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Mackinac Island — John Barfield never received a college diploma. He never finished high school. Yet the son of sharecroppers who fled the South to work in coal mines learned the value of hard work and integrity early on.

Barfield was determined to build a better life for himself and his family, and that determination led to his creation of a successful portfolio of businesses. Barfield settled in Ypsilanti with his wife Betty and their hard work paid off.

At the forefront of Barfield’s work, however, was always including those less fortunate and helping make his community a better place.

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The Detroit Regional Chamber celebrates the contributions of Art Van Elslander, John W. Barfield and Richard M. DeVos. Detroit Regional Chamber

“He had an everlasting consciousness of helping others,” says his son David Barfield, who is group development officer for Impellam Group. Impellam acquired staffing company Bartech, started by John Barfield, in 2015.

David Barfield, along with Daniel DeVos, chairman and CEO of DP Fox Ventures, and David Van Elslander, board member for the A.A. Van Elslander Foundation, will honor their fathers’ legacies Thursday at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s policy conference here.

John Barfield, Richard DeVos and Art Van Elslander are being recognized for their success in business and for their commitment to philanthropy. All three men died in 2018.

“I’m really, really proud that he is being recognized at this level,” says David Barfield of his father. “My dad and the other leaders grew businesses and also remembered the importance of bringing others along and sharing their gifts and their wealth with others who are less fortunate.”

He points to a company his parents started called Share Products. The whole concept was to sell food and household products and turn all the profits over to the homeless and hungry. In the long run, that business didn’t make it, but it’s representative of his father’s outlook.

In addition, the Parkridge Community Center in Ypsilanti still exists today because of the efforts John Barfield made to form partnerships that would sustain the center even through tough economic times.

Patti Poppe, CEO of Consumers Energy and chairwoman of this year’s Mackinac Policy Conference, says honoring these leaders was a priority for her. A primary focus of this conference is on “loving Michigan” through stewardship and sustainable business practices — which includes the work these businessmen did in their communities.

“I couldn’t think of three better examples,” she says. “There’s no doubt they loved Michigan.”

Poppe says she wants to inspire other business leaders at the conference with the impact these men had over the course of their lives. She also says she wants people to avoid equating success with selfishness.

“It’s a huge benefit when people succeed and share their success,” she says. “Success can be a force for good.”

Poppe points to how Richard DeVos, co-founder of Amway, took a bet and helped transform downtown Grand Rapids. Similarly, Art Van Elslander saved Detroit’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1990 and helped keep it going every year after that with his financial support.

All three of these men left contributions in their communities and throughout Michigan that will live long after them.

“Skeptics believe it when you see it,” says Poppe. “Leaders believe it before you can see it. These men didn’t just give money, they gave vision and made real things comes to fruition.

"It’s extraordinarily inspiring.”

ijacques@detroitnews.com 

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