Art Van Elslander loved a parade. Specifically, he loved Detroit’s Thanksgiving Day parade, so much that he was determined not to let it fade away.
In 1990, with the iconic Detroit tradition in danger of shutting down due to lack of funding, Van Elslander stepped in with a $200,000 donation to keep it rolling. Over the next three decades, he became the parade’s must consistent and generous sponsor, contributing millions to restore the grandeur of the annual event.
Van Elslander died Sunday at age 87.
And although his name and the Thanksgiving Day Parade have become inseparable, his contributions to Metro Detroit extend well beyond that piece of philanthropy.
Van Elslander built from scratch a chain of 100 furniture stores stretching across five states and employing 3,500. The Art Van stores survived and kept growing in a hotly competitive industry, largely because of Van Elslander’s business acumen.
When he sold the business last year to a Boston company, Art Van was one of the largest independent furniture chains in the nation, with nearly $1 billion in annual revenue.
From the beginning, Van Elslander used his success to benefit his hometown.
Along with the parade, he was a generous contributor to a number of charities, particularly those associated with the Catholic church.
His family foundation was the largest contributor to the St. John Providence Health System, providing the lead donations for a number of capital projects.
He also was a major sponsor of Focus: HOPE and Forgotten Harvest.
Van Elslander was the perfect example of how personal success can translate to the public good. Because he did very well at business, the people of Metro Detroit, who made up his largest customer base, benefited greatly from his philanthropy.
Art Van Elslander was a good businessman and a good citizen. And he wouldn’t mind if whenever you saw the painted face of a clown on Woodward, you thought of him and said, “Thank you.”