Dave Custer spent almost 40 years building a successful workplace interiors business that now employs 114 people with sales of $58 million.
But in the 1960s, Custer was a first-generation student at Grand Rapids Junior College. His father’s grocery store had been forced to close, and he was happy he could afford GRJC tuition. In 1967, he transferred his GRJC credits to Western Michigan University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree.
“Grand Rapids Junior College had lower tuition and allowed me to stay at home and helped me get a start on a college degree,” he said. “And having that degree allowed for better opportunities of employment, which then molded my career.”
The CEO and founder of Custer Inc. shares his story with almost everyone he encounters, saying, “If it wasn’t for GRJC, my life would be very different from what it is today.”
Custer and his wife, Karen, have dedicated their time and abilities to ensuring current Grand Rapids Community College students get the opportunities that changed his life, and two national organizations recognized that commitment this year.
The American Association of Community Colleges named Dave Custer one of just four 2020 Outstanding Alumni Award recipients from among 600 nominations. Then this past spring, the Council for Advancement and Support of Education named him the recipient of the 2020 Ernest T. Steward Award for Alumni Volunteer Involvement. The award, named for the first executive director of the American Alumni Council, recognizes an individual for service to his or her alma mater and is the highest honor CASE presents to an alumni volunteer.
Dave Custer became a member of the GRCC Foundation’s board of directors in 1989 and immediately joined efforts that led Kent County voters to redistrict GRJC into the independent, standalone Grand Rapids Community College. In 2008, he was named board chair -- the first time this leadership position was held by someone other than the college president. He has served as chair of the fundraising committee for 30 years, and his tenure includes a historic milestone: In 2017, more than $1 million in scholarships were awarded. He and his wife most recently served as honorary chairs of GRCC’s A Broader Vision capital campaign.
“Dave has an entrepreneurial spirit that has proven to be such a tremendous asset to the GRCC Foundation,” said Dr. Jim Buzzitta, current board chair. “He pushes us to think innovatively, and his love for his alma mater is evident in all that he does.” Karen Custer is an inaugural member of the GRCC Foundation's Women in Philanthropy group and her support of the college is part of her commitment to the larger community. She serves on the boards of St. Mary’s Mercy Health Foundation, the Thornapple River Association and the Timber Canyon Neighborhood Association. She also volunteers with Kids’ Food Basket, Central Reformed Church and the Mental Health Foundation.
She is the former president of Cascade Hills Women’s Golf Association and the Thornapple Elementary and Central Middle School PTOs, and started the Forest Hills Public Schools parent advisory council and Southeast YMCA’s swim team. She was also chair of the Area Wide Young Life gala, Children’s Miracle Network Telethon, Central Reformed Church’s children’s committee, Cascade Hills pool committee and Grand Rapids schools Mind Share program. She served on the boards for the Grand Rapids Schools Student Advancement Foundation (now known as the Grand Rapids Public Schools Foundation), Hope Network, Clark Retirement Community and Make-a-Wish Foundation.
Karen Custer received the Ben Emdin Award for service to Forest Hills Public Schools and the Legacy Award from the Grand Rapids Public Museum. She received a Tribute Award from Forest Hills Board of Education and was elected to the Forest Hills Central Athletic Hall of Fame for being the first female president of the boosters.
The Custers’ latest project realizes a long-held dream of the GRCC Foundation: a permanent home for fundraising and alumni activities. Their leadership and insight was recognized by the GRCC board of trustees, which voted unanimously to rename the refurbished Lettinga House the Custer Alumni House.
The foundation had planned to show off its new home as part of a special tribute to the Custers during SCHOLARfest 2020. While the pandemic moved the event online, friends and community leaders were still able to share their appreciation for all the couple has done for West Michigan.
For their part, the Custers say they are happy to help an institution that helps so many.
“I want to help give others the same chance and opportunity I had,” said Dave Custer, GRCC’s 2010 Distinguished Alumnus. “I don’t know what our community would do without GRCC.”