Charles Stewart Mott

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings, Spring 2007,
Spring 2007
Original Images:

Author: Jack Minzey

If there ever was such a thing as a renaissance man, Charles Stewart Mott would certainly have fit that definition. This tall, handsome, distinguished man had a life filled with exceptional accomplishments. He was a very successful industrialist, unique politician, distinguished citizen, excellent family man, dedicated community supporter and willing philanthropist.

Mr. Mott was born on June 2, 1875, in Newark, New Jersey. His mother was descended from immigrants from Ireland, and his father's relatives came from England. His mother's parents had been in the hotel business, and his father owned a cider and vinegar business. At an early age, Mr. Mott showed an aptness for invention. He had designed some of his toys and built a working camera. His plans were to be a draftsman, and he was interested in being a bridge engineer.

After high school, he attended Stevens Institute of Technology, but he dropped out after his first year and joined the New York Naval State Militia. He always had a great interest in the sea, and his sailing experience led him into service with the United States Navy during the Spanish-American War. In that war, he participated in several major naval engagements, serving as a gunner's mate.

Following his military service, Mr. Mott entered into his father's business (the Genesee Fruit Company) and was sent to Denmark and Munich to study yeast culture and sugar. He also used this time to take a bicycle tour of England, Ireland, and Europe. He then returned to the family business where he set up an installment system in which customer's indebtedness was documented on post cards. Whenever a person discharged a portion of their debt, they were sent one of the post cards as a receipt. He completed his degree in mechanical engineering at Stevens Institute in 1897. One of his notable accomplishments, at that time, was his invention of a carbonating machine which was displayed at the 1901 Worlds Fair in Buffalo, New York.

Charles's Father and his uncle bought the Weston-Mott company which manufactured wire wheels. Their customers were primarily bicycle and wheel chair manufacturers, and Charles became a sales representative for the company. Then, his father passed away (Charles was 24), and Charles became the chief executive officer for the company, and he eventually bought out his uncle's share of the business.

It was at this same time that the automobile business was beginning to develop. Mr. Mott, operating out of Utica, New York, was able to obtain contracts with R.E. Olds, J.W. Packard and Cadillac. Most of the auto activity was taking place in Flint, Michigan Flint had been a lumbering community of about 2,000 people. When the lumber played out, the city took on a new phase in its development, due primarily to the kinds of people who lived there. These men had the ingenuity and acumen to move this town into becoming a major automobile center.

One of the geniuses of the automobile movement in Flint was Will Durant, the grandson of William Crapo, a lumber baron and former governor of Michigan. Mr. Durant had partnered with J Dallas Dort, a prominent carriage maker in Flint, to build automobiles. One of the basic needs of building an automobile was to develop a metal axle which could handle the speeds at which automobiles might travel. In 1903, David Buick had begun his operation in Flint, and he brought Will Durant into his operation. They then contracted with Weston-Mott to build their axles. Contracts soon followed between Weston-Mott and other companies such as R.E. Olds, J. W. Packard and Cadillac. Eventually, the Mott-Weston company became known as Weston, and Will Durant bought 49% of the Weston stock.

The following years were mercuric. Flint eventually grew to over 200,000 people, and the Buick Company evolved into a company called General Motors. This company was employing 29,000 people as early as 1929, and the city boasted such names as Walter Chrysler, Louis Chevrolet, Charles Nash, and Ransome Olds. Mr. Mott traded the rest of his Weston stock for General Motors Stock, and he became the largest single stock holder in the company. He was elected a director for life and was responsible for hiring William Knudsen, Albert Champion, and Alfred Sloan. He was also responsible for the use of ethyl gasoline, Ducco paint and using common bodies for various vehicles. At one time, his employees were getting 27 cents per hour, and were the highest paid auto workers in the nation.

Mr. Mott was very interested in politics, motivated by his desire to be of service to his community. In 1912, he ran against Flint's socialist mayor. His platform included the belief that schools should be open for community use. (p 47) His basic belief was that “National politics have no place in municipal government.” (p 63) He won the election, and his accomplishments included building sewers, involving women in the government, buying coal in advance to save money for local citizens and developing a series of letters to provide information for the citizens of the city. He was perceived as a very “hands on” mayor. He ran for mayor twice more and lost, then won again on his third try. During this term, he donated his salary to fund a dental program in the public schools. He resigned from office during WWI to serve as a major in the War Department. In 1920, he was convinced to run for Governor of Michigan. He lost that election, and that was the last time he sought public office. However, he did serve as Michigan Aide to the Secretary of War from 1924 to 1934.

