If you’ve ever heard of Dick DeVos, it’s probably because of his 2006 run for the governorship of Michigan. That year, the novice politician was nearly able to unseat one of the more popular Democratic governors in the state’s recent history. It was only by a narrow margin that DeVos, who self-financed his entire campaign, lost to the then-incumbent governor, Jennifer Granholm.
But as close as DeVos came to a major political victory, politics has never been his real métier. In fact, the ex-Amway executive has spent nearly the entirety of his career in business and philanthropy, to which he as shown an unusually hands-on approach. DeVos has always been a sort of renaissance man, gracefully moving from one pursuit to the next, with his areas of focus often bearing little relation with each other.
One example of his ability to master new fields with an almost uncanny speed was DeVos’ various efforts to create charter schools throughout the state of Michigan. In his hometown of Grand Rapids, DeVos, who had no formal training in education, created the West Michigan Aviation Academy, one of the first charter schools at the secondary level to focus almost exclusively on aviation and aerospace engineering. The most remarkable accomplishment of this school has been its ability to take students from some of the most disadvantaged urban environments and shape them into top academic performers.
The academy’s student body is made of primarily of urban youth from some of the poorest neighborhoods of the West Michigan area. Many of these neighborhoods have schools that routinely post among the worst standardized test scores in the state. The students attending the West Michigan Aviation Academy, however, are able to consistently post some of the best. The astonishing success of this school and the many others like it that DeVos has personally created has won his approach recognition as an exemplar of what charter schooling can truly offer.
DeVos is perhaps even better known for his efforts in creating the Grand Action Committee, a group that came together in the early 1990s to prevent Grand Rapids from experiencing the same fate as other Michigan cities like Detroit and Flint. Many of the state’s largest cities had lost their crucial manufacturing base, causing widespread flight to the suburbs and loss of the tax base. In Detroit and Flint, these processes had reached a point of no return, leaving both cities in a condition of near third-world impoverishment, from which they have never bounced back.
But DeVos was able to stop these phenomena from consuming his beloved hometown of Grand Rapids. Leading the way with massive investment of his personal fortune, DeVos was able to create some of the most important infrastructure and public-use projects that the downtown area had ever seen. Between the DeVos Place Convention Center and the so-called Medical Mile, DeVos helped to bring in billions of dollars in additional economic activity to the declining metropolis.
As a result, Grand Rapids is, today, frequently named as one of the best cities in the country in which to live, play and work.
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