Traverse City Business Legends Hall of Fame: Meet the 2021 inductees
This year the TCBN inducts two more Traverse City legends to join its list of local luminaries. Since 2013, the TCBN has paid tribute to the leaders and entrepreneurs who have made lifetime contributions to the economic growth and community vibrancy of the Grand Traverse area.
This year, we celebrate the late Helen Osterlin, whose advocacy, philanthropy and community service seeded projects, organizations and leaders that continue impacting Traverse City decades later; and legendary realtor Ken Schmidt, whose leadership grew his family’s company into one of the largest real estate firms in the state, with offices in Michigan, Florida and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Helen Childs Osterlin (1902-1996) ‘Tiny but Mighty’
As a child in Norwalk, Ohio, Helen Osterlin dreamed of being an opera singer. She never achieved that dream but instead gave voice to countless Traverse City area artists, students, caregivers and projects that continue to impact the region.
Osterlin was 94 when she died in 1996, remembered as a tiny woman known for “…boundless energy and deeply felt causes.” She left a legacy of community service, philanthropy and a role in the transformation of a much younger, smaller Traverse City into the northern hub it is today.
Osterlin’s devotion to causes, projects and organizations touched every corner of the community past and present. Her name, alongside late husband Dr. Mark Osterlin, is displayed on the library at Northwestern Michigan College (NMC) and the campus of Interlochen Center for the Arts.
In addition to NMC and Interlochen, Osterlin helped the Michigan Children’s Aid Society (now Child and Family Services), Munson Medical Center, Red Cross, United Way/Community Chest, Trillium Garden Club, Traverse Symphony Orchestra, Traverse City Civic Players/Old Town Playhouse, Traverse Area District Library, the construction of Grandview Parkway and numerous environmental issues.
She co-founded the Tri-County Medical Auxiliary/Alliance and was a charter member of the Northern Michigan Planned Parenthood and the League of Women Voters.
Born Helen Lydia Childs in 1902, Helen Osterlin grew up in the same hometown as her future husband. As a girl, she studied piano and voice, then pursued higher education and further voice training at Oberlin Conservatory.
She married her husband in 1930 as he was completing his medical education at the University of Michigan. During the early 1930s they lived in Europe so that he could pursue advanced pediatric training while working in hospitals in Austria, Poland and Germany.
They returned to Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan where he was an associate professor of pediatrics. The Osterlins relocated to Traverse City in 1935 when Mark became northern Michigan’s first board-certified medical specialist and director of the Michigan Children’s Clinic.
Helen Osterlin was a woman of an earlier generation when many civic accomplishments were attributed to men. Dr. Osterlin was a noted community leader, with significant contributions to Munson Hospital/Medical Center, the Interlochen Center for the Arts board and the original Northwestern Michigan College board.
However, historical accounts indicate that the couple often worked together with common commitment and contributions of time, talent and financial support. They began their longstanding relationship with Interlochen in 1936 when Mark became the camp physician and Helen was his assistant. They supported many Interlochen projects with hands-on voluntarism and generosity.
Among their early ideas was the Osterlin Wishing Well, built on campus with the intent to fund student scholarships from collected coins. When Dr. Osterlin died suddenly in 1960, Helen replaced him on the board of trustees, remaining involved until her final years.
Osterlin is especially credited as a driving force behind the success of Interlochen Public Radio, notably saving radio station WIAA from closing in 1970 and creating its Community Advisory Committee. Other efforts included the Van Cliburn benefit concerts, the Philadelphia Orchestra concert series, the International Music Educators conference and much scholarship support.
New York Times bestselling author and National Writers Series co-founder Doug Stanton was one of many young people who benefited.
“I never actually met Helen Osterlin … but she made such a difference in my life,” Stanton said. “Her support showed that someone believed in me besides my parents.”
Stanton received an Osterlin-funded scholarship to Interlochen, which allowed him to attend the academy for the second half of his junior year and his senior year of high school.
“I have no idea how she learned about my application to Interlochen … but I was always really grateful,” he said.
Osterlin’s gift also motivated Stanton to make student scholarships and similar encouragement of young writers an integral part of today’s National Writers Series.
