Ten Questions with Kate Pew Wolters
by Paul Austin - GRS Horn
The opportunity to visit this summer with Grand Rapids Symphony (GRS) Board Chair Kate Pew Wolters was a treat for me. Even as I was being seated to join her for lunch, she launched into a series of questions to me. This turning of the table was fun, and in the end I believe she asked more questions of me than I did of her. But that is what Kate is all about, a passion for learning and a true people person, all the while trying to figure out how to get to the heart of the matter. She has taken the time to meet many GRS musicians during her time as board chair, and I enjoyed our meeting tremendously.
1) During your time as GRS Board Chair, we named a new music director, completed the $40 million endowment campaign, have a five-year strategic plan in place as well as a contract with musicians that will take us past the 90th anniversary of the orchestra. Exactly how does that feel to have overseen such landmarks for the organization?
Now that it’s over, it feels pretty good! Any one of those things would not have happened without others: staff, musicians, board, and our community. Truly a village made this happen, and it feels great. I have to admit that I knew what I was getting into, and it felt rather daunting at times, but in the end I learned a lot. It has been very rewarding.
2) You have actively participated in many boards. What led you to the Grand Rapids Symphony?
First of all, I saw the GRS as one of the most well-run arts organizations in our community. I had been involved with other arts/cultural boards that I couldn’t say the same for at the time, so I was curious about what made the GRS successful. Second, it was a tribute in a way to my late husband, who had been on the GRS board and loved it. He was a classical music fan so I wanted to do it for him. Finally, because Peter Perez (then GRS Board Chair) bought me a great dinner and a great bottle of wine to convince me (he still talks about that bill to this day).
3) Do you have a favorite GRS concert experience?
I do and it is recent, due to the Music Director Search Committee. The concert in April with (now our new Music Director) Marcelo Lehninger comes to mind first, followed by the final concert of the season with the GRS Chorus performing Carmina Burana. I enjoyed a program from a few months ago with all-Spanish music, too. The work that I did on the search committee taught me to watch the left hand of conductors for expressive gestures. Learning things like this keeps me interested!
4) Soon we will be in the process of auditioning new musicians to join the GRS. What welcoming words of advice would someone like you, who grew up in Grand Rapids, give to those who would be relocating here?
Never has there been a better time to be part of an organization like the Grand Rapids Symphony! You can be part of a community that is growing in leaps and bounds, both culturally and economically. Also, you are only 45 minutes away from a large body of water that you may think is an ocean.
5) If you had to pick a favorite instrument or section of the GRS, what would that be?
Some people think that the violin section is my favorite, but that’s not necessarily so. I enjoy learning more about every instrument, and have been known to text during concerts to ask questions about this. My vote has to be for the woodwind section because of their smooth sounds which reminds me of a calm lake.
6) You were appointed by President Clinton to the National Council on Disability in the 1990s. What was that experience like?
First of all, I was incredibly honored to serve on this committee, but it was a little daunting because I served with people who were leaders and led the movement across the country. Of course I was very flattered. I had to go through a complete FBI security check, which was very interesting. Actually, I was surprised that I passed. The committee’s leader and I still keep in touch, and I just saw her last weekend in Chicago. All of us were appointed because we weren’t “yes” people. We spoke our minds, and I was amazed how well the administration took it. Back then the majority of my philanthropic work was with disabilities. Today it’s the opposite.
7) Your tenure as GRS Board Chair will end next year. What advice would you give to those who follow you in that position?
I would say to keep an open mind, ask a lot of questions, don’t assume anything, be transparent, and most important to have fun. I enjoy the fact that you get unique opportunities as Board Chair, such as getting to know the musicians, going to lots of concerts, and meeting a lot of great people.
8) You have seen Grand Rapids change over the years. Was there one moment in history, an event, or a trend that you will always recall from earlier days?
It used to be if you were in downtown Grand Rapids after 7pm, you could roll a bowling ball and not hit anyone. Now that’s not the case, which is good. Today there are great restaurants with many more choices. I think there is more acceptance for differences, which is amazing to me. There are local leaders of non-profits and businesses who are openly gay, but we have a long way to go in the racial arena. Currently our leaders are concerned enough about it that we are working to change that.
9) Your schedule is insane. If you had free time, how would you spend it?
My answer may not seem very exciting because, if I have free time, I’m likely going to lie on the couch with my cats and binge watch television, with just an occasional meow needed.
10) Your weakness is cookies. Can you let us in on where in Grand Rapids to get the best?
Now that’s a hard question. Would you believe me if I said Steelcase has good cookies? Whenever I’m in a meeting and things get a little tense, I always go for a cookie. I would say Wealthy Street Bakery has good cookies. And my favorite cookie? Where did I see this? There is a cookie that is combination of oatmeal, peanut butter, and chocolate chip … a cookie that has it all!