Skip to content

Our Founder: Sebastian S. Kresge

Merchant — Humanitarian — Philanthropist

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 (1867-1966) as he built one of America’s largest retail enterprises, the S.S. Kresge Company, and used his wealth to contribute to the general benefit and welfare of humanity.

Sebastian S. Kresge was born on July 31, 1867, in humble surroundings near Scranton, Pennsylvania. He was the fifth of seven children of Pennsylvania Dutch farmers whose family emigrated from Switzerland in the mid-1700s. The family lived a frugal life and raised their children with the strict Pennsylvania Dutch precepts that emphasized religion, hard work, saving and helping others.

Sebastian attended a rural school and, after realizing early in his life that farming wasn’t for him, he was determined to further his education. Working on the farm as a young boy, Sebastian began raising bees and developed a money-making enterprise as his bees and honey took first prize for several years at the Monroe County Fair. He used the money he saved from selling the honey to further his education and was able to attend Fairview Academy, Polytechnic Institute and Eastman’s Business College.

Sebastian held several jobs early in his career, including teaching, working in a grocery store, house-to-house canvassing, selling life insurance, co-owning a bakery and bookkeeping at Howley Brothers hardware store in Scranton. It was at the hardware store that he became friendly with a prosperous salesman of tinware for W. B. Bertels Son and Company. Sebastian took a sales job with the company, and while selling tinware and hardware, he met and learned about the retail entrepreneurs of the time, including F. W. Woolworth, S. H. Knox and John McCrory.

After five years as a traveling salesman, he had saved $8,000 and used it to go into business with McCrory. Together, they opened two five-and-ten-cent stores in 1897: one in Memphis and one in Detroit. In 1899, Sebastian traded his half-interest in the Memphis store for full ownership of the Detroit store.

With the success of the Detroit store, the business quickly expanded. In 1912, when the chain had grown to eighty-five stores, it was incorporated for $7 million as the S. S. Kresge Company and stock was sold to the public. 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.

More about the S.S. Kresge Company

The success of the new dime-store concept, offering household goods at reasonable prices, allowed Sebastian to utilize his acquired wealth to benefit others and 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.

Sebastian S. Kresge and his mother, Katherine Kunkle, at 99 years old, in 1939.
Stanley Kresge, oldest son of Sebastian and Anna Kresge; Sebastian Kresge; Walter Kresge, Jr., Stanley's grandson; and Walter Kresge, Stanley and Dorothy Kresge's oldest son. Sebastian and Anna also had four other children: Ruth, Howard, Catherine & Anna.

Although located in the same building until 1965, The Kresge Foundation has always been a separate entity from S.S. Kresge Co. and its successor, Kmart Corp. Sebastian 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, Sebastian’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,” Sebastian 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.”

More about the origins and impact of The Kresge Foundation

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, Sebastian’s son, Stanley S. Kresge, became a trustee and vice president in 1930 and assumed the chairmanship after his father’s passing. Since then, descendants have had continuous representation on the board of trustees, including grandson Bruce A. Kresge and great-grandchildren Deborah McDowell, Katherine Lutey, Susan Drewes, Cynthia Kresge and Scott Kresge.