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From Businessman to Visionary John E. Fetzer.

Michigan's history is filled with businesspeople and entrepreneurs whose innovative ideas helped revolutionize their industries while making themselves immensely wealthy. Among those luminaries must be included John E. Fetzer, media magnate and major league sports mogul. But Fetzer's vision extended beyond his businesses--and the money, power, and influence that they brought were ultimately a means to a larger spiritual end.

Shortly before he died, John E. Fetzer said, "If they ever write about me, the tide will probably be 'The Nine Lives of John E. Fetzer.'" No idle boast, Fetzer indeed lived many lives. Headquartered for most of his life in Kalamazoo, he was a pioneer broadcaster who helped bring the first radio station to the region in the late 1920s and parlayed that enterprise into a lucrative business career by expanding his holdings into television, recording, and cable.

To this day, Fetzer is best known not as a media mogul but as the owner of the Detroit Tigers baseball team for nearly 30 years. By the time he died in 1991, he had been listed in Forbes magazine as one of the 400 wealthiest people in the United States. Of his many lives, however, one is not well-known--his lifelong spiritual search. Fetzer attributed much of his business success to divine ideas and practices, but his quest for enlightenment is all the more significant because he used his wealth to institutionalize his vision in the Fetzer Institute, a Kalamazoo-based organization with a mission to bring spiritual transformation to the world.

A Radio Man in Southwestern Michigan

John Earl Fetzer was the product of the kind of early twentieth-century small-town life so prominent in the nostalgic memory of Midwestern fiction. Indeed, many of the incidents in his boyhood could have been lifted from the writings of Booth Tarkington or Hamlin Garland. Fetzer was born at home on March 25, 1901, in Decatur, Indiana, a town of about 4,000 people. After his father died when he was just two years old, his mother opened a millinery shop and eventually relocated the family to nearby West Lafayette, where Fetzer spent a typical Midwestern boyhood attending public schools, playing sandlot baseball, owning a mangy dog named Jack, and running with a tight-knit group of friends.

In 1911, Fetzer's sister Harriet met and married a telegrapher for the Wabash Railroad named Fred Ribble, who taught Fetzer Morse code and introduced him to the newly emerging field of radio. Although radio was still in a primitive stage of development, the fact that one could receive voices and music out of thin air created something of an obsession in the young boy. Fetzer began to frequent the radio station and laboratories at nearby Purdue University, and while recovering from the Spanish flu in 1918, he spent hours studying his father's electrical engineering texts, which helped him earn an amateur radio license the following year. After graduating from West Lafayette High School, Fetzer pursued further study in wireless classes at Purdue and gained a commercial radio license in 1922.

At some point during Fetzer's teenage years, his mother converted to Seventh-Day Adventism, and he followed her into the church. That decision yielded an unexpected opportunity to further his career in radio. The president of the Adventist Emmanuel Missionary College, known today as Andrews University, in Berrien Springs, Michigan, soon invited Fetzer to enroll in classes and set up a college radio station there--the first in Southwest Michigan.

At the college radio station, Fetzer became responsible for everything, including programming, announcing, and technical maintenance. By the spring of 1923, he calculated that WEMC, the "Radio Lighthouse," was reaching as many as 250,000 listeners. It was also in Berrien Springs that Fetzer met and married Rhea Yeager in 1926. Their marriage lasted 62 years until her death in 1988.

The 1930s and 1940s were a period of immense work for Fetzer. In 1930, he bought the license for WEMC and moved the station to Kalamazoo, where it was rechristened WKZO. Radio had by then entered the mainstream, and competition between stations and networks was fierce. Despite his position as president of just one radio outlet in a small Midwestern town, Fetzer continued fighting his way forward. By 1940, WKZO was transmitting 18 hours a day, and in 1945, the Fetzer Broadcasting Company won a license for WJEF in Grand Rapids, which eventually became Western Michigan's first FM radio station.

Having greatly expanded his radio operations, Fetzer moved next into television. In 1950, his station WKZO-TV3 went on the air, and during the following decade, he also branched off into the music and television production industries. However, his most noteworthy business decision thus far was to organize an 11-man syndicate to purchase the Detroit Tigers baseball team in 1956. Over the next five years, he bought out his partners to emerge as the sole owner of the Tigers. It was under Fetzer's watch that the Tigers won the World Series in 1968, the first time in 23 years and only the third time in the history of the franchise.

Blending Science and Spirituality

By the 1970s, Fetzer, now in his 70s and a multimillionaire, decided to take a new path in life to focus more on philanthropy. The John E. Fetzer Foundation, which would later become the Fetzer Institute, had been established in 1954 to offer grants for "religious, charitable, scientific, library, or educational purposes." Now, Fetzer felt the time was right to develop his foundation into an institution of national, if not international, scope.

