Exploring the traditions that arise from a community's history

"It says, 'THIS site'," Floyd "Bud" Parks says, pushing a photo of a historical marker on South Kalamazoo Mall across the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation's boardroom table.

The Michigan Historic Site sign reads, "The Upjohn Pill & Granule Company was founded on this site in 1886 by Dr. William E. Upjohn and his three brothers...."  

Until last November, for years the marker has been in a flowerbed on the Mall, in front of what was once a Wallgreens and is now the Urban hair salon.

For years Parks, president of the I.S. Gilmore Foundation, knew that was not the site. The building where W.E. Upjohn made his "friable pills" stood about five doors north, where Mall Plaza is today.

If it didn't say "this site," if it was a more-general "this block" or "this area," Parks could've let it slide. But it was specific, and it was wrong. 

This more than just a slightly-wrong sign. This was about the Upjohn Company, which became the major economic engine of the area, whose products have gone out over the world. Upjohn has also been a major source of philanthropy that's boosted the quality of life in Kalamazoo since 1925 when Dr. W.E. himself threw in $1,000 to start the Kalamazoo Community Foundation. 

Also spawning from that little basement pill shop were the millions of dollars of Upjohn/Gilmore family wealth that birthed the I. S. Gilmore Foundation.

His obsession with the sign is not about him, Parks insists, it's about the historical record. But it's obvious that it is about a world of finance and philanthropy that Parks has been a part of for most of his life. 

Parks asks, "Can you imagine, how many people's lives have been touched, one way or another, by Upjohn? The company, family, or members thereof?"

In late 2011, Parks launched his campaign to persuade the City of Kalamazoo to move the sign. In November, it finally went up in its new, correct, spot in front of Mall Plaza.

"I've only been working on this for six years before we finally got it moved. And Carol has helped us dramatically by keeping in touch with the city," he says. 

But, why? The sign's incorrect placement was just a matter of yards. The city also considered it to be "close enough," Parks says

"You ask why I wanted to do something? Primarily, there's a body of knowledge here that people should know, particularly in this (Gilmore) foundation," Parks says.

Parks has been collecting documentation on everything Kalamazoo, Gilmore, as well as Upjohn for decades. He passes it along to staff, because, he believes fervently, they need to know their history.

"They should have an understanding of how this foundation was established, and that was because of the Upjohns and the Gilmores," he says.

"And some people think they did it. I can tell you of one person who said, 'Nothing happened before I came here.' That just isn't the way the world works." 

What happened before Parks came here?

Upjohn history in a nutshell: 

W.E. Upjohn, a doctor in Hastings who'd earlier worked as a pharmacist on North Burdick, knew well the problem of pills of the time -- they were too hard, and likely to pass through patients undigested. So he developed the "Friable Pill," and his own pill manufacturing process. 

He likely looked into opening shop on the spot on what was then Burdick because the entire block was known as the Upjohn block, due to W.E.'s brother Henry Upjohn being a Kalamazoo doctor with an interest in real estate. With Henry's help in buying the building, brothers Fred and James, also doctors, and W.E. set up shop making and selling the pills.

In the following century, the shop expanded, became a plant bordered on Lovell and Portage Streets, and then a large factory in Portage. The company merged with Pharmacia in 1995, then the result of that merged with Pfizer in 2003.

A lot of that happened before Parks arrived. But he's been around for a big chunk of it. 

Asked his age, Parks plays the "How old do you think I am?" game. After some awkward estimation by this writer, he mischievously says, "I'm closer to 85 than I am to 84."

Parks came to Kalamazoo in the early '50s, a student fresh from Ann Arbor High, looking to delay his plans to attend U-of-M by spending a couple years at Western Michigan University. 

He liked Kalamazoo more than his hometown. Parks never bothered to go back to Ann Arbor. 

"Kalamazoo was a well-known entrepreneurial community, and the students at Western had a real work ethic. And the reason was that all the kids at Western were poor kids. They weren't elite. And they all had to work."

He showed us around his cluttered corner office that looks over the city from the I. S. Gilmore Foundation's ninth floor of the Fifth Third Bank Building.

On the wall is a framed photo of President Dwight Eisenhower speaking from the back of a train in Kalamazoo. 

