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Our Founder: S.S. Kresge

From Humble Beginnings

With a simple but profound directive, “To promote the well-being of mankind,” The Kresge Foundation was established in 1924 by Detroit retail magnate Sebastian Spering Kresge.

Mr. Kresge was born in 1867 in Monroe County, Pennsylvania, in humble surroundings, the son of Pennsylvania Dutch farmers who emigrated from Switzerland in the mid-1700s. After determining that farming wasn’t for him, he sought assistance from his parents to go to college, and helped finance his tuition by teaching and clerking at a local grocery store. He also maintained an active beekeeping business. While selling tinware and hardware, he met and studied retail giants of the time, including F. W. Woolworth, S. H. Knox and John McCrory. He saved $8,000 and used it to go into business with Mr. McCrory. Together, they opened two five-and-ten-cent stores: one in Memphis and one in Detroit. In 1899, he traded his half-interest in the Memphis store for full ownership of the Detroit store.

He subsequently incorporated the business into the S.S. Kresge Company. With swift expansion through the Midwest and across the nation over the next half century, the S.S. Kresge Co. would later become the iconic American department store chain, Kmart Corp.

The success of the new dime-store concept, offering household goods at reasonable prices, allowed Mr. Kresge to direct much of his profits into charitable philanthropy. In June 1924, at the age of 57 and on the occasion of his company’s 25th anniversary, he established The Kresge Foundation “for the benefit of mankind” with an initial $1.3 million gift.

Although located in the same building until 1965, The Kresge Foundation was and remains a separate entity from S.S. Kresge Co. and its successor, Kmart Corp.

Mr. Kresge chaired the first foundation board meeting and then served as treasurer until his death in 1966 at age 99. By then, he had contributed more than $60 million to the foundation. All along, he maintained a steadfast commitment to charitable giving.

For almost a century, Mr. Kresge’s gifts have grown exponentially in resources, scope and impact. Today, The Kresge Foundation is a multi-billion dollar national philanthropy. But its mission – to promote human progress – remains as central to the organization as it was in 1924.

For more than 80 years, the foundation realized its mission by supporting fundraising campaigns to build capital projects – libraries, hospitals, schools, museums, community centers and the like – that, over the years, contributed to the creation of the nation’s nonprofit infrastructure. Kresge “challenge grants” created community excitement, spurred the growth of nonprofit donor bases, and helped organizations reach their fundraising goals.

“Giving away money is not an easy job,” Mr. Kresge said. “Money alone cannot build character or transform evil into good; it cannot restore the influence or vitality of the home; neither can it maintain the valleys or plains of peace. Spent alone, it might as well stay in vaults. … It cries for full partnership with leaders of character and good will.”

The Kresge family has consistently provided guidance and inspiration to the foundation since its inception. During his father’s 42-year tenure on the foundation board, Stanley S. Kresge became a trustee and vice president in 1930, and assumed the chairmanship after Mr. Kresge’s passing. Since then, descendants have had continuous representation on the board of trustees, including grandson Bruce A. Kresge and great-granddaughters Deborah McDowell, Katherine Lutey, Susan Drewes and Cynthia Kresge.