Mr. Mott was a devoted family man. His first wife, Ethel Harding, suffered from a great deal of ill health. She died as a result of a fall, and Mr. Mott married for a second time. This marriage was annulled, and a third marriage ended in a divorce. His marriage to his fourth wife, Ruth Rawlings Mott, took place in 1934. Mr. Mott was a strict disciplinarian with his children. He was also a very frugal man, and the stories abound relative to his JC Penny suits (which lasted him for 20 years), his inexpensive car (which he drove himself), and his common activities in which he could be seen daily walking the streets of Flint, eating at the “5 and 10 cent Store” and working as a laborer during Flint's great tornado. However, he was very generous with his money when it came to others' needs. In the 1920s, he funded a crippled children's health camp, a sight saving program, a Community Foundation United Service Organization, the Red Cross, the Institute of Arts, a boys camp, several churches and many colleges. It was in 1929, when he was President of the Union Industrial Bank, that employee embezzled $3,593,000 of the bank's assets. Mr. Mott put up his own money to cover those losses so that Flint citizens would not be the victims of that crime. (p.100)

Mr. Mott was also highly moralistic. He did not smoke, drink or gamble. He liked hunting, fishing, golf, and tennis. He also had an avid interest in music, art and literature, and he and his wife often traveled to New York City to take part in the cultural activities there.

In 1935, Mr. Mott was sixty years old and had a life filled with achievements. He was a multi-millionaire, a highly successful industrialist, a successful politician, a wonderful family man and a greatly admired and revered member of his community. However, his life was about to change, and as a result of that change, the Flint community, and particularly the public schools, were to become a Mecca for an idea which would spread around the United States, and indeed, to various parts of the world. The change was triggered by the chance meeting of Mr. Mott with a Michigan State Normal College alumnus named Frank J. Manley.

Frank was a native of Herkimer, New York and had come to Ypsilanti to attend college at the urging of his brother in law, Bingo Brown. Frank enrolled in a program for the training of physical education teachers, and this program put him in direct contact with a man he deeply admired, Wilbur Bowen. Professor Bowen was to influence Frank both personally and philosophically. This impact was described by Frank in his own words. “From 1923 to 1927, I had the privilege of learning from Professor Wilbur P. Bowen, the greatest physical educator I have ever known. He not only believed in the importance of athletics and group recreation — he believed that they provided the key to good living, and that all community facilities should be made available for people to use for such activities. He felt that when people have a chance to express themselves in athletics and recreation, their tendency to do the right thing is improved for their whole lives. He was preaching a doctrine that my own experience verified, and I was inspired by his ideas. One of the specific ideas was keeping school building open around the clock, around the year, for public use in recreation programs open to everyone.” (p 114)

Frank also found inspiration at MSNC from another man, Professor Charles Elliott. About this professor, Frank said, “From Professor Charles M. Elliott, head of the Special Education Department at Michigan State Normal College, I derived another fundamental idea: every person is an individual and is to be treated as such. This included the fact that you don't treat anyone as being a Catholic, Jew, or Gentile, or Negro, or capitalist, or laborer — but only as a separate, individual human being to be respected and valued for himself.” (p 114)

With these ideals and motivations, Frank took a position in Flint, Michigan as a physical education teacher. For a few years, he served at various school buildings and later became director of physical education for the entire Flint School System. Frank had tried for several years to convince the school administrators to build on Professor Bowen's philosophy. Then, at a service club's luncheon, he gave an address related to his thoughts. Present at that luncheon was C.S. Mott. Mr. Mott had often stated that “When a man believes that nothing else is important, really, except people, how can he implement his belief effectively” (p 112), and Mr. Mott had always championed a wider range of the use of public schools for the community.

