In Memoriam: Helen DeVos 1927-2017
by Leslie Van Becker - GRS Viola
The musicians of the Grand Rapids Symphony mourn the passing of Helen DeVos. We lost a friend of music and a supporter of all of the musicians of the orchestra.
Rich and Helen DeVos have supported their hometown, and their hometown orchestra. Our downtown is vital because of their investment in the Amway Grand Plaza, DeVos Hall and DeVos Place along with many other buildings and projects. Helen’s unwavering support of the orchestra goes back 44 years to when the GRS changed from a community to a professional orchestra. In the early years of the newly professional GRS, the DeVoses flew the core players of the GRS to do a recording session for the Amway Corporation. They also sent the DeVos Quartet to Omihachiman, Japan (Grand Rapids’ sister city) for that city’s 400th anniversary celebration.
Helen served on the GRS Board of Directors and hosted GRS women’s committee meetings annually at her home. Helen also worked on the national level to promote symphonic music. She served on the board of directors of the League of American Orchestras, and was awarded that organization’s Gold Baton Award in 2012.
In the fall of 1977 when I joined the orchestra, an entirely new DeVos Quartet was formed because the previous quartet had resigned to pursue a full time career as the New World Quartet. From the beginning, we knew that Helen supported and believed in us. While I was thinking about Helen and her impact on our orchestra, I thought of our principal cellist, Robert Madura, who died of leukemia, leaving behind his wife, Melissa, and two very young children. I reached out to Melissa and asked her to write about the support her family received from Helen. I am including her complete story because I think it is a perfect illustration of Helen’s character, and how we felt about her.
Here are Melissa’s words:
“Bob was diagnosed with Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia on December 17, 1987; he died on July 14, 1989. At the time he was Principal Cellist of the Grand Rapids Symphony. It was relatively early in the days of having a professional core to the orchestra, so most of the musicians were young and more focused on having and raising children than dealing with major health issues. Consequently, this was a disruptive period in the life of the orchestra family. At the time, Richard and Helen DeVos were major patrons of the orchestra and funded the four principal string positions. Through the years they had periodically reached out to the various musicians who held those chairs, sometimes with an invitation to a special event or dinner. They were always gracious, considerate and kind. When Bob was diagnosed, my relationship with Helen began to change.
Fairly early on in the illness, Helen invited me to lunch at the (newly opened) 1913 Room. She treated me to a lovely meal, and we chatted about a variety of topics. The meal was a small respite for me in the middle of a difficult time. Near the end of the meal, Helen started to speak about Bob and his talent, and about the other musicians in the orchestra and their talent. She then said, “The Lord gives different gifts to everyone; he gave us the gift of money, and I would like to help. What do you need most?” She stated it in a simple, even humble, way. It was not a boast, it was a statement of fact. Before I had a chance to stop myself, I answered, “I need a car. I need safe, reliable transportation to drive my children.” We had an old Honda which we lovingly called the Fred Flintstone car because if you pressed too hard on the clutch, the entire floor of the car would open to the outside.
She said OK as I clumsily back-pedaled and said an older used car would be enough. Three days later, one of her employees was at my door with brochures for several different new cars. We settled on a simple Dodge Colt, which was in the family from when Maya was 5 years old until she graduated from college.
Helen didn’t stop there. She sent our children to summer camp for several summers after Bob died, feeling that they should have the opportunity for fun. And we stayed in touch through Easter and Christmas cards. She sent wedding gifts to both Nathaniel and Maya, and gifts for each of the four grandchildren.
When I think about Helen, I think of a humble, kind woman who noticed, cared and remembered. She was always there in our lives – a quiet presence who lived her faith in a way that has become unusual. For someone who called so little attention to herself, she cast a long, beautiful shadow and left an indelible mark on our family.”
- Melissa Madura-Altmann
Helen has been described as having quiet strength. I felt a sustained and deep support from Helen for over forty years. From the 2 dozen roses I received every time I soloed with orchestra, to the baby gifts that arrived when I had my 2 children, Helen was there. Our orchestra would not be what it is today without Helen DeVos.