“Talk to Norm Pappas.” For young people seeking career advice, for newcomers to the community seeking connections, for families on the path of wealth management for future generations, for charitable organizations seeking community support, talking to Norm Pappas is not just a suggestion: it’s the thing to do. “What I do is connect people. It’s not just a matter of good business here in Detroit. I think everyone who is strong enough should be rowing the boat. We’re here to help one another and we’re stronger when we work together.”
From strength to strength
An entrepreneur at heart, at the helm of Pappas Financial since founding the firm more than 40 years ago, Norm has leveraged his influence and business expertise to benefit Federation, its partner agencies, as well as dozens of charitable and educational organizations in both Detroit and Israel. A recognized communal leader early in his career, Norm received the Frank A. Wetzman Young Leadership Award in 1987. Federation Campaign Chair (1992-1993), President of the United Jewish Foundation (2006-2009) and a member of Federation’s Board, Norm currently serves on the boards of the Jewish News Foundation and Kids Kicking Cancer. Additionally, he has served as the Founder and first Chair of the Detroit Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and as the Chair of Detroit Friends of Bar Ilan, and the Detroit Chapter of the Weitzman Institute.
“Norm always wants to help fix a situation. He’s been my mentor in leading the way,” observes Susie Pappas, his wife of 48 years. And Norm would be the first to say that Susie has been his partner in every way, particularly working in tandem on Federation’s Annual Campaign and Women’s Philanthropy Campaign efforts.
Norm and Susie are the parents of Leslie, married to Nathaniel Ungar, residents of Southfield, Michigan; Daniel, in Portland, Oregon; and Amy, in Chicago. Leslie and Nat are the parents of Susie’s and Norm’s five grandchildren.
In conversation with Norm and Susie Pappas
myJewishDetroit: Norm, what five words describe you?
Norm: Persistent, competitive, determined, loyal . . .
Susie: And compassionate. Norm a is a great connector. No matter how busy, he always makes time to meet new people coming into the community.
On early years, influences and career moves
myJDet: Considering your deep alliance with the Jewish community of Detroit, it may come as a surprise to some that you and Susie are not originally Detroiters. Norm, please share a little about your background and what brought you to Detroit.
N: Susie grew up in Chicago; I was born in Midland, Michigan, the oldest of three sons, and spent my formative years in Marquette, Michigan. My dad was an educator, which meant we moved around a lot in my youth. He didn’t go to college until I was three; and graduated when I was seven and became a high school teacher. We lived in Mt. Pleasant, Drayton Plains, Marquette – then moved on to Columbus, Ohio, when I was a sophomore in high school. After my dad got his PhD at Ohio State, my family moved back to Marquette. Then, when I was in college, we moved to Cleveland. . . then to Flint. With that pattern, you might say I learned to be adaptable and get along with all kinds of people.
I went to the University of Michigan for under-grad and, after four years there, decided to get my master’s at Michigan State University because I could do it in 10 months instead of two years.
myJDet: How did you and Susie meet?
N: I was working in Detroit; Susie was a senior at U of M and a roommate of my brother’s girlfriend, Laurie. They fixed us up and my brother and I ended up marrying roommates.
S: Norm and I met on September 12 and we were married August 14. We dated only 11 months, but we took the best and luckiest leap of faith together. And we never looked back.
myJDet: Norm, what drew you to estate planning?
N: I moved to Detroit to work for Armour/Dial. After about a year, a friend of mine told me about the work he was doing, and it sounded really interesting. He was working with corporate presidents and entrepreneurs on their estate and business succession plans. I thought here was something that would make a real difference in people’s lives, so I left what I was doing and began my career.
myJDet: What got the two of you initially involved in the Jewish community?
N: What triggered us – as a couple – was the decision to go to Israel on a National Mission in 1977.
S: Norm had a friend in the insurance business, Mark Solomon, from Philadelphia. Mark was very involved in UJA (United Jewish Appeal) – and had led many missions to Israel. We were young. I was 27 and Norm was 29; we had two young children at home; but Mark said to us, “Give me 10 days of your life, and it will never be the same.” Norm and I had never been to Europe. We had never been anywhere, just the two of us. So, we decided, yes, let’s do it. And, Mark was right. It changed our life.
N: That experience in Israel really hit home; we realized we weren’t doing our fair share and when we returned, we significantly increased our gift to Federation and committed ourselves to bringing people to Israel.
S: After that, Norm and I started getting calls to get us involved with the Detroit Federation. That was our jumpstart.
N: Actually, all the attention was a little embarrassing. I didn’t like to be singled out for doing what I thought was the right thing.
Israel connected us to the community and sealed our Jewish identity in a way we hadn’t experienced before. After that first mission, we led a national mission to Vienna and Israel in 1980 and in 1981, we chaired our first Detroit Mission with Larry Jackier. We believe that missions to Israel bring out and develop community leaders and change lives the way it did for us.
