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West Michigan

8:25 AM  Sep 12th, 2013
by Shannon Shelton Miller

Ten years ago, Bill Mills ’00 walked into Flanagan’s and spotted someone he thought was a UD classmate. It was Matt Williams ’00, and the two realized they lived on the same floor in Founders Hall as freshmen.

Sounds like a typical UD story, except the Flanagan’s in Mills’ anecdote wasn’t the pub near campus but a similarly named spot in Grand Rapids, Mich., a city where one is less likely to meet another Flyer.

On return trips, they met two more alums, Paul Berkemeier ’00 and Tina SantaMaria Berkemeier ’00, and decided there were enough Flyers in town to start an alumni chapter. Mills became the first president of the West Michigan chapter in 2004, held the role for five years, and returned to that position in 2012.

Past chapter activities have included volunteer work with charities assisting the homeless and displaced youth, Christmas off Campus and gamewatches.

“We try to mix up our event sites and hold some in Kalamazoo or Grand Haven, even though 75 percent of our members live in Grand Rapids,” said Mills, who counts 400 alumni throughout the west side of the state. “It’s tough sometimes because we do have a smaller chapter.”

Outings near Lake Michigan prove to be a uniting force, and driving distance becomes less of a factor when members want to enjoy the beach.

“Summers are big here because our winters are pretty brutal,” Mills said.

They might have found another winning idea in ArtPrize, a competition promoting civic involvement through the creation of art in Grand Rapids. Residents help artists develop their pieces and then vote for their favorites. Often called the “American Idol” of art, ArtPrize attracted more than 1,500 entries from artists in 47 countries.

Voting runs Sept. 18 to Oct. 6, and voters must register in person to cast ballots .

“Since it’s such an instrumental event to west Michigan, we thought it would be great to get the chapter involved,” Mills said.

Members gathered monthly during the summer to help Mexican artist Sebastian Salamanca Huet with his work “Childhood Desires” by placing biodegradable kites in trees. The kites symbolized Huet’s youthful hopes and dreams, which encountered both restraint and protection in the trees, representing his mother and other authority figures.

“Childhood Desires” appears downtown near the famous red steel structure Alexander Calder crafted in the 1960s that helped establish the mid-sized city as a Midwestern artistic hub.

Mills expects chapter membership to increase in the future, as he says growing numbers of students from nearby Catholic schools are choosing UD.

If they return to west Michigan, he’ll make sure to contact them — if he doesn’t see them at the local Flanagan’s first.

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