On Sunday, August 7, 2022, Davenport lost a friend and tremendous advocate with the passing of Wilbur Lettinga.
“It’s rare that one person can make a long and lasting impact in the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, but Wilbur Lettinga, was certainly one of those unique individuals,” said Dr. Richard J. Pappas, president of Davenport University. “His support of Davenport University and thousands of students that walk through our doors and into incredible careers is a testament to his outstanding leadership and dedication as a community-minded philanthropist.”
Wilbur served on the board of trustees for Davenport University for nearly 50 years. He was a generous donor, mentor, and leader for students and staff alike.
“He was a friend to this university on so many levels and he will be missed by each member of our community,” added Dr. Pappas. “I will personally miss his guidance.”
Wilbur Lettinga’s legacy at Davenport University started nearly 70 years ago when he decided to attend Davenport College in Grand Rapids.
As Lettinga once said, the key to his future was the one he put in the ignition of his Chevrolet Bellaire one summer morning in 1953. “I grew up on a farm, not knowing where to go after high school,” Lettinga explained. “So, I got in my car and drove to Davenport. It was the beginning of my career.”
The decision was not quite as spontaneous as it sounded, although it did represent a complete change of direction. ‘Bill’ (his lifelong nickname) already had been accepted into Milwaukee’s Berean Bible College to begin studying for the ministry, but by his own account was “never comfortable with that decision.” Fred Kamminga, his boss at Kamminga Auto Wash in Grand Rapids where Bill worked part-time, suggested he consider Davenport Institute.
Talented in math, Lettinga enrolled as an accounting major, financing his education by working as a bookkeeper at a nearby Texaco gas station. After graduating in 1955, he apprenticed at the accounting firm of Davenport instructor James Rugg and began studying for his CPA exams. Eager to go into business for himself, Lettinga opened his own office.
Wilbur became a force in the West Michigan community as a leader and creator of multiple businesses. He possessed the entrepreneur’s instincts for recognizing opportunities early, including computerized journaling and lasers when they were both emerging technologies. (Laser Alignment, the firm Lettinga founded in 1968, patented a process that helped excavate the route of the Chunnel beneath the English Channel.) From underground sprinkling systems to finance, he pursued virtually every idea that interested him. His original accounting firm, which he later named Lettinga and Associates, and Kentland Corporation, which managed mobile home parks and office buildings, operated successfully for decades.
The son of Dutch immigrant farmers always considered Davenport’s modest beginnings analogous to his own. Referring to Davenport Institute’s first-floor retail space at 2 East Fulton, Lettinga recalled attending classes on the second floor “above the shoe store.”
But these memories are infused with his loyalty and unwavering support. Prospering with his own successful firms, Lettinga has remained a lifelong major benefactor, helping Davenport grow from the single two-story building he attended to an elegant Heritage Hill campus, and eventually to the 43-acre Caledonia campus that features his name.
Lettinga began giving back to his alma mater by joining the Davenport College governing board as a trustee in 1973. In 1978, he began a 13-year tenure as chair under President Donald Maine and continued to serve on the board. He was also a founding board member of the Davenport College Foundation in 1982 and the following year was honored with the Distinguished Alumni Award.
In 1986, the W.A. Lettinga Entrepreneurial Center on the Fulton Street campus was dedicated to his stature in the business community. As a resource for small businesses and corporate clients alike, the facility represented Wilbur’s commitment to business development and excellence in West Michigan.
In 2001, Wilbur was recognized by Davenport University with a Peter C. Cook Award for exemplifying professional success and their commitment to community service.
In 2005, a generous gift from Wilbur established a new campus in Southeast Grand Rapids in his name. The new campus propelled the university into a full-service academic institution offering new residential opportunities and expanding its programming to include bachelor and graduate programs.
Over time Wilbur has impacted so many students through the establishment of the Wilbur and Sharon Lettinga Endowed Scholarships. Most recently, together with his children, Bill Lettinga, Jr. and the late Michael P. Lettinga Trust (via Connie Lettinga), donated the building that was home to Kentland Corporation, which is across the street from Davenport University’s Lettinga Campus.
Other prominent organizations have benefited from his legacy. Lettinga initiated the Hope Network Foundation in 1987 and named the Coral Lettinga Campus for his granddaughter. He was a founding member of the Butterworth Foundation board and in 1996 donated the funds that made the Lettinga Cancer Center possible. He also served on many other community boards, including Hospice of Michigan, and held an honorary Doctor of Law degree from his alma mater.