Founding donors overjoyed by $3 million gift given in their honor, proud of work being done through medical school’s ‘critically important’ pipeline programs

William Johnston and Ronda Stryker Gala
On Saturday, May 19, William D. Johnston and Ronda Stryker served as hosts of the medical school’s 3rd Annual Imagine Gala.

For more than 30 years, the bulk of the philanthropic work led by William D. Johnston and Ronda Stryker has sought to attend to the issue of underrepresented populations in Kalamazoo and beyond, to give life to opportunities for those who have been denied access or for whom access has been a dream instead of a reality.

They’ve done so quietly without a desire for accolades, without a need for acknowledgement of their generosity.

So, in May, when they learned that their family and closest friends helped raise $3 million in their honor to strengthen the medical school’s endowment and buoy its Early Introduction to Health Careers (EIH) pipeline programs, the couple was taken by surprise, humbled and – more than anything –filled with joy.

The announcement of the gift to WMed came on the evening of Saturday, May 19, 2018, as Johnston and Stryker were the hosts for the 3rd Annual Imagine Gala, a black-tie event at the medical school’s W.E. Upjohn M.D. Campus that benefits the EIH pipeline programs.

The pipeline programs at Western Michigan University Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine (WMed) are designed to foster the biomedical science and health career aspirations for underrepresented youth in southwest Michigan and provide science education and enrichment to increase diversity among youth who pursue health careers. Elementary and high school students from Kalamazoo Public Schools take part in the program and, more recently, the initiative has expanded regionally into Battle Creek where it has been piloted for eighth-grade students at the Lakeview School District.

“The pipeline program is critically important to Ronda and I,” Johnston said recently. “When we look at the areas of science, math, engineering and technology, we see the gap between what our society looks like in terms of people and what those fields look like so the pipeline program Is an intentional program to change the condition we’re in. That’s really what the work of our foundation has been – to imagine a society where everybody is in and that there wouldn’t be a need to have special attention to lifting up people who are on the outside looking in.

“So, the pipeline program is a joy to us,” Johnston added. “To see that it is resourced so that progress can be made is joyful, as well, because simply recognizing that an issue exists without doing something about it is just conversation and unless it’s resourced we can’t change that conversation and we can’t change the condition we’re in.”

The fundraising effort that gave way to the $3 million gift was led by William U. Parfet and Johnston and Stryker’s daughter, Annie Johnston Henn. That night, as she announced the gift and the naming of the W.E. Upjohn M.D. Campus Auditorium for Johnston and Stryker, Johnston Henn spoke of her parents’ philanthropy and their desire to help the Kalamazoo community thrive, all while avoiding the spotlight.

“My parents are pretty private people,” Johnston Henn said at the Gala. “They don’t want their names on buildings and most of the work they’ve done you’ll never even know about. To them, recognition is not the point or the motivating factor … They made the tools to help the community thrive, this medical school being one of their best.”

Indeed, the announcement at the Gala was an opportunity to acknowledge Johnston and Stryker and their generosity that helped make the medical school a reality. In March 2011, the couple gave to Western Michigan University (WMU) the $100 million gift that served as the foundational funding for WMed.

“It was a joyful night,” Johnston said of the Gala. “It celebrates the audacity of imagining and that’s important for any community because there are problems that all communities face and the special thing about Kalamazoo as a community is, historically, when Kalamazoo has been presented with problems we try to gather the collective wisdom and then find those things that we can and should do to change the condition we’re in, and then call on the circle of philanthropy that exists in the community and I think we have a good history of doing that.”

Johnston said the medical school serves as a tangible example of the work done in Kalamazoo to imagine the possibilities, to take a vision and make it a reality. He talked recently of how the now W.E. Upjohn M.D. Campus was once a bustling hub of activity, home to the Upjohn Company and more than 1,000 research discovery jobs. Several years ago, those jobs and the employees who called the Kalamazoo community home slowly faded away and a new vision for the space had to take shape.

Parfet, who is the great-grandson of W.E. Upjohn and former chairman and CEO of MPI Research, donated the 350,000 square-foot building in 2011 that is now home to the W.E. Upjohn M.D. Campus. Following the announcement of the $3 million gift at the Gala, Parfet said his great-grandfather would be proud of the medical school and the work done by Johnston and Stryker to infuse new life into the former Upjohn Company property.

“To see this now, he’d be happy,” Parfet said of W.E. Upjohn. “He’d probably lead the charge. So, to see what Ronda and Bill have done now in terms of their ability, that’s what he did. He dreamed up ideas, he financed them, he supported them and he got others then to be a part of it and that’s what we’re doing now one more time and I’m sure we’ll do it more and more times again in the future.

“But this one is different because I think we’re awakened here to the incredible impact of change, both negative and positive, and we’re all prepared to make sure we can make a positive out of it.”

Just over seven years have passed now since the announcement of the foundational gift for the medical school. Since then, the list of accomplishments for the medical school that has followed is long.

The W.E. Upjohn M.D. Campus opened in 2014 and is now home to the medical school’s MD and master’s degree students, biomedical science research laboratories and a 24,000 square-foot Simulation Center. Since 2012, the total number of employed faculty and staff, resident physicians and fellows at WMed has grown from 483 to 820 and, earlier this year, the medical school was granted full accreditation for five years from the Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME).

At the same time, the medical school has established new residency training programs in Obstetrics and Gynecology, and Family Medicine in Battle Creek, as well as a new Simulation Fellowship. In March, the 48 students in WMed’s inaugural Class of 2018 celebrated a successful Match Day that saw every student match with a residency program. The students headed off to residency following their graduation from the medical school on May 13, 2018.

“We have associations with other medical schools and I’ve had comments from individuals at these medical schools who have expressed good-hearted jealousy about our ability to craft a modern medicine curriculum and integrate clinicals with students from the very beginning with a curriculum that makes sense in terms of today’s medicine and tomorrow’s medicine,” Johnston said. “… We feel very good about our investment. It’s obviously been multiplied many times over in terms of the impact that the medical school has on our community and the impact it will continue to have. It’s an easy story to tell and I think the way we’ve gone about it is evidenced in the results we’ve achieved and is evidenced in the licensing bodies, both the LCME and the Higher Learning Commission.

“All of this is phenomenal evidence of really good work done by really great people and we couldn’t be more supportive or more thankful for Dr. Jenson and the team that he has developed at the medical school,” he added.

As he looks to the future, Johnston said the sustainability of the medical school and WMU as a whole is paramount for the community and the region. Meeting that challenge, he said, can be done through the engagement of alumni, including many who now occupy some of the highest seats of responsibility in for-profit and non-profit companies and organizations throughout the world.  

“We have 175,000 alumni in the state of Michigan alone,” Johnston said. “They rank their time at WMU at the highest benchmarks but what we’ve never really asked our alumni to do is to give of their time, talents and treasures back to the university and we have to change that. If we engage them like we should, we should expand exponentially those who want to give of their time, their talents and their treasures.

“The potential of philanthropy and really increasing that circle of philanthropy is huge.”