At Federation’s annual meeting this Tuesday, the Butzel Award goes to Norm Pappas for his dedication, vision and leadership.
Photography by John Hardwick/Jewish Federation
Talk to Norm Pappas.” For young people seeking career advice, for newcomers to the community seeking connections, for families on the path of wealth management for future generations, for charitable organizations seeking community support, talking to Norm Pappas is not just a suggestion: It’s the thing to do.
“What I do is connect people,” he said. “It’s not just a matter of good business here in Detroit. I think everyone who is strong enough should be rowing the boat. We’re here to help one another and we’re stronger when we work together.”
Pappas has led Pappas Financial in Farmington Hills since founding the firm more than 40 years ago. He has leveraged his influence and business expertise to benefit the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, its partner agencies, as well as dozens of charitable and educational organizations in both Detroit and Israel.
He has been described as a true friend and mentor, a trusted adviser and compassionate listener; a fund raiser, inspiring others to follow his lead in philanthropy; a creative thinker, problem solver and ready volunteer through more than four decades of service to the community.
A recognized leader early in his career, Pappas received the Frank A. Wetzman Young Leadership Award in 1987. He was Federation Campaign Chair (1992-1993), president of the United Jewish Foundation (2006-2009) and a Federation board member. He currently serves on the boards of the Detroit Jewish News Foundation and Kids Kicking Cancer.
Additionally, he has served as the founder and first chair of the Detroit Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) and as chair of Detroit Friends of Bar-Ilan University and the Detroit Chapter of the Weitzmann Institute.
On Tuesday, Sept. 17, at Federation’s Annual Meeting, Pappas will receive the Fred M. Butzel Memorial Award, Federation’s highest honor given to an outstanding communal leader.
“Norm always wants to help fix a situation. He’s been my mentor in leading the way,” says Susie Pappas, his wife of 48 years. And Pappas says she has been his partner in every way, particularly working in tandem on Federation’s Annual Campaign and Women’s Philanthropy Campaign efforts.
They are the parents of Leslie, married to Nathaniel Ungar, residents of Southfield; Daniel, in Portland, Oregon; and Amy, in Chicago. Leslie and Nat are the parents of the Pappas’ five grandchildren.
What five words describe you?
Norm: Persistent, competitive, determined, loyal …
Susie: And compassionate. Norm a is a great connector. No matter how busy, he always makes time to meet new people coming into the community.
How did you and Susie meet?
N: I was born in Midland and spent my formative years in Marquette. After college at the University of Michigan and my master’s at Michigan State University, I moved to Detroit. Susie (from Chicago) was a senior at U-M and a roommate of my brother’s girlfriend, Laurie. They fixed us up. My brother and I ended up marrying roommates.
S: Norm and I met on Sept. 12, and we were married Aug. 14. We dated only 11 months, but we took the best and luckiest leap of faith together. And we never looked back.
Norm, what drew you to estate planning?
N: After about a year working in Detroit at Armour/Dial, a friend told me about the work he was doing, and it sounded interesting. He was working with corporate presidents and entrepreneurs on their estate and business succession plans. I thought here was something that would make a real difference in people’s lives, so I left what I was doing and began my career.
How did you two get involved in Jewish Detroit?
N: What triggered us — as a couple — was the decision to go to Israel on a national mission in 1977.
S: Norm had a friend in the insurance business, Mark Solomon of Philadelphia. He was involved in UJA (United Jewish Appeal) and had led many missions to Israel. I was 27 and Norm was 29; we had two young children at home; but Mark said to us, “Give me 10 days of your life, and it will never be the same.” Norm and I had never been to Europe. We had never been anywhere, just the two of us. So, we decided, “Yes, let’s do it.” And, Mark was right. It changed our lives.
N: That experience in Israel really hit home; we realized we weren’t doing our fair share and, when we returned, we significantly increased our gift to Federation and committed ourselves to bringing people to Israel.
S: After that, Norm and I started getting calls to get involved with Federation. That was our jumpstart.
N: All the attention was a little embarrassing. I didn’t like to be singled out for doing what I thought was the right thing.
Israel connected us to the community and sealed our Jewish identity in a way we hadn’t experienced before. After that first mission, we led a national mission to Vienna and Israel in 1980 and, in 1981, we chaired our first Detroit mission with Larry Jackier. We believe that missions to Israel bring out and develop community leaders and change lives.
One of my best memories in Israel? In 1997, I tried out for the National U.S. Tennis Team for the Maccabiah Games held in Jerusalem. I made the team with five guys in my age bracket. For doubles, I got paired with someone who wasn’t a great singles player, but very good at doubles. We beat the No. 1 team, and I came home with a silver and a bronze medal. That was a thrill.
The secret to your dedication to community service?
N: I’ve always been interested in hearing people’s stories and I want to help in solving problems for individuals as well as the community.
When I was campaign chair in 1992, I heard about a program the Houston and Philadelphia Federations were doing called the Challenge Fund, where funds are matched to any increase in giving. I thought why couldn’t we do that here in Detroit? The first year took an incredible team effort, and it worked! Every year since then, we have had a Challenge Fund, which continues to be vital to our community’s annual fundraising effort. Without these dollars, we could not do all the things we do every year.
S: Norm is committed to reaching out to others as he is needed. He also comes up with interesting ideas. He started the President’s Club to bring givers to the $10,000 level (and is still using that as a solicitation approach even though there isn’t a formal President’s Club in Detroit.) He suggested the idea of the Breakfast Club so people could get together and hear engaging speakers without being asked to give a gift to attend.
And, of course, it was Norm’s idea to start the Innovative Idea of the Year Award for the Federation staff. The Pappas Prize is now in its 21st year. We look forward to choosing and presenting this award every year to someone on the Federation staff. Everyone appreciates the recognition.
Norm, who has influenced your style of leadership?
N: Max Fisher always set the standard. I enjoyed working and learning from David Hermelin, Larry Jackier, Emery Klein and Bob Naftaly. I also had great partnerships with Peter Alter and Nancy Grosfeld, who were Federation presidents while I was Foundation president.
What do you see as Jewish Detroit’s greatest strengths, opportunities and challenges?
N: In Jewish Detroit, we have a downsized population, a lot of infrastructure and buildings, many congregations — adding to many needs competing for our dollars. We have one of the oldest Jewish communities in the country, so we must continually ask how can we take care of our seniors? And our kids? How do we take care of their education? These are our challenges. But I’ve always said, if everybody would replace themselves — through PACE (campaign endowment funds) or other charitable instruments, we’d be forever strong.
Susie and I are happy to be able to help our community. As sponsors of Federation’s 2017 Annual Campaign Challenge Fund, we have added our support to scholarships at Tamarack Camps and Yeshiva Beth Yehudah. Federation’s Youth Mental Health Initiative, in partnership with Friendship Circle, really resonated with us. We’re grateful our community is addressing the mental well-being of our kids and that we can support that vitally important program.
In all your leadership roles, what have you gained in return?
N: The satisfaction of helping those in need … tikkun olam.
S: And the fact that we’ve done it together … It’s always been an integral part of our marriage.
N: We’ve made wonderful friends and found our place in the Jewish community. That’s what it’s all about … period.
Federation’s Annual Meeting is at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 17, at the Berman Center for the Performing Arts in West Bloomfield. Open to the community.