Former KCAD Board Member Dirk Hoffius Champions Creativity and Community
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of Portfolio magazine. Read the complete issue here.
Twenty-seven years ago, Dirk Hoffius heard a powerful address at Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University’s (KCAD’s) commencement ceremony that has influenced him ever since. The message given by Theodore A. Bell, then president of Leo Burnett USA, focused on taking control of one’s career and life through dedication, passion, and the power of connecting with others. Hoffius took those lessons to heart, so much so that they inform everything and everyone his work touches.
For Hoffius, success has come largely from helping others succeed as well. Though he wears many hats—estate planning attorney, philanthropist, volunteer, entrepreneur, and cookbook author, to name a few—his calling card is his passion for connecting people, places, and opportunities.
The Grand Rapids native has been a steady force for community-building and placemaking in his hometown since beginning his career at Varnum LLP in 1969. At the center of his efforts lies a deep understanding of how art, design, and creativity have shaped the city’s identity.
“The value of art and design to the region is enormous,” Hoffius says. “Looking at how Grand Rapids has changed since the’60s, to me that transformation happened the way it did because we didn’t just build things; we cared about how they looked, how they felt, how they worked, and how they would impact the people interacting with them.”
Following in the footsteps of his father, who helped bring Alexander Calder’s “La Grande Vitesse” to Grand Rapids, and his mother, who served for years on the board of the Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM), Hoffius has long been an ardent supporter of West Michigan’s creative community. Along with his work at KCAD, he was part of the development of Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, helping coalesce donor support as a board member for both the park and the Frederik Meijer Gardens Foundation. He also currently serves on the board of GRAM.
After being part of the legal team that helped broker KCAD’s acquisition of the original 17 Fountain St. NW Building in downtown Grand Rapids in the early 1980s, Hoffius was asked to join the KCAD Board of Trustees, where he served from 1982 to 1991, including a two-year period as chairman, from 1987 to 1989. His tenure came at a time when the college was poised to take the next step in its evolution.
“In those days, there were incredible things happening at KCAD, but not everyone knew about them,” Hoffius recalls. “We used to use the phrase ‘best-kept secret.’”
Through an intensive strategic planning process, Hoffius and others helped lay the groundwork for KCAD’s merger with Ferris State University. The partnership spurred a robust period of growth for the college in terms of the student body, the campus and its resources, and the breadth and depth of students’ education experiences.
“I think it’s safe to say that KCAD is no longer a secret,” Hoffius says. “When you see the quality of the student work and all of the connections the college is making outside of itself, it’s incredible.”
Hoffius points to KCAD’s support of both ArtPrize and of GRAM’s 2016 exhibition of Dutch fashion designer Iris van Herpen’s work as prime examples of the college’s capacity for impact.
“Here’s a world-renowned designer in Grand Rapids whose work is all about the intersection of art, design, and technology,” Hoffius says of the van Herpen exhibition. “That intersection is what this region is all about, and KCAD and its students are a key part of it all.”
In early 2015, Hoffius was again tapped by KCAD, this time as part of the search committee that resulted in the hiring of Leslie Bellavance as the college’s 13th president.
“Dirk has a way of seeing possibilities and paths forward that others can’t,” says Ferris State University President David Eisler. “When it came time to choose who would lead KCAD into the future, I knew his experience and perspective would be invaluable.”
Despite his immense contributions to KCAD and the region at large, Hoffius is adamant that he’s only a bit player. Like so many of West Michigan’s most influential citizens, he knows that actualizing a better world takes a village.
“It’s a whole bunch of us thinking the same kinds of things at the same time,” Hoffius says of his community involvement. “And the more you talk about it, the more likely it is that it can happen.”
This kind of plainspoken wisdom is at the heart of Hoffius’ approach to all facets of his work. After obtaining permission from Theodore Bell, Hoffius rewrote Bell’s 1990 KCAD commencement address into a guide for new Varnum associates titled “The Best Advice I Ever Got.” The guide consists of 10 key life lessons adapted from Bell’s speech.
The lessons are deceptively obvious, powerfully simple, and universally applicable. Take the first lesson, for example: “Do things.”
“If you sit through life saying, ‘there’s no point in my doing that; that’s not what I do,’ you’re going to miss so many opportunities that could potentially change your life,” Hoffius says. “Be active and explore new things, because you never know what you’ll find.”
Another lesson, “Love what you do. Do what you love,” is a stark reminder that passion begets success, both personally and professionally.
“I could have been a decent trial lawyer, but I wouldn’t have had the same passion for it, nor would I have gotten all of these other opportunities to connect to the arts, to institutions like KCAD, and to the community at large,” Hoffius says.
However, it’s the lesson “Learning is forever” that has motivated Hoffius’ strongest contribution to KCAD yet. This summer, he established a general endowed scholarship through Ferris State University’s Ferris Futures Scholarship Challenge, a donor matching initiative that will help KCAD students succeed for years to come.
“The Ferris Futures initiative is a tremendous opportunity to highlight the value KCAD and Ferris State University bring to their communities and vice versa,” says KCAD President Leslie Bellavance. “Dirk has long been a strong supporter of West Michigan and its creative community, and we are immensely grateful that he has chosen to enable transformative education experiences for KCAD students who will, in turn, bring their creative expertise to the community and the world.”
For Hoffius, the endowment isn’t so much a gift as it is a commonsense investment in our collective future.
“We owe it to ourselves as a community to support young people who will help drive the world forward, both locally and globally,” he says. “When students can succeed, all sorts of possibilities open up.”
The Best Advice I Ever Got
1. Do things.
You have three choices in life: You can make things happen; you can watch things happen; or you can wonder, “Hey, what in the world happened?” Do things.
2. Find a mentor.
Your mentor will be smarter than you, more talented than you, more sophisticated than you, and wiser than you. Yet somehow, for all that, he or she will believe in you.
3. Be nice to everyone.
Nice people don’t finish last; they just don’t talk about winning on the way to the finish line.
4. Be on time.
Be committed to the task at hand because everybody’s time is as important as yours. Agreeing to a meeting is making a promise. Keep it.
5. The magic words.
If you want someone to do something for you, say “please.” If they do it, say “thank you.” If you do something and it’s wrong, say you’re sorry.
6. Never point your finger.
Unless you’re giving directions, that is. Be part of the solution, not the problem. But never be afraid to fess up to your own mistakes. Strive for fairness in all things.
7. Stay curious.
Ask questions. The dumbest question is the one you never ask. It was your missed opportunity to learn.
8. Keep it simple.
Strive for simplicity in everything. Think about it: Have you ever heard anyone say, “I love the guy—he makes everything so complicated”?
9. Love what you do. Do what you love.
This is absolutely critical. If you don’t love what you’re doing, you probably won’t perform as well as you could. And even if you are successful, you’ll be miserable, so what’s the point?
10. Learning is forever.
The more we learn, the better we do, and the more we enjoy what we do. More importantly, our careers and our lives do not become boring if we continue to learn, to explore new things, and to grow.
Ferris Futures Scholarship Challenge
On July 1, 2016, Ferris State University launched an extraordinary opportunity for donors to team up with The Ferris Foundation to help students. This unique program, called the Ferris Futures Scholarship Challenge, provides for scholarship endowment gifts at KCAD and Ferris to be matched dollar for dollar.