GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The Grand Rapids community is remembering World War II veteran, West Michigan businessman and philanthropist Ralph Hauenstein.
Hauenstein died early Sunday afternoon of natural causes, his grandson said. He was 103.
People filled the Cathedral of St. Andrew Friday morning for Hauenstein’s funeral mass.
“Ralph leaves behind a legacy of leadership and service second to none,” said Gleaves Whitney, a friend of Hauenstein earlier in the week.
According to his biography from the Hauenstein Center, Hauenstein was born in Fort Wayne, Ind. in 1912. He moved to Grand Rapids when he was 12 and attended Central High School, where he ran track and played football.
Hauenstein joined the U.S. Army’s Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935. After two and a half years of active duty, he returned to Grand Rapids, where he became the city editor at the Grand Rapids Herald at the age of 27.
He returned to the Army in 1940 — the year before the United States entered World War II — and became an intelligence officer, eventually rising to the rank of colonel and being named the chief of intelligence for the European Theater of Operations under then-General Dwight Eisenhower.
In 1941, he was tasked with searching the remains of a German war plane shot down over Iceland, where he was assigned at the time. He found a code book that provided the missing piece to an intelligence puzzle sought by Ultra, the code name for the Allies’ high-level code-breaking efforts.
“It was the solution to all we could solve,” Hauenstein told 24 Hour News 8 in November 2014. “We really knew, through Ultra, virtually all the activity the enemy was carrying out. We knew it the same time they knew it.”
Breaking the code helped lead to the end of the war.
Also during the war, Hauenstein was among the first Americans to reach Paris after the Nazis pulled out. He was privy to the early stages of the Manhattan Project and was involved in planning the D-Day invasion.
But when he spoke to 24 Hour News 8 in 2014, the event from the war that stood out most in his mind is the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp Dachau.
“The type of tortures I’d rather not talk about. Not so good. Yeah. It was terrible. Just terrible,” he said. “I would say of all the things of the war, that’s the one thing will never leave my mind. Never forget.”
Hauenstein was the recipient of the French Croix de Guerre with Palm and Legion of Honor as well as the Order of the British Empire.
After his time with the Army came to a close, Hauenstein returned to Grand Rapids. He established the Tri-Continental Trading Company — an international trade company — in New York City and owned food equipment manufacturer Werner Lehara in Grand Rapids.
His businesses helped to train and supply bakers in Europe.
“Whatever limited philanthropy that I may be involved in came mostly through my experiences in the war,” Hauenstein told 24 Hour News 8 in November 2010. “I went back immediately after the war and saw the conditions of the people, and I saw people starving at other places in the world and I just decided that I should share some of my good wealth or whatever I might have had with different organizations and different people the best I could.”
His investments led to a popular snack treat loved around the world.
“He’s making a tour through Europe and he stumbles upon a baker, and the baker is shaping dough into fish shapes, and this is going to be the genesis for Goldfish crackers, because Ralph takes this idea back to the United States, and of course Ralph is going to make two kinds of things as a businessman: He is going to make food products, like Goldfish crackers that every parent with kids loves, but he is also going to make the ovens and the equipment to make the food,” Gleaves Whitney, also the director of the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies at Grand Valley State University, explained.
In addition to marking his mark on the business world, Hauenstein served as a consultant to advisory commission of President Dwight Eisenhower, under whom he had served during World War II. He was also an auditor at the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s and later part of the team that supervised the first free elections in Russia.
He also gave back to the community, establishing the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies at GVSU.
“When he would come back to the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies, he was the rock star for the students,” Whitney told 24 Hour News 8. “You have to realize there’s about an 80-year age gap between the students at Grand Valley and Ralph Hauenstein. So when he would come back an talk to them, they just hung on every word he said because he had such perspective. He was compassionate, he could identify with them, they identified with him as a result of that.”
The Grace Hauenstein Library, named for his wife who died of Alzheimer’s in 2007 at the age of 96, can be found at at Aquinas College.
Hauenstein was one of three board members who established the Van Andel Institute for Medical Research in 1996. Additionally, in 2003, he donated $2 million to kick off the fundraising for Neurosciences Center at Saint Mary’s hospital, which includes the Hauenstein Parkinson’s Center.
“One of the men we treated, all of his life he has been shaking and couldn’t do anything about it. We cured him and he has been after me for a month to meet with me just to shake my hand,” Hauenstein said in 2010. “I’ve had more than one occasion happen to me along that line and sometimes one little thing like that is so rewarding it wants to inspire you to go out and do other things.”
“He’s going to be remembered for being the perfect gentleman. I have never ever remember anybody saying anything bad about Ralph Hauenstein. He is so generous and so thoughtful about everybody,’ former Saint Mary’s President and CEO Phil McCorkle said. “Maybe it was his military background. He was so principled and so value-based, he would never ever do the wrong thing.”
“Ralph had the gift of friendship,” Whitney said. “He had so many friends and he extended that friendship to leaders of other countries, institutions, and he was able to help so many people because of his great gift for connecting with people.”
When Hauenstein was honored with a lifetime achievement award from the Grand Rapids Economic Club, U2 frontman Bono called him a “cool cat” and a “rock star.”
Hauenstein also raised his family in Grand Rapids. He leaves behind three children.
“Dad’s energy to keep the family together will be missed by all of us,” Hauenstein’s son Ralph David Hauenstein said in a Sunday statement. “He was dedicated to making certain his family gathered at every momentous occasion… holidays, birthdays, baptisms and first communions, and much more.”
Brian Hauenstein says his grandfather’s accomplishments never cease to amaze him, but what shines the brightest is his devotion to family.
“The community recognizes that he gave a lot of time and his money to community, to his country, his church, but what they don’t see is what he did for family,” Hauenstein told 24 Hour News 8 on Monday.
“The time that he spent with us, the mentoring that took place. He cared for his children, his grandchildren, his great-grandchildren and his great-great-grandchildren all the way down the line in so many ways and truly loved everyone,” he continued.
Hauenstein will be buried with military honors.
Catholic Diocese of Grand Rapids Bishop David Walkowiak provided this statement Sunday following Hauenstein’s death:
“I am saddened to learn of Mr. Hauenstein’s passing. For more than a century, he has had profound impact upon our Catholic Church both locally and internationally. He was an active layman, working as an auditor at the Second Vatican Council. In West Michigan, Mr. Hauenstein founded the Grand Rapids Serra Club, helping to provide support for men who are interested in pursuing the priesthood. He was a longtime member of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, which supports the Christian presence in the Holy Land. In 2013, he was awarded the Silver Palm of Jerusalem for his extraordinary service to the Order. Mr. Hauenstein is an inspiration to us all as someone who lived and practiced his Catholic faith. He will be truly missed. May Mr. Hauenstein rest in eternal peace and enjoy the fullness of the glory of the Lord he served.”
In a statement, Mercy Health Saint Mary’s remembered Hauenstein for his “passion for giving to his country and his community” and said that his close relationship with the hospital “vastly improved[d] the care for West Michigan patients undergoing treatment for a variety of neurological disorders.”