Mr. Mott was intrigued by the thoughts of Frank Manley, and the two formed a friendship which eventually ended up on Mr. Mott's tennis court. The story which Frank liked to tell was that they had a tennis match, and Mr. Mott invited him to another match the next day. Frank agreed and responded to the invitation by saying that he would welcome the match and that next time, he would bring the tennis balls, and they would have some nap on them.

It was at one of these matches that Mr. Mott suggested that he build a boys club. Frank pointed across the field to two school buildings and asked why they didn't use the buildings which they already had. The right idea had found the right person to finance and promote it. Mr. Mott appeared before the board of education and suggested this idea. The board of education quickly accepted the idea with the thought that they were surprised that no one else had ever thought of this idea. Years later, Frank would say that although he had presented this idea many times before, he had learned that “It is much more important to get a good idea accepted than it is to get the credit for it” (p 119)

Frank started six schools in his program with a $1,000 gift from Mr. Mott for each of the buildings. Over the following years, this was to expand to all of the schools in the school district, and eventually, visitations by as many as 16,000 people a year, who wanted to view the program in operation. The program started as the “Mott Program” but soon became known as “Community Education.”

There are so many associations between Mr. Mott, the Mott Foundation, Frank Manley and Eastern Michigan University that space will only allow a brief explanation of each. The following is an attempt to point these connections out in an abbreviated way.

1937 — Frank Manley is awarded an honorary Master's Degree from Michigan State Normal College. “Newspaper reports of the award pointed out that it was rarely made, and that Manley was the first to receive it from Michigan State Normal College.” (p. 138)

1954 — Frank's method of staffing this program was to hire physical education teachers from MSNC and assign them half time to teaching physical education and half time to running the Community Education Program. He soon discovered that there was a need to provide some training to these directors in community education. He turned to his alma mater for help, and as a result, MSNC established a center in Flint for the express purpose of developing training materials and offering courses for the directors which would culminate in a master's degree. MSNC employed Dr. Fred Totten for this purpose, and the College and the Mott Foundation split the costs. This center operated from 1950 until present, and for forty years, was the only off campus operation from Eastern Michigan University that permitted on campus credit.

1956 — Bill Minardo “received a degree never before granted-master of community school administration from Michigan State College…” (p 212) Years later, this same degree was earned by President John Fallon's wife, Dr. Sidney Fallon.

1964-By 1964, thousands of people had visited Flint and hundreds decided to offer their own community education programs. This resulted in the loss of many of the Flint directors. Places like Miami, Atlanta, Syracuse and Winnipeg began to hire away the Flint trained personnel. To offset this, Mr. Manley decided to develop a training program which would provide leadership for community education without resulting in the loss of his staff. He joined with seven Michigan Universities, (Eastern, Western, Central, Northern, Michigan, Michigan State and Wayne State) to develop what became known as the Mott Inter-University Clinical Preparation Program for Leaders. This program was generously funded by the Mott Foundation, and student stipends were equal to superintendent salaries at that time. Due to the nature and magnitude of the scholarships, there were over 2,000 applications the first year (1964), From that group, 50 were selected. Over the next ten years, that program functioned effectively. For Michigan State Normal College, which had now become Eastern Michigan University, there were about ten students a year who graduated from that program. Eastern's grant for this program was about $200,000 per year. Also, the program had a great affect on faculty at Eastern. Over the years, several participants in that program have been employed by Eastern. These include Clyde Letarte, acting graduate dean and professor; Jack Minzey, center director, acting College of Education Dean, department head, and professor; Bill Kromer, professor; Jim Saterfield, assistant center director; Bill Hetrick, assistant center director, professor; Donna Schmitt, center director, acting department head, professor; John Fallon, President; and Sidney Fallon. Interestingly, Lloyd Carr, University of Michigan football coach, is also a former Mott Intern.

1969 — Mr. Manley had decided that he needed to deal with dissemination, implementation and training for community education, and he thought that universities were best equipped to carry out these functions. Eastern Michigan University was selected to be one of the original eight of these centers. The Center at Eastern was given the responsibility of developing community education for southeastern Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and western New York. Eventually, there were 100 centers, and several of these were organized to work directly with Eastern. Eastern's Center for Community Education operated from 1970 to 1992 and for its first six years, was funded by the Mott Foundation for about $200,000 a year plus additional monies which were given to other universities, school districts and state departments of education.