"He was not going to stop in Kalamazoo, but the Jaycees got a petition signed, and they went up to the top of this building (the 15-story Fifth Third Building, then the American National Bank Building), rolled it down, and it hit the ground," Parks says. "I went down there with my then-17-year-old girlfriend, who later became my wife, and we stood about 10 feet from the end of that train." 

Another frame holds a more-momentous artifact from his life, and a huge one for Kalamazoo: a 1958 check for $104,594,000, the result of Upjohn going public.

Young Parks was in the trust department of the American National Bank, working on the Upjohn Co. stock sale. The $104.6 million was, for him, the result of 8 a.m.-midnight days dealing with canvas bags full of stock certificates. "I had everybody working for me," he says. "We went from 500 stockholders, in the space of one month, to 30,000 stockholders." 

Parks says that 14 percent of the stock was sold by the Upjohn family members. "That's where all the money came from," he says.

Fortunes made from the stock sale went to seed philanthropies thanks to familiar names connected to the Upjohn family, Gilmore, Dalton, Light and Parish. In 1958, The Harold and Grace Upjohn Foundation, followed in 1972 by the I. S. Gilmore Foundation, worked to improve the city's educational, cultural, medical and other institutions.

"The reason we're here is because of the Upjohn Company, and that the Gilmores and Upjohns were intermarried. All the money didn't come from the (Gilmore's) department store, it came from Upjohn."

A witness and participant in Kalamazoo history

Parks worked for American National for the next three decades, eventually becoming head of the trust department in 1974. He became secretary/treasurer of the Harold and Grace Upjohn Foundation in 1973, where he now serves as a corporate member. 

"I've been a witness to history, and a participant in history." 

He's worked with some of the paperwork -- city records, property deeds -- that detail Kalamazoo's history. Which is why he's so sure that the Upjohn historical sign was in the wrong spot.

"We were trustee for that property. I've got the abstract, I've got all the deeds on that property.... the abstract tells about the ownership of that property going back to Titus Bronson (1829 founder of Kalamazoo)."

Parks has "a long professional history with that chunk of land," says Carol Snapp, I.S. Gilmore's senior program officer. "And then they go and plop the sign in the wrong place! That would kinda stick in your craw!"

"It should be in the right place," Parks responds. 

When pressured the city to move the sign, the city expressed concerns about the Mall's snowmelt system, pipes full of glycol just below the concrete. They could be damaged, leading to a green antifreeze mess as happened in 2011.

Parks' reply to the city was, "Who paid for that snowmelt? The Irving S. Gilmore foundation paid $375,000. And that money came from Upjohn. The Dorthy U. Dalton foundation, daughter of W.E. Upjohn, mother of Sue Parish -- the Dalton Foundation paid $300,000. Gail and Glen Smith -- Gail was a Gilmore... they put in $20,000..."

"So I'm thinking, you're worried about the snowmelt? How did you get it?" 

Kalamazoo: Beneficiary of company money and a philanthropic culture

"And Upjohn never ran the town. It was never a company town," Parks continues. 

W.E. Upjohn "never felt like it was his money. He felt like he was just a steward of the money."

Huge "economic engines" of the area -- and Parks includes Stryker Company family members -- have participated in a culture of organized giving.

Parks' has developed his own formula about history: "Knowledge of history results in traditions which ultimately help to form the culture of the community."

He adds, "W.E. Upjohn created a culture with what he did." 

W.E. supported the arts, and in 1931 gave Kalamazoo the Civic Auditorium. He cared about the jobless and established a farm in Richland for those unemployed in the Great Depression (now the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research). He, and later family members by blood and marriage, used their money to do good.

Parks hopes current and future generations stay aware of Kalamazoo's culture of giving. It's why he's adamant about being aware of the history, and why for the past six years he's bugged the city about a historical marker being in the wrong spot.

"What frustrates me are the people who take these things for granted," he says. "Somebody made it happen."

He adds, somewhat enigmatically, "All of our experience comes from the past. Nobody has any experience in the future, that is yet to come. And the future never comes. It's always in the future. So you've got the past, and you've got the present, and that's all you've got to deal with."

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in Southwest Michigan since 1992. He'd like to dedicate this story to his grandfather J. Lloyd Gilkison, Upjohn company employee #1538.