When Charles Burke became the president and CEO of The Grosse Pointe War Memorial in 2014, he wanted to take what was already a community treasure and turn it into a place that not just honored veterans, but helped them as well. He was also focused on creating a venue where the community could gather, learn, and be entertained.
“It’s important for the community to have places like this in a society that is increasingly becoming more chaotic, divisive and loud,” he says. “A place to rest, to consider, to contemplate, to gather together.”
His initial goals for The War Memorial, he says, were centered around a shared conversation with the Board of Directors. “This is a community that is focused on bringing people together, building bridges throughout the community, and having a broad definition of community. There are many ‘Pointes’ but it’s really one Pointe. So, it’s not just about being a member of Grosse Pointe, which I am, but it’s also about being a member of southeast Michigan, and being part of the energy of Detroit.”
About six months after Charles was hired, Edward Russell, III, a managing partner of The Russell Development Company, as well as a founding member of the Grosse Pointe Chamber Foundation, and chair of the Beaumont Foundation, had an opportunity to meet with him.
“I was extremely impressed with Charles Burke and the depth of his abilities,” he says. “I’ve lived here all my life – 62 years – and I grew up going to The War Memorial dances and other events. I was impressed with the vision that Charles had.”
In 2016, Ed became a board director, and in 2019, the board treasurer of The War Memorial. “I’ve never been on a board that is so diverse ethnically, age wise, and in terms of background,” he says. “It’s a hybrid, and it’s really been fun to attend meetings where there is dialog and a passion for the organization. And, it’s all driven by this long-range plan.”
The War Memorial is indeed a place to come together, be with neighbors, and have joyful moments such as weddings or solemn events like funerals. Located on the grounds of the historic Alger Estate on the shores of Lake Saint Clair in Grosse Pointe Farms, it includes the Italian Renaissance-style home designed by architect Charles A. Platt of New York and built in 1910 for Russell A. Alger, Jr. and his family.
Donated to the newly formed Grosse Pointe War Memorial Association in 1949, this memorial had a twofold purpose: to serve as a perpetual memorial to the 3,500 Grosse Pointe residents who served and the 126 who died in World War II; and to serve as a continuing educational and charitable activities center for the Grosse Pointe community.
“My father would have been 99 years old last Tuesday and his name is on the wall,” says Ed. “I always like to look at that and think about him and show my grandkids. It’s a wonderful wall and tribute to our vets.”
Along with a really strong Board of Directors, Charles says they also have a strong group of stakeholders, including donors. “More importantly, all these people are thought leaders, thought partners, who are supporting the ideation, the vision, and have the courage to think about things differently and to take some chances to build.”
One of the exciting things they are in the process of building is the new state-of-the-art 25, 000 square foot Fred Alger Center. When it opens at the end of next year, Charles says it will have unparalleled views and access to Lake St. Clair and the shared waterway.
Fred Alger, whose family donated its ancestral home and land, has been a huge inspiration over these last three to four years, he adds. “Fred Alger himself has not only invested his time, energy and resources with this institution, but he is laying the grounds for a tremendous future here. This is a man from Grosse Pointe who built a company in New York, but this is also a man who lost his firm on 9/11. But, he didn’t let the terrorists win and rebuilt from nothing. I meet with him on a regular basis and I’m still in awe of his vision. We are so proud to be his partner.”
Adds Ed, “Certainly with the advent of Fred Alger partnering with us in this vision, it’s been transformative.”
One of things that has always been so special about the memorial is how it has honored veterans, but now, explains Ed, they are pivoting to help veterans too. “That is evidenced by a lot of the initiatives we now have. At the Patriot Theater, a vet could bring his or her entire family for a holiday buffet dinner and we would then have a complimentary movie. Also, we set aside $50,000 for veterans affected by the flood event this year. We passed out hundreds of up to $500 grants. We are coming along beside them to try to accommodate their needs in a practical way.”
Adds Charles, “We’ve been aggressive in our growth, and there is a comfortableness here with the community to try new things, while at the same time being very anchored in our core values of being a patriotic, cultural and community leader organization.
“What we do is all fundamentally rooted on standing on the shoulders of men and women who were brave and courageous to give us this country that we have today.”
Although Charles himself is not a veteran, he comes from a long line of brave family members. His father served in the army for 20 years, while his grandfather was part of the D-Day invasion. “He was wounded in France and Germany; I have his purple heart. My other grandfather was a veteran of World War II.” His brother, of whom he’s also very proud, is a Capital police officer.
Like any nonprofit, the organization is always in need of support, but this support can come in different ways. “We have over 25 different volunteer groups that are taking care of our gardens, and we have young families who are investing in our Driver’s Ed programs,” says Charles.
“This is one of the largest ecosystems of people with good hearts and that’s what makes us special and unique,” says Ed. “I’m honored to be a small part of a large group that is really committed to enhancing the way we celebrate our veterans and our community.”
Everyone is truly welcome at The War Memorial. You don’t have to be a resident, and no membership is required. “This is something we struggle with because it has had the perception in the past of being an exclusive place for a small percentage of people,” says Charles.
“In the historic Alger house, there are the names of those who served and those who’ve fallen. These names don’t discriminate - they fought for a set of ideals that all people are created equal. And we’re honoring that service by making sure we’re weaponizing good to make sure that all people truly feel welcome in this historic home and on this growing campus, in this community, and in this region.”
The War Memorial is located at 31 Lakeshore Drive in Grosse Pointe Farms. For more information, 313.881.7511 or www.warmemorial.org.
In and Around The War Memorial
- Bronze plaques near the grand staircase in the home list the names of all Grosse Pointers who served in World War II as well as the names of those who died. Smaller plaques in the entrance hall list those who served in the Korean and Vietnam conflicts and in Operation Desert Storm. Also, a meritorious service plaque honors those killed during peacetime.
- A number of other nonprofits can be found here. “One of the things the board has been deliberate about is being able to create a home, and I mean that literally, for some of the smaller nonprofits in our community,” says Ed.
- Beautiful ballroom with stunning and panoramic lakefront views for all your special events. Perfect for wedding, birthdays and other types of parties.