June 4, 2014 at 1:00 am

John and Marlene Boll: Low-key philanthropists leave a big mark on Metro Detroit, beyond

Michiganian of the Year: John and Marlene Boll
Michiganian of the Year: John and Marlene Boll:

She was a Rockette who’d appeared on the “Ed Sullivan Show.” He was the son of conservative Dutch immigrants, members of the Dutch Reformed Church, who strongly disapproved of dancing.

Yet it all worked out splendidly for John and Marlene Boll. Through luck and lots of hard work, these working-class kids who never went to college turned a small construction business into a national powerhouse, Chateau Properties, that made them rich and, ultimately, two of Metro Detroit’s most generous, if under-known, philanthropists.

In Detroit, they were lead donors to the Boll Family YMCA that opened in 2005, underwrote the Dossin Great Lakes Museum’s new core exhibition, “Built by the River,” and funded fountains and fishing piers at Chene Park along Detroit’s RiverWalk East.

The John A. and Marlene L. Boll Foundation has also given generously to the Grosse Pointe Public Schools, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Gleaners Community Food Bank, Michigan Opera Theatre, Grosse Pointe’s Services for Older Citizens and — despite being Presbyterians themselves — Capuchin Soup Kitchen and the Jewish Community Center. They also support charities in Florida and Colorado, where they have homes.

“They’re inspirational and very classy,” said Bob Bury, executive director and CEO of the Detroit Historical Society. “They care a great deal about other people and their community, Detroit in particular.”

Indeed, the Bolls are bullish on Detroit and, like many suburbanites who adore the city, are thrilled to be feeling that way. “John was born in Detroit,” Marlene said, “and always loved the city. He has great memories of Belle Isle, and we’d like to see it really come back again.”

Because of their good reputation, Bury said, their name helps pull in other big-money contributors once the Bolls get behind a project.

“When John and Marlene support something,” Bury said, “it’s testimony that it’s a good investment.” Indeed, when President Gerald Ford decided Beaver Creek, Colorado — where the Bolls have a homeneeded a new performing arts center, he tapped his neighbor and friend, John Boll, to lead the fundraising.

Typically, the Bolls play down their influence. “It just starts to seep out into the public,” John said. “When one person contributes, it helps others do the same.”

For years they resisted putting their name on projects, until they were finally convinced that could help leverage other contributions. And while it still sort of startles Marlene to see “Boll” on the YMCA, it does have its small payoffs.

“John was in the hospital recently,” she said, “and one of the male nurses who took such good care of him asked, ‘Are you the John Boll whose name is on the Y? I take my kids there all the time! I love that place.’ ”

Michael H. Hodges

John A. and. Marlene L. Boll / Daniel Mears / The Detroit News