Upon his graduation from college, Fetzer had made a fateful decision to leave the Seventh-Day Adventist Church and largely abandon institutional Christianity. He turned instead to a lifetime exploration of a variety of metaphysical religions.

Fetzer first encountered metaphysical religions on a 1934 trip to Indiana's Camp Chesterfield, an important Midwestern spiritualist camp. There, he encountered a range of mediums and psychics who held seances and practiced spiritual healing and forms of divination such as astrology and the Ouija board. Fetzer bought armloads of books at the camp's bookstore that detailed the spiritual philosophies of a variety of metaphysical traditions, including Hermeticism, Rosicrucianism, esoteric Freemasonry, Theosophy, and the mind-over-matter teachings of New Thought. The underlying metaphysical worldview of those traditions appealed greatly to Fetzer, and he strove over the next several decades to develop his own unique understanding of it.

Key to Fetzer's emerging metaphysical worldview was the relationship between science and spirituality--indeed, he was convinced that they were simply two sides of the same coin. As a radio pioneer, Fetzer was fascinated by radiated energies of all kinds, and he considered that "energy waveforms" like radio indicated the existence of "more subtle" energies not yet measured by modern science.

Throughout most of his spiritual quest, Fetzer kept his metaphysical interests to himself, not only because he was a private man by nature but also because he was afraid they might jeopardize his business success in religiously conservative Western Michigan. Fetzer had a marked ability to compartmentalize his professional life from his spiritual life, an ability that served him well in his desire for professional respectability.

An Enduring Legacy

Fetzer began the process of liquidating his businesses in the 1970s in order to endow the Fetzer Foundation, feeling that the time had come for him to become more open in the public expression of his beliefs, despite the negative responses it would inevitably provoke. In 1974, he introduced transcendental meditation into the Detroit Tigers' spring training. Not all approved, with one Michigan minister complaining that the practice of "disguised Hinduism" accounted for the Tigers' losing season that year. Nevertheless, in spite of such criticisms, Fetzer believed it was his duty to take risks in the pursuit of the "New Age," and he therefore forged ahead with his plans to develop his foundation to serve his spiritual mission.

When Fetzer decided to begin major funding of research in the 1970s, most of the projects he supported had to do with parapsychology, such as reincarnation and psychokinesis. However, he became frustrated with the pace of that research by the end of the decade. That frustration, coupled with the fact that his and his wife's health was failing, shifted Fetzer's focus to an emerging form of holistic health practice called energy medicine, which is based on the idea that subtle or spiritual energies can be harnessed to help treat human disease.

During the last decade of his life, Fetzer worked hard to perfect the Fetzer Institute by expanding its staff and putting its board on a professional footing. He also approved the creation of a beautiful rural campus just outside of Kalamazoo, the centerpiece of which is the institute's administration building. The architecture of the building incorporates a number of spiritual symbols that were important to Fetzer, and it was specially designed to be a calm workplace conducive to meditation.

In the years following Fetzer's death in 1991, the Fetzer Institute's programs evolved and diversified. During the 1990s, the institute continued its emphasis on the emerging field of holistic health by collaborating, for example, with the National Institutes of Health to conduct rigorous empirical studies on the impact of spirituality on various facets of health and wellness.

John E. Fetzer often said that "money is energy," meaning that wealth is simply a tool to do work in the world, the quality of which depends on the depth of the mission and commitment to service behind it. By the end of his life, Fetzer's spiritual seeking had led him to the understanding that his mission was nothing less than the spiritual transformation of the world and that all of his business success in media and sports was simply the means to create an institution to carry that dream forward.

By Brian C. Wilson

Brian C. Wilson is professor of comparative religion at Western Michigan University. His book, John E. Fetzer and the Quest for the New Age, is published by Wayne State University Press.

Caption: John E. Fetzer at the microphone with WEMC, c. 1927. (All photos courtesy of the Fetzer Institute.)

Caption: Fetzer's WKZO broadcasting station in Kalamazoo, c. 1958.

Caption: Fetzer speaking on the air at WJEF, c. 1949.

Caption: Fetzer in his original dorm-room radio station in Berrien Springs.

Caption: An official portrait of John E. Fetzer, taken during the height of his broadcasting career.

Caption: Detroit Tigers team owner Fetzer dunked in a locker-room whirlpool by several of his ballplayers.

Caption: Fetzer speaking at the Fetzer Foundation World Headquarters in the 1980s.

Caption: The John E. Fetzer Foundation administration building in Kalamazoo County, c. 1989.

Please Note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.
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Author:Wilson, Brian C.
Publication:Michigan History Magazine
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:1U3MI
Date:Mar 1, 2019
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