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Spartan Profiles

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    Winter 2016


Artist Jeff Blandford has always had a creative impulse. He also has a head for business.

As a fourth-grader in Holland, Michigan, he sold enough Creepy Crawlers—those rubbery bugs made with goop and a mini-oven—on the playground to finance his candy habit.

In middle school, he set up shop in his locker, selling hemp necklaces strung with clay beads he baked at home.

Now, as the owner of Jeff Blandford Gallery in downtown Saugatuck—known for its bounties of galleries and tourists—he said he likes to serve as proof: You can make a living as an artist.

You can even use your earnings to buy your first house—situated on five acres of farmland replete with barns-turned-studios and fruit trees—at age 22, before graduating from college.

The sleek new 800-square-foot Jeff Blandford Gallery is the artist’s fourth. He opened his first the summer after high school graduation, paying $250 a month for a tiny spot on the highway where he could make and sell his pottery.

“A hole in the wall is an understatement,” Blandford said. “But it was just what I needed.”

The next fall, he started classes at MSU, where he would graduate in 2007 with a studio art degree. But every summer, Blandford reopened his hole in the wall in Saugatuck. As graduation neared, he’d saved enough money to buy his farm in nearby Fennville.

Each gallery has been bigger and better positioned for foot traffic than the last. His new one—on Saugatuck’s main drag—opened in April. Sales have taken off.

The gallery’s success may be partly a result of location. But, also, Blandford makes a variety of pieces to appeal to a variety of buyers: a small, traditional vessel for $20, a large design-oriented piece for $800.

His aesthetic is midcentury modern: streamlined, even machined-looking, although every piece is handmade. His artistic influences work in architecture, interior design and furniture—especially modern-design legends such as Charles and Ray Eames and George Nelson, who did work for Holland-based Herman Miller.

But he also finds inspiration in nature, where he also finds some of his materials. Digging in his garden in 2012, Blandford discovered clay. Loaded with iron, it fired to a rich rust color.

He could work with that and sell the results. Which would allow him to could keep working with that. “I’m paying my mortgage with my mud,” he said with a laugh.

Even as an entrepreneurial child, Blandford said, “it was never about making a ton of money. I just wanted to keep doing what I was doing.”

~ Adrian Rogers



Mary Ann Weaver found the Michigan Victory Games as a parent.

After her son Matthew was born with cerebral palsy, she didn’t know what to expect. How would his brain injury affect his body, or his mind? One thing she did know: Busy kids stay out of trouble.

Starting at age 8, Matthew competed in bocce ball, slalom, bowling, track-and-field and other Victory Games events. In high school, his participation earned him a varsity letter. 

“I just kept parenting him and loving him and demanding what I could of him,” Weaver said, “which is what I think any of us should do to get the best life possible, whatever that looks like.”

Now 26, Matthew drives his power wheelchair to work as a programmer for IBM. And Mary Ann Weaver, of Caledonia, Michigan, serves as the volunteer president of the nonprofit Michigan Disability Sports Alliance, which runs the annual four-day Michigan Victory Games on MSU’s campus.

Weaver graduated from MSU in 1977 with a bachelor’s degree in special and elementary education. After a teaching stint, Weaver worked in insurance and consumer affairs before running the Early On program for the Van Buren Intermediate School District. That program provides services for babies and toddlers experiencing developmental delays.

Working with children with disabilities, Weaver said, is “just one of those things you’re programmed for.”

She’s been running the Victory Games for close to a decade. The role boils down to three goals, she said: recruiting more volunteers, signing on more sponsors, and especially recruiting more athletes to compete—“not because I care about growing,” Weaver said, “but because I know what it’s done for our son as well as other individuals that I’ve followed over the years.”

The games often draw comparisons to the Special Olympics. But while the Special Olympics is for athletes with cognitive disabilities, the Victory Games are for people whose primary diagnosis is a physical disability, although some have cognitive disabilities, too.

About 100 athletes compete every year. Most of them—as young as 7, with no upper age limit—live in Michigan and train with regional teams.

During the games, the athletes live in a residence hall with their coaches and volunteers—and away from their parents and caretakers.

It’s a chance to practice independence, which builds confidence, Weaver said—“which helps them as they grow and develop into teenagers and adults, just like anybody else.”

~ Adrian Rogers



When Sue Petrisin was offered a chance to go skydiving with the U.S. Army’s Golden Knights this past summer, she didn’t hesitate.

“The way I’ve looked at life, I’m going to take every opportunity I have,” she said in a recent interview.

This approach has taken her all the way to the top of Kiwanis International, where she was elected the service organization’s first female president. Petrisin, who is also associate director for Alumni Programs at MSU, started her one-year term in October.“For me it was really a way of paying it forward, for all Kiwanis has done for me over the years,” she said.

She’s been involved with Kiwanis since she joined her high school Key Club in northern Michigan. The experience made her realize “there are people that need more than we do,” she said.

She continued her service and leadership in college, in MSU’s Circle K club. But after graduation, she was forced to take a break—Kiwanis didn’t admit women until 1987. Petrisin was invited to join the East Lansing chapter soon after.

Eventually she took leadership roles at the group’s state and district level. “For me, it was an opportunity to grow as a person,” she said, learning leadership skills amid plenty of support if she made mistakes.

Kiwanis, with more than 630,000 members in at least 80 nations, is dedicated to serving children. Petrisin’s first goal as president was to finish the group’s five-year effort to raise $110 million to support Unicef in eliminating maternal and neonatal tetanus.

Her second goal is to expand membership and open more clubs around the world. This fall she traveled through Asia, Malaysia and Japan connecting with Kiwanis groups. In Cambodia, she saw people living in wooden shacks without doors, windows, running water or electricity. “It really gives you a different perspective,” she said, noting the contrast with conversations she sometimes hears on campus.

Petrisin often travels so much she barely has time to unpack, with MSU games across the Big 10, Kiwanis meetings in New York, pitches to leaders in D.C., and conventions around the world. She keeps a bag packed and ready to go.

The busy schedule has its perks. She gets to attend MSU’s games, she saw Pink perform at Unicef’s gala and rode on Kiwanis’ float in the Rose Parade. And she gets to see the world. This year she hopes to visit Bucharest, Prague, Taiwan and Austria.

“It’s the adventure of a lifetime, being able to travel and represent an organization that has done so much for me,” she said.

All the while, Petrisin is ready to connect with fellow Spartans wherever she finds them—or they find her. Many approach at Kiwanis conventions after learning she’s from East Lansing. Petrisin, who often sports an MSU pin, enjoys these connections that make the world a little smaller. 

“It’s amazing,” she said. “I’ll see somebody in an airport and yell ‘Go green!’ and they’ll yell ‘Go white!’ back.”

~Nancy Nilles