Jean Howard of Traverse City knew Osterlin through the Northwestern Michigan College Foundation and the Tri-County Medical Auxiliary.
“Helen was a delightful woman with a great sense of humor,” she said, noting she often drove together with Osterlin to NMC Foundation meetings and enjoyed many interesting chats.
Howard also credited Osterlin for her lifetime support for students.
“She had no children but was, instead, so invested in the community,” Howard said, noting Osterlin’s reputation as a very prolific fundraiser and advocate, convincing countless businesses and donors to financially support her causes.
Osterlin was recognized during her lifetime with several notable awards including: Rotary Club Citizen of the Year, Zonta Club Woman of the Year, Northwestern Michigan College Fellow (1970), the Traverse City Chamber of Commerce Distinguished Service Award (1989) and as one of President George H.W. Bush’s “Points of Light” by the National Association of Counties.
It wasn’t the spotlight that drove her, said Howard.
“Helen didn’t need accolades or expect recognition,” she said. “She did things because they were the right things to do for the community and for future generations.”
Ken Schmidt, Legendary Traverse City Realtor
Ken Schmidt never knew a time when real estate was not the family business.
Representing the third generation of Schmidt realtors, the Traverse City native serves as CEO of what is now Coldwell Banker Schmidt Family of Companies and has helped steer the 93-year-old company’s growth from a single office to one of the largest in the country during his 42-year career.
Ken’s grandfather, Harold F. Schmidt, founded H.F. Schmidt Real Estate in Traverse City in 1927. He was later joined by Ken’s father, Joseph Schmidt, in 1946. The third generation followed, first with Ken’s brother Fred in 1962 and then Ken in 1968.
“In 1968, Schmidt Real Estate had one office and eight realtors,” Schmidt said, noting his mother worked as the company secretary and their closed sales volume totaled $10 million.
He continued operating Schmidt Real Estate with his brother and partner, building on the same local growth that had carried the firm through its first 56 years. The partnership changed when Fred retired in 2004 and passed away in 2008.
1983 marked a significant strategic shift when they chose to become a franchisee of Coldwell Banker and began overseeing an aggressive expansion strategy.
Under Schmidt’s leadership, the company has grown significantly during the past 37 years. The Schmidt Family of Companies now employs almost 300 people and has 2,000 agents and brokers at 90 offices in Michigan, northeast Ohio, Florida and the U.S. Virgin Islands, with sales volume nearing $3 billion in commercial and residential sales and over 15,000 closed transactions.
Scope of services was also expanded to include property management, corporate services and relocation, and title and mortgage. It is repeatedly recognized as one of the top three largest and most successful Coldwell Banker franchises in the country.
Schmidt has also welcomed the fourth and fifth generations into the company. Son Mike serves as president. Others include daughter Shawn Schmidt Smith, granddaughter Carly Petrucci, nephews Fred Schmidt and Joe Schmidt, and Ken’s wife, Karen also work in the business.
Schmidt is a two-term past president of the Traverse Area Association of Realtors and is recognized as a past Realtor of the Year.
His impact has been felt in the community through his advocacy and support for the Grand Traverse Land Conservancy and the Leelanau Conservancy. After each closing, new owners are offered a one-year membership to either conservancy. Schmidt notes that he was especially proud of brokering the sale of 500 acres and over 2,000 feet of East Bay frontage at the end of the Old Mission Peninsula to the Conservancy which was later given to the township.
Core values have guided Schmidt and the company since his grandfather’s time. He and his son, Mike, built on their commitment to servant leadership to create the nonprofit Schmidt Community Fund in 2019.
The new fund is dedicated to “… fulfilling our moral responsibility to serve one’s neighbor and community and helping people with their education so they have skills necessary to realize their potential.”
Those values have been modeled by Schmidt to his employees and family.
“My dad is a man of faith, a great father and granddad. He just happens to be pretty darn good at business as well,” said Mike Schmidt.
“It has been fun to be on this journey with him as it has exceeded all expectations.”
Shawn Schmidt Smith agreed.
“It has been such a gift to have him as a dad,” she said.
“To observe how he interacts with people, makes time for them, conducts business so calmly and good naturedly, and to watch how he makes time for his church, fun and family is inspiring,” Smith said.
“I still pretty much want to be just like him.”