, and Berlin.

For many years, it was Kraai who donned a tall bishop’s hat, red velvet robe, and long white beard to ride into Holland on a proud steed as Sinterklaas, the Dutch Santa Claus. Kraai also dressed up as the traditional Saint Nicholas for 20 years of Christmas parties at the Ottawa Area Center, Ottawa County’s school for students with severe cognitive, physical, and learning impairments.

“Frank embodies a spirit of generosity that is contagious,” says Mike Goorhouse, CFHZA president. “He is the perfect example of a person who gives back throughout his lifetime: In his career as a teacher, through community activities as a volunteer, and now with a generous financial gift that he believes will make a truly great place even better.”

Frank Kraai, left, speaks with Community Foundation of the Holland Zeeland Area President Mike Goorhouse.
Kraai says he preferred to manage his own investments. He bought stocks in Apple, Gentex, and other companies that he considered to be highly innovative. Despite market fluctuations, his portfolio grew more than he imagined possible. 

“I have nieces and nephews I could leave my money to, but the truth is that they don’t need it any more than I do,” Kraai says. “I’m happy to give it all away to provide something special to my community, which has given me so much.”

Breathing gratitude

The roots of Kraai’s civic appreciation run deep — back to when he contracted polio at 18 months of age. The virus attacked nerves that drive the diaphragm to inflate the lungs, making it difficult or impossible for him to breathe without support.

State-of-the-art treatment for his condition at the time was to attach a non-invasive, negative-pressure ventilator called an iron lung to artificially maintain respiration until the polio infection subsided — typically about two weeks.

Keeping the lungs working during a time of paralysis was critically important. Breathing and swallowing are closely connected, and toddlers need nourishment. If lung function falters, a patient can quickly develop pneumonia, suffocate or aspirate on bodily secretions, and die. 

Trouble was, in 1938, there were only a few iron lungs in all of Michigan.
“People from the Ottawa County Health Department came to our home in round-the-clock shifts to do manual compressions on my back that kept me breathing,” Kraai says, tears welling in his eyes as he recounts a struggle he was too young to remember. “Without that, my life would have been over at a year-and-a-half.”

Kraai says he also had the good fortune of being raised by parents who valued education and believed in the common good. 

For more than a decade, his father, Floyd Kraai — a construction worker who believed in the power of organized labor — served as board president of North Holland School, a three-room kindergarten-through-10th-grade school in Frank’s youth. Because the Kraais lived across from the school, school business was often conducted in the Kraais’ living room. On paydays, young Frank was often sent to school with paychecks for the teachers. 

Although busy raising four children, Frank’s mother, Winnie, usually performed the school board’s secretarial work, almost certainly as a volunteer.

Somehow, the small rural school was able to attract exceptional teachers who left a lasting impression on young Frank, he says.

‘Something special’

Kraai’s earliest yearning to become a teacher was in third grade — when most boys are enamored with superheroes. 

“I was sitting at my desk watching Eileen Voss, the lower elementary teacher, leading our class,” Kraai says, “and I was thinking, ‘If someday I could do what she does, as well as she does it, that would really be something special.’”

Like his older brothers, Kraai had to travel into town to attend Holland High School, graduating in 1952. He enrolled at Hope College, where he had a part-time job driving students from North Holland and other rural schools to Holland High for classes.

About the time he graduated from Hope with a teaching certificate, a dozen small schools north of Holland had incorporated as West Ottawa Public Schools because of a Michigan mandate that all public schools be affiliated with a K-12 system. 

He accepted a teaching job with the new district and eventually taught at Sheldon Woods, Lakewood, Beechwood, and Waukazoo elementary schools. He never sought a position outside the district because the grass never appeared greener anywhere else.

Frank Kraai, now retired as an educator, poses in front of Beechwood School in this file photo.
West Ottawa alumni often name Kraai as one of their favorite elementary teachers. He is affable, encouraging, and remembered for challenging students to achieve high goals.

Presidential blessing

Certainly, Kraai has fulfilled a blessing bestowed by his namesake, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Floyd and Winnie Kraai had another name picked out for their third-born son, but when he arrived on Jan. 30, 1936 — FDR’s 54th birthday — the couple agreed he should be named for the president who was successfully leading the nation out of The Great Depression.

A congratulatory letter from the White House with a photograph of FDR arrived in the Kraais’ mailbox three weeks after Frank’s birth. 
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt congratulated the Kraai family on the birth of their son and his namesake.
“I am sending herewith a small memento for my namesake with the hope that he will have a happy, active and useful life,” Roosevelt wrote, in part. 

Kraai’s monumental gift of ice skating for Holland seems to signal, “Mission accomplished.”

Read more articles by Kym Reinstadler.