Creating a legacy of giving to the University together

Barbara Wolak
Barbara Wolak

Barbara Wolack and her late husband, John, have a nearly 60-year legacy of supporting University of Detroit Mercy. It’s a wide-ranging history of giving both time and treasure that, when taken together, illustrates what Detroit Mercy means when it says it develops the whole person.

John was the son of immigrants and grew up in New York; English was not the language spoken at home. He left home to attend college in Toledo, which he chose because an older sibling offered him a place to stay. When a new job on the line at Chrysler brought the family to Detroit, John went with them, transferring to University of Detroit. His education was interrupted again when he was drafted for the Korean War, but he returned and finished his degree in business in 1959. He was a financial analyst for Chrysler and, later, General Dynamics.

Barbara, for her part, was attending Eastern Michigan University where she was studying teaching. They met through a mutual friend and were married. She taught elementary school in the Rochester School District for 40 years. The couple adopted three children.

“When I married John, he was already active with the University,” Barbara remembered. “And we attended sporting events together—basketball, women’s basketball—and one day he said he felt he should pay back the University because of all the blessings he had. He had a good job, and was given a good background for a full life. And I agreed with him, we had a very nice life and it was all because of University of Detroit Mercy.”

They started giving to the program they already supported with their attendance—Athletics. When baseball needed a boost, John, who was a friend of legendary Titan baseball coach Bob Miller, volunteered to run a hotdog stand at the games. He not only bought all the food he sold, but he also grilled the hotdogs and the two served them up to hungry fans.

For several years, Barbara organized fashion shows to raise funds for women’s athletics, the student-athletes serving as models. Together, they became charter members of the CAL Club, which supports athletics and Calihan Hall. They are also charter members of the Heritage Society—now the Jesuit Mercy Founders Society—which honors people who have remembered the University in their estate planning.

They also gave generously to the Spring Break immersion trips sponsored by University Ministry, which put students in various needy communities for a week to walk with and learn from people in their own communities.

John was ill for the last 20 years of his life, Barbara said. And it was that experience that led to a new round of giving.

“We were blessed to have so much good medical care, and we had a lot of physician assistants,” she said. “And these were very special people who took the time to explain to us what was happening and give us information so we could make decisions.”

Detroit Mercy’s Physician Assistant Program is one of the state’s oldest, and the Wolaks decided that if these supportive caregivers were to be the future of healthcare, it was important to invest in their future. They created a scholarship for PA students a few years ago; it will be funded by a trust, as outlined in Barbara’s estate plan.

John passed away in January 2020; the couple were married for 55 years.

“We always talked about how blessed we were,” Barbara said. “And we worked together to support the causes we felt were important.”

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