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Ralph Wilson second on list of America’s biggest donors

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Native Detroiter Ralph C. Wilson Jr. ranked second on a national list of the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s biggest 50 donors in 2014 with his $1 billion bequest to the Ralph C. Wilson Foundation, based in Grosse Pointe Farms.

Wilson, who died in March at 95, founded the Buffalo Bills football team in 1959. His estate sold the franchise in 2014 for $1.4 billion. He also owned manufacturing, mining and other businesses.

Wilson indicated before he died that he wanted the foundation to support nonprofits in western New York and southeastern Michigan.

Foundation officials say they are still formulating a grant-making plan that will encompass Wilson’s wishes and provide support to a variety of charities throughout the country. They awarded one grant last year of $50,000 to the American Red Cross of Western and Central New York to help Buffalo-area residents recover from a severe snowstorm that hit the area in November.

Taking the No. 1 spot on the list was a $1.5 billion donation by Bill and Melinda Gates to their foundation.

One Michigan couple made the list: At No. 47 were Ronald and Eileen Lappin Weiser, who pledged $50 million to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

The gift raises the couple’s total giving to UM to $95.9 million. It includes $25 million for the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies in the International Institute. The center studies how democracies emerge; the conditions needed to extend political, social, and economic freedom; and how dictatorships endure.

Funds also will go to the Stephen M. Ross School of Business, the School of Education, the University Musical Society, the Athletic Department and the UM Health System’s Food Allergy Center.

Weiser was state GOP chairman from 2009-11 and was U.S. ambassador to the Slovak Republic from 2001-04. He also was national co-chairman of John McCain’s 2008 campaign for president.

The Weisers are alumni. He graduated in 1966 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration, and she earned a master’s degree in music in 1975. The couple gave $10 million in 2008 to establish the Weiser Center.

The Philanthropy 50 gave $9.8 billion in 2014, a 27.5 percent increase from 2013. The top 50 contributed $7.7 billion in 2013.

JChambers@detroitnews.com