Why I give: Keith Mardak

Keith Mardak and Mary Vandenberg
Keith Mardak and Mary Vandenberg

Last updated on December 20th, 2021 at 02:36 pm

Although there are many ways to address social problems, I’ve been fortunate, along with my wife, Mary Vandenberg, to be able to contribute financially to causes that are of interest to us. Philanthropy was not a concept I came to until later in life, having grown up in a working-class family of modest means on the south side of Milwaukee. Luckily, I had access to a good education in Milwaukee’s public schools, a Pulaski High School graduate. During my youth when the accordion was popular, my brother and I took lessons on the instrument, which exposed us to jazz and classical music. This exposure gave me a lifelong interest in music and also proved beneficial in my business career when I eventually joined Hal Leonard Publishing Company in 1970. It was a good match. Being able to immerse myself in both the business and creative sides of music publishing gave me great motivation. In 1985, I was able to buy the company from the original owners, along with my wife, Mary (who had joined Hal Leonard in 1973), and several other employees.

As time went on, I was introduced by a friend to the work being done for the city’s youth by the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee. Seeing the activities of the kids at the Clubs firsthand was inspiring, and I was able to make a small donation. My donations gradually increased, and in 1994 I was asked to join the board. This exposed me to the dynamics necessary to maintain and grow the services provided by the organization to the kids they served. All of this was my first experience with seeing philanthropy in action.

Over the years, Mary and I have been very involved with the Clubs in many ways. We’ve financed the Mardak Center for Administration & Training, the Daniels-Mardak Club on the north side of town, the Vandenberg Center for the Arts at the Fitzsimmons Club and the MarVan Scholars program. Today, the Clubs serve around 31,000 kids at 44 locations, most of which are in MPS or charter schools. MarVan Scholars reaches nearly 20,000 of the kids to provide homework help after school by MPS teachers paid for by the program, as well as offering other academic help. 

Other organizations we support are primarily in the area of youth services and the arts. All-In Milwaukee is a new organization that’s been established to help limited-income students in Milwaukee not only get into, but complete, college by providing financial aid as well as other “wrap-around” support, such as advising, program and career support. Their goal is to develop the future pipeline of talent to improve the Greater Milwaukee area. We’ve set up a specific program for Boys & Girls Clubs MarVan Scholars high school seniors to be recipients of these scholarships. So far, we have 30 students in the program, and we’ll be backing them for four years. We’ll add about 15 students each year to the program.

We are significant supporters of the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center (MYAC), which is home to First Stage and the Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra. Our funding to these organizations is to provide programming for Clubs kids. We’re also funding a substantial portion of the MYAC capital campaign for expansion of their facility. Our arts support also includes the Milwaukee Symphony and Milwaukee Ballet, including their capital campaigns for the MSO Bradley Symphony Center and the Ballet’s Baumgartner Center for Dance, along with UPAF, the Milwaukee Art Museum and several other organizations. 

As far as sports, I’ve been an avid handball player my whole adult life and have set up a scholarship program with the United States Handball Association (USHA) to give financial help to college students in return for them becoming teachers of handball to youth to introduce them to this sport.

So, why do I give? Because, as principal owners of Hal Leonard for many years before we sold the company in 2016, Mary and I have benefitted well. I say this only to make clear that, neither of us having grown up with wealth, we are appreciative of our circumstances. Because I love Milwaukee, the city in which I grew up and eventually prospered in, and wish the same opportunities for others. Because the youth of our city are its future, and I want that future to be bright. Because all of our citizens should have the opportunity to enjoy access to education and art and music and beauty. Because I need to pay it forward.

Keith Mardak is the former CEO and chairman of Milwaukee-based Hal Leonard LLC.  His wife, Mary Vandenberg, was vice president of business affairs for Hal Leonard.

This story is part of the 2022 BizTimes Media Giving Guide. See the entire publication here:

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