On leading the way
myJDet: You’ve been mission leaders together, campaign chairs together, the Foundation President and Women’s Department President together. Let’s talk about the commitment that sustains your dedication to community service as a couple. What’s your secret?
N: I’ve always been interested in hearing people’s stories and I want to help in solving problems for individuals as well as the community.
When I was Campaign Chair in 1992, I heard about a program that both the Houston and Philadelphia Federations were doing called The Challenge Fund, where funds are matched to any increase in giving. I thought why couldn’t we do that here in Detroit? The first year took an incredible team effort of the many who stepped up to build the first fund. And it worked! Every year since then, we have had a Challenge Fund which continues to be vital to our community’s annual fundraising effort. Without these dollars, we could not do all the things we do every year.
S: Norm is a fearless solicitor and is committed to reaching out to others as he is needed.
Norm also comes up with interesting ideas if he thinks it will help the community. He started the President’s Club to bring givers to the $10,000 level (and is still using that as a solicitation approach even though we currently don’t have a formal President’s Club in Detroit.) He suggested the idea of the Breakfast Club so that people could get together and hear informative and engaging speakers without being asked to give a gift in order to attend.
And, of course, it was Norm’s idea to start the Innovative Idea of the Year Award for the Federation staff. The Pappas Prize is now in its 21st year. We look forward to choosing and presenting this award every year to someone on the Federation staff and everyone appreciates the recognition.
myJDet: As a leader in the Jewish community, who are some of the people who have influenced your style of leadership?
N: Max Fisher always set the standard. I enjoyed working and learning from David Hermelin, Larry Jackier, Emery Klein and Bob Naftaly. I also had great partnerships with Peter Alter and Nancy Grosfeld, who were Federation Presidents while I was Foundation President.
myJDet: What do you see as Jewish Detroit’s greatest strengths, opportunities . . . and challenges?
N: In Jewish Detroit, we have a downsized population, a lot of infrastructure and buildings, many congregations – adding to many needs competing for our dollars. We have one of the oldest Jewish communities in the country, so we must continually ask how can we take care of our seniors? And our kids? How do we take care of their education? These are our challenges. But I’ve always said, if everybody would replace themselves – through PACE (campaign endowment funds) or other charitable instruments, we’d be forever strong.
Susie and I are happy to be able to help our community. As sponsors of Federation’s 2017 Annual Campaign Challenge Fund, we have added our support to scholarships at Tamarack Camps and Yeshiva Beth Yehudah. Federation’s Youth Mental Health Initiative, in partnership with Friendship Circle, really resonated with us. We’re grateful that our community is addressing the mental well-being of our kids and that we can support that vitally important program.
On the journey
myJDet: What are some of your most memorable experiences in Israel?
N: That first mission in 1977 is still a stand-out. Our visit was in November – at the time Anwar Sadat came to visit Jerusalem, so the country was in the limelight. I remember leaving our hotel to make room for the media. Another big mission moment was meeting Simon Wiesenthal in Vienna in 1980. It’s one thing to read about his historic search for thousands of SS officers – quite another to hear his story in person seated with him in his office – which was the former SS headquarters.
S: Norm and I also took our kids to Israel in 1988 and had an amazing family experience that I believe set the path for them. Our youngest daughter, who was just seven at the time, has been back to Israel more times than we have. We’re planning another family visit in two years to celebrate our 50th anniversary.
N: One of my best memories in Israel? In 1997, I tried out for the National U.S. Tennis Team for the Maccabiah Games held in Jerusalem. I made the team with five guys in my age bracket. For doubles, I got paired with someone who wasn’t a great singles player, but very good at doubles. We beat the number one team and I came home with a silver and a bronze medal. That was a thrill.
myJDet: In all your roles as a community leader, what has community service given back to you?
N: The satisfaction of helping those in need . . . tikkun olam.
S: And the fact that we’ve done it together . . . it’s always been an integral part of our marriage.
N: We’ve made wonderful friends and found our place in the Jewish community. That’s what it’s all about . . . period.
Restaurants: The Big Rock Chop House, Bacco’s
Places to meet: My office
Building in the Detroit skyline: The Fisher Building
Pastime: Being with our grandkids! A little piece of heaven. We have a standing Sunday date with our family.
Vacation places: Israel. And Florida and Arizona.
Sports: Tennis and golf
Jewish Food: Bagels and lox
Jewish Expression: Doing mitzvahs
Guilty pleasures: TV. And ice cream
READING NOW: Lincoln’s Last Trial, by Dan Abrams
WORDS TO LIVE BY: Do what you say you are going to do. (That’s all I ask.)