1970 — The Mott Foundation opened the National Center for Community Education in Flint. For seven years of its existence, it was staffed by a staff member employed by Eastern, and for another several years, it was headed by an alum of Eastern. At each of their training sessions, Eastern staff provided some of their training programs.

1995 — The Mott Foundation funded the John Porter Chair, whose purpose is to solve urban educational programs through community education techniques. This grant was in excess of $300,000.

•Stewart Mott, son of C.S. Mott, once taught in Eastern's English Department.
•In June, 1964, Charles Stewart Mott was awarded an honorary Dr. of Laws Degree from Eastern Michigan University.
•Dr. Paul Misner, former principal of the Roosevelt Training School on Easterns campus, promoted community education in his Glencoe School District and with the National Superintendent's Association of which he was president.
•In October, 1975, William White, son in law of Harding Mott, was awarded an honorary Dr. of Humanities Degree from Eastern Michigan University. Dr. White became president of the Mott Foundation on January 1, 1976 and provided continued leadership for Community Education up to the present, including the special contributions of the National Center for Community Education, the community education university centers and the National Community Education Association.
•The Mott Foundation has used an EMU staff member to develop their community education archives.
•Dr. John Porter, Eastern Michigan University President Emeritus, is a member of the Mott Foundation Board

Charles Stewart Mott was indeed a unique individual whose accomplishments as mayor of Flint, Michigan, numerous governmental appointments, creator of the Mott Foundation, and role in the creation and growth of General Motors, have had a positive affect on the lives of thousands of people. In addition, his role in the promotion and financing of Community Education throughout the United States and around the world has resulted in the creation of a sense of community for thousands of communities and hundreds of thousands of individuals. Eugene Kettering, son of Charles Kettering, described Mr. Mott's accomplishments in the following way. “Nothing ever built arose to touch the skies unless some man dreamed that it should, some man believed that it could and some man willed that it must.” (p 235)

The special partnership which Mr. Mott had with Eastern Michigan University contributed in a major way to the creation and development of Community Education. Mr. Mott certainly lived up to his family motto “Spectemur Agendo” which translated means “Let us be known by our deeds”, and Eastern Michigan University became a significant partner in achieving that goal.

Young, Clarence H. and Quinn, William A., Foundations For Living, McGraw-Hill Co., Inc., New York, 1963.

Author's Note:

A great deal of the material for the above manuscript was taken from the Foundations For Living book which was written as a dedication to the seven universities who participated in the Mott Intern Program. When I was an intern, Mr. Young reported to our group on the book, and I later received an autographed copy from Mr. Mott. The rest of the information came from my personal experiences. I was born and raised in Flint, Michigan, and my father, and most of my uncles, worked in the factories for General Motors. Mr. Mott's name was a household word, and we grew up knowing a great deal about him. We also were avid participants in the Mott Program in Flint.

When I was in elementary school, we lived one block from the Mott Estate. Although we lived in a row house, factory worker neighborhood, the kids in our community played on the grounds of that estate and enjoyed a lot of good times as trespassers. In 1942, I was in the 9th grade and had won a declamation contest. My reward was to speak at the Rotary Club Luncheon, and at that event, I was seated at the table with Mr. Mott and Mr. Manley.

In 1964, I was selected as a Mott Intern. This required that I spend a year in Flint, and much of my experience put me in regular contact with Mr. Manley and Mr. Mott. During that year, my wife Esther and I became well acquainted with their two families and learned to appreciate the graciousness and hospitality of Ruth Mott and Marie Manley. I did serve a year as associate director of the Mott Institute for Community Improvement at Michigan State University, and this kept my contacts with the Motts and Manleys active. I also served as a regional director for Michigan State University and in that capacity, shared an office with Dr. Fred Totten for two years. Later, as a result of my role as Center Director for Community Education at Eastern Michigan, I again had regular contacts with both men. This was especially true in 1970 when I was the President of the National Community Education Association, and this organization was funded by the Mott Foundation and housed at Eastern Michigan University. Through these contacts and experiences, I have accumulated hundreds of stories from which I have taken the information included in this article.