The local businessman and philanthropist died at about 7 p.m. Monday at Mercy Health in Muskegon after a battle with leukemia. He was 78.
After joining the family's Ferrysburg-based dock company along the Grand River in 1968, Verplank founded Shape Corp. with his brother, Midge, in 1974.
Shortly after Gary became CEO and president of Shape, the brothers broke ground on a 30,000-square-foot building in the Grand Haven Airport Industrial Park. Within two years, they built a 36,000-square-foot expansion. Shape now has locations worldwide and the brothers own multiple companies in West Michigan.
Despite Gary Verplank's business prowess, he is perhaps best known for his community philanthropy, kindness and generosity.
Holly Johnson, a former president of the Grand Haven Area Community Foundation, said Gary and his wife, Vicki, always put family and community first.
“Without a doubt, Gary and Vicki were two people that stood out to me as donors who were generous, thoughtful, innovative and so committed to making sure our community was thriving,” Johnson said.
A lifelong downhill ski enthusiast and sailor, Verplank buoyed Mulligan's Hollow and the Spring Lake Yacht Club with his generosity.
“Mulligan's Hollow, in its current state, would not be what it is today without Gary Verplank,” Johnson said. “I think about the trees that adorn the Village of Spring Lake in memory of Vicki Verplank (who died May 1, 2014).”
Johnson said Spring Lake's water is also better because of Verplank's dedication.
“Spring Lake is a well-used, beautiful natural resource in our community,” Johnson said. “It has been kept clean and fresh and recreationally friendly much because of the generosity and philanthropy of Gary and Vicki. There's hardly a nonprofit in our community that was not touched by Gary and Vicki.”
Johnson said Verplank's death is a great loss to the community, but that he and Vicki raised their children well. She trusts the philanthropic footprints they leave behind will forever be imprinted on their sons, Tony and Kyle,daughter, Ashley, and their grandchildren, too.
“This is a significant loss, but his legacy will live on,” Johnson said. “His children are still here — Tony and Kyle and their wives, Monica and Samantha. The beat will go on. He raised three great kids. Two of them have chosen to make Spring Lake their home.”
Besides admiring the mark the Verplanks made on the community, Johnson said she misses Gary and Vicki on a personal level.
“They're dear friends,” she said. “They're friends that are almost like family. Our families have done business together for many generations. This loss feels painful right now.”
Tony and Kyle Verplank serve as co-executive chairmen of Shape Corp., a major producer of automotive parts.
Tony said “it's hard to believe” that his dad is no longer among us, but that his humility and kindness will endure.
“I think one of the reasons underpinning his success was his humility,” Tony said. “The last thing he would want right now would be the center of attention. He would be the first person to credit any success he had on his partners and the people around him.”
Kyle said his dad was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia about two years ago. CLL is a rare cancer of the blood and bone marrow that affects less than 200,000 people in the United States per year.
In less than five years, the Verplanks lost both their mother and father to cancer. But the family bond remains strong.
“I think he was very proud of his family,” Kyle said. “He was very proud to be a fourth-generation resident in the community. He was very complimentary of the people in and around the community that allowed his various businesses to be so successful.”
Verplank sailed as recently as last summer.
“He spent a significant amount of time racing and enjoying the people and friends at the Spring Lake Yacht Club,” Kyle said.
Doug McNeil, a longtime Spring Lake Yacht Club member, said sailors will miss Verplank's kind words and encouragement.
“He was always supportive of all the up and coming young sailors and always encouraging to everybody,” McNeil said. “Gary was one of the nicest, most generous, thoughtful and down-to-earth people you would ever want to be acquainted with. More importantly than anything, he was generous with his time. He will be dearly missed.”
Peg Buehler, who worked as Verplank's administrative assistant for nearly three decades, said she and many Shape Corp. employees were shocked at the news of their leader's death.
“He was my boss, but he was more of a friend and mentor to me,” she said. “I absolutely loved working with him. He always amazed me with his memory. Someone would come in and he would know their name. He was so kind to everyone. Employees felt comfortable coming in unannounced and talking to him.”
Verplank didn't talk much about his cancer, according to Buehler.
“He thought of everyone else before himself,” she said. “I think he just didn't want to burden people with what was going on with him. This community has lost a really great man who thought very highly of this community that he grew up in.”
Field Reichardt said he was amazed at how Verplank knew the names of most of his 1,000-plus employees.
“I remember several times walking through the plants with him,” Reichardt said. “He knew everybody. He knew their wives' names, their kids. They knew they could stop their machines and talk to him. That's the way Gary was. Gary was one of those amazing, quiet givers of himself and his resources.”
Joyce Verplank Hatton said she was amazed at her little brother's business skills.
“He had a very good sense of people and what they could do and how he could rely on them and find the right people to make something work, whatever the ideas were,” she said. “Once they got to the point where they could give back, they became very much a part of the community. With Shape, they used to pick out a day where the employees could donate time to (community) projects. Their involvement was fantastic.”
Hatton fought back tears as she spoke of her brother, fondly remembering sailing and skiing adventures, and his engineering assistance in setting up an Aspen, Colorado, FM radio station with her in the 1960s.
“He did a lot of the engineering and picked out where the tower would be,” she said. “We had a great time.”
Hatton said she always admired her brother’s humility.
“Both Midge and Gary would contribute to things that interested them, mostly through the Grand Haven Area Community Foundation,” she said. “Gary would never toot his own horn — he would just go out and do it and not talk about it, which was remarkable. He was a giant in our community.”
Joy Gaasch, president of the local Chamber of Commerce, said Verplank was an inspiration and mentor to many.
“Gary has touched so many lives in this community throughout his lifetime, it is difficult to share that impact in just a few words,” she said. ”He was a friend to many and a visionary that would bring people and treasures together to accomplish great things for the community he loved. He was a mentor to me and helped me understand how important economic and community development was to all who call our community ‘home.’”
Spring Lake Village Manager Chris Burns said the community suffered a great loss with Verplank's death.
“Gary's philanthropic nature has shaped this community for decades and will continue to do so for generations to come,” she said. “He and Vicki were giving of their time and talents to countless boards, committees and projects. I'm not sure if they knew how to say 'no' to any request from the village. I, for one, know my heart hurts for this family right now. I'm confident Village Council will do something to honor Gary and the legacy he leaves behind.”
Klaassen Family Funeral Home of Grand Haven is handling the funeral arrangements. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions in memory of Gary Verplank may be given to the Spring Lake Junior Sailing Association Endowed Fund or the Greatest Need Fund, both of which are held at the Grand Haven Area Community Foundation.
Related: Read Gary Verplank’s obituary.