Grand Rapids Symphony mourns loss of arts patron and music lover Helen DeVos
October 19, 2017
Senior Manager of Communications and Media Relations
616.454.9451 ext. 139
GRAND RAPIDS, MI , October 19, 2017 – The Grand Rapids Symphony mourns the loss of Helen DeVos, one of the orchestra’s dearest friends and a devoted patron of the arts.
Helen DeVos, who served many years on the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Board of Directors, and who was named an Honorary Board Member following her retirement, was awarded a BRAVO! Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007, the Grand Rapids Symphony’s highest honor.
“The Grand Rapids Symphony has lost a dear friend, and the entire arts and cultural community of West Michigan has lost one of its greatest champions and supporters,” said Peter Perez, president and CEO.
“Helen was a lifelong lover of music, and she believed the great community of Grand Rapids needed and deserved a great orchestra,” Perez said. “Her inspiration and support made it possible for a fine community orchestra to grow into a world-class professional ensemble and the second largest performing arts organization in Michigan.”
“It’s safe to say that without Helen DeVos, the Grand Rapids Symphony would not be the organization we know today,” Perez said.
“For years, her influence and inspiration have been present in every performance the Grand Rapids Symphony has given. Her loss is incalculable, but her legacy will live on in the music we continue to make,” Perez said.
For more than 50 years, Helen DeVos was Grand Rapids Symphony’s biggest supporter, and its greatest champion. Earlier this month, Helen and her husband, Rich DeVos, were in the audience for the Grand Rapids Symphony’s performance of Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 under guest conductor Rune Bergmann.
For decades, Helen and Rich DeVos have been devoted patrons of the arts in Grand Rapids and West Michigan, providing funds that would lead to the opening of DeVos Performance Hall in 1981 as part of the original Grand Center Convention Center in downtown Grand Rapids.
But the Grand Rapids Symphony has been especially near and dear to Helen’s heart. Helen DeVos was an active member of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Board of Directors, providing quiet leadership and wise counsel to the organization’s leadership. Following her retirement, she was named an honorary member of the Board.
In 2007, the Grand Rapids Symphony presented Helen with its BRAVO! Lifetime Achievement Award, the symphony’s highest honor, at a gala dinner and benefit concert in DeVos Performance Hall that raised more than $25,000 for the orchestra’s educational programs.
“I’m not sure I merit all that,” she said at the time.
Her friends and colleagues thought otherwise.
“She was very helpful working behind the scenes,” Wally Knack, a past Board President, told the Grand Rapids Press in 2007. “Her approach was one of care and carefulness.”
In the early 1970s, Rich and Helen provided the initial funds to hire four full-time musicians, beginning the process of transforming the Grand Rapids Symphony from a community orchestra to a thoroughly professional orchestra. The initial four – two violins, a viola and a cello -- were named the DeVos String Quartet. Today, the four principal players continue to perform as the DeVos String Quartet.
Past President Fred Keller, who served on the Board from 1971 to 1990, recalled in 2007 that it was “a great privilege to work with Helen.”
“She was really clear in what she believed in and what her principles were,” he told the Grand Rapids Press. “At the same time, she gave the leadership quite a bit of freedom.”
The former Helen Van Wesep came by her love of the Grand Rapids Symphony honestly. At age 4 she began piano lessons. As a child growing up in Grand Rapids, her parents took her to concerts with such legendary performers as violinist Fritz Kreisler and tenor Jussi Boerling.
But it was a music appreciation class that she took at Calvin College that changed everything.
“That’s probably the genesis of my enjoyment of symphonic music,” she said in 2007.
Another woman, True McDonald, recruited her to the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Board of Directors.
“She warned me it was a working board, and it was absolutely,” Helen recalled. “We may have had differing opinions now and then, but in the end we shared a passion for the symphony and worked together for its continuing success and advancement.”
“Music was so important to Helen and her influence over this organization was vast and heartfelt as it was such a personal part of her life,” Perez said.
About the Grand Rapids Symphony
Organized in 1930, the Grand Rapids Symphony is nationally recognized for the quality of its concerts and educational programs. Led by Music Director Marcelo Lehninger, Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhardt and Associate Conductor John Varineau, nine concert series are presented, featuring a wide range of music and performance styles. More than 400 performances are given each year, touching the lives of some 200,000, nearly half of whom are students, senior citizens and people with disabilities all reached through extensive education and community service programs. Affiliated organizations include the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus; Grand Rapids Youth Symphony and Classical Orchestra; and Grand Rapids Symphony Youth Choruses. GRS provides the orchestra for performances by Opera Grand Rapids and the Grand Rapids Ballet and sponsors the biennial Grand Rapids Bach Festival, which returns in March 2019.
To learn more about the Grand Rapids Symphony, please visit the website or
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This activity is supported in part by an award from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts.