Updated: January 23, 2013
When Ken Betz and his brother, Karl, were growing up, their father, Karl Sr., often took them to work with him. The family foundry might have seemed a scary place to a couple of young boys. Established in 1933, and nurtured through the Depression by repairs to the old iron furnaces of West side Grand Rapids homes, the Betz foundry was filled with noise and machinery and molten metal. But Karl Betz made it a place of discovery for his sons.
"It was an experience I totally enjoyed and got immersed in," recalls Ken Betz from his home in Rockford, Michigan. "It was a sense of creativity and artistry - the joy of having your hands in the sand, doing something. I can still remember making what my dad called 'sand cookies.' My dad always made it fun for us. If I hadn't had that in my family, I would have missed an opportunity of a lifetime - the joy of creation for my brother and myself."
Despite the fact that the metal parts and pieces forged at Betz Industries find their way into automobiles worldwide - and a host of other high-tech machines - the basic theory behind foundry work is thousands of years old. Ken Betz sums it up in just a couple of sentences: "You take a pattern made of wood and put it in a box of sand. When you take it out, you have a void that the pattern has left and you pour liquid metal into the sand and once it hardens you're left with a form in metal." Today, says Betz, Styrofoam has mostly replaced wood, and is burned away by the 2,600-degree metal.
Ken Betz and his family have also forged a loyalty to the University of Michigan that is reflected in eight different academic degrees from U-M. It all started with big brother Karl. "He went to Michigan and talked about his experiences there and introduced me to the campus. So I guess I was following in my older brother's footsteps." Betz got his bachelor's degree in metal engineering in 1964, then moved back to Grand Rapids to join his brother and father in the family business.
In 1967, Betz was at a Halloween party where he met his wife, Judy, originally from Six Lakes, Michigan, a tiny town near Mt. Pleasant. They were married a year later, and a strong family life - children Heidi, David, and Anne - grew alongside the business. "I give a lot of the credit to my wife for what our kids have done," says Betz. "When I was active in my business I'd work 70-80 hours a week and was not part of raising the kids that way. Their accomplishments come from the love of their mom."
And those accomplishments are many. Their allegiance to U-M was sparked, says their father, by "all those football weekends" in Ann Arbor. Daughter Heidi (A.B. 1992, J.D. 1996) left law to study architectural design in Chicago, where she now works. Son David graduated with undergraduate degrees in chemical and materials science in 1995, and earned a master's in materials science and engineering the following year. He owns a sheet metal business in Grand Rapids. Anne Kittendorf (B.S. 1997, M.D. 2001) practices family medicine at a clinic in Dexter and teaches U-M medical residents - a facet of her job which, says Betz, truly inspires her.
In 2003, Ken and Judy Betz decided to do something to express their gratitude for all Michigan had done for their family. "My wife and I decided because of the success the business has had, that maybe we ought to give back in recognition of our kids' achievements - gifts to their respective schools: law, engineering and of course, medicine. That was the least we could do for all the experiences we've all shared and received."
Having their own general practitioner in the family has given the Betzes a new appreciation for family medicine - a field often overlooked in the vast array of medical specialties all competing for funding. "We've learned a lot about it through Anne's studies and interests," says Betz. "And it's an important field - it's the first step in getting the medical help that's needed."
"The majority of health care in this country is delivered by primary care specialists," says Anne Kittendorf, M.D., "and we have to ensure that our training is vigorous, up to date, and meaningful. Encouraging the brightest students to pursue primary care should be a goal for all medical schools, however it's becoming more difficult with debt burden and reimbursement issues. Hopefully gifts like my parents' will allow talented students to feel they have a variety of options within medicine, and help to lift the pressure of financial concerns in the decision of which specialty to pursue."
New as it is, the fund has already done just that; it recently eased the financial burden of U-M medical student James Dolan who graduated in 2004 and is currently a resident in Santa Rosa, California. Before beginning medical school, Dolan traveled internationally for 11 years as a teacher and as an employee and volunteer for Habitat for Humanity. As a family physician, Dolan intends to work internationally in a capacity that will allow him to nurture his interest in humanitarian issues.
Today, Betz Industries is one of the top foundries in Michigan, and competes with Japanese and European foundries for Big Ten auto contracts. But they've also collaborated with foreign foundries on research projects to improve their products. Ken is retired. Brother Karl and members of his family run the company.
Betz says he's grateful for a career spent in a field he loved. "Life is too short to be in something that you don't want to be in," he says.