The late Donald W. Petro loved dogs, underdogs, fast-pitch softball and, last but not least, his fellow man.
Petro, 64, a lifelong resident of Tuscola County’s Denmark Township who died Feb. 9, was always seeking the next recruit, arranging the next team or organizing the next tournament.
While planning, however, the leader of the royal blue and gray Richville fast-pitch squad didn’t forget the forgotten. Instead, he sought them out.
“He was the guy who picked the people who wanted to play, but didn’t get picked,” said John Hunter, executive director of the Tuscola County Community Foundation, which administers a new fund created in Petro’s memory.
Petro “would encourage other people to volunteer, and give of themselves,” added Hunter, of Fairgrove Township.
“I remember what Don said to me a couple times. He’d ask how things were going, and I’d say ‘Well, this needs to be done,’ or I’d be talking about a project and wondering who could complete it. Don would look at you and get that look, and say ‘Well, why not you?’”
The Don Petro Fund of the Tuscola County Community Foundation will award about $800 in 2021. The fund aims to support charitable activities for Tuscola County residents, and will grow with donations and accumulation of investment returns.
The fund is designed to finance efforts including improvement of community recreation features such as playgrounds or sports fields or activity centers, or purchases of sporting equipment for those in financial need.
Applicants can get more information by calling Hunter at 989-673-8223 or emailing JHunter@tuscolaccf.org.
The Tuscola County Community Foundation’s grant committee reviews applications and makes grant recommendations to the foundation’s board of directors, which awards the grants.
The fund in Petro’s name also could provide money to help with basic human needs such as food, clothing, shelter, house or rent payments, or health-care bills, as Petro was known to provide aid for those purposes.
Family members say Petro would open his home – for one or several months – to many in need of sanctuary. He loaned money to those wanting to buy a new home, pursue a business venture, pay a debt or afford a necessary medical procedure.
“Don was not an out-front guy; he would just help people that he knew needed help,” Hunter said.
Petro also sought to boost others emotionally if not financially, and could relate to students marginalized by school athletic programs. Though he loved watching or playing many sports, Petro – a 1974 Reese High School graduate – wasn’t a big man on campus.
“He ran cross-country in high school, but he was a late bloomer,” said Rick Zimmer, 64, of Reese, a longtime friend and owner of Zimmer & Associates Inc., a seller of health insurance in Reese and Unionville.
Petro’s wife, Terese, noted her husband would tell her that he wanted to be “the voice for those who had no voice.”
He would invite a teenager just cut from a school sports program – or who was troubled, abused or neglected – to play fast-pitch softball and become part of a team.
Such invitations could result in a youngster finding purpose, or even developing into a top athlete.
Petro, however, challenged older folks, too, persuading them to umpire a game, prepare a softball diamond, or even play fast-pitch softball.
“It wasn’t just about kids,” noted Zimmer, who knew Petro since they were boys living around Richville and playing baseball on a traveling Richville team.
“I read a lot of stuff on Facebook where people wrote that Don would say ‘C’mon, let’s go play volleyball,’ and they’d get involved,” Zimmer said. “They hadn’t played volleyball in their lives but he would get them out there, and pretty soon they’d have a league going and playing once a night every week.
“And they weren’t kids. They were people in their 50s.”
In recent decades, Petro was coach – and player – on the Richville fast-pitch softball team that vied with teams from Reese, Munger, Millington or Cass City in the Vassar Developmental League.
Zimmer himself, at Petro’s urging, was summoned in a pinch to play on a fast-pitch team in the league as a teammate of Zimmer’s sons, Blaise and Isaac.
“Donny (Petro) called me up one time and said ‘Hey, we only have eight guys; do you want to play right field?’” Rick Zimmer said. “I said ‘Yeah, if I don’t have to run too far.’”
Once on the team, it didn’t take long for the elder Zimmer to move closer to the action.
“So when I was 50, Blaise played shortstop and Isaac played third base, and I played first base,” Rick Zimmer said. “I didn’t even think about it, but Don said ‘Hey, you have to go play infield with your kids.’ That was 14 years ago.
“I ended up playing pretty much that whole season. Don would say ‘Hey, we’re short on players again,’ so I’d play. And my wife would come up to the ballpark, and it would be 10 o’clock at night, and we’re playing a doubleheader. Dealing with mosquitoes or whatever.”
Petro, a retired United Auto Workers international representative and former Denmark Township supervisor, died due to polycystic kidney disease. But he didn’t sit and wait – unless he was watching the Detroit Lions on TV pursuing an elusive victory – during life’s fourth quarter.
Petro played in weeknight poker clubs, golfed, and walked or jogged in road races. He traveled with his wife, Terese, to numerous foreign countries, including Argentina where they took in an international fast-pitch softball tournament.
After being diagnosed with kidney disease in 2013, Petro continued to coach fast-pitch teams in leagues or tournaments, and occasionally took the field as a player.
He and his wife annually planted and tended a garden yielding produce he used to can salsa, sauerkraut or horseradish. He ice-fished on Saginaw Bay, competed in a volleyball league Sunday night, and loyally attended Reese High School sporting events.
Petro and Leo Daenzer of Frankenmuth Township – who, like Zimmer and Petro, once worked at Frankenmuth’s Universal Engineering – faithfully journeyed to basketball tournament games during March Madness.
Petro also regularly attended Sunday church services, either at Trinity Lutheran Church where he was a member, or at other area churches where Terese Petro, a pianist, performs on Sundays.
During his life, Don Petro organized a Reese tennis tournament, set up church golf scrambles, started a men’s basketball league, coached a Reese High School tennis team, served as a longtime coach of Trinity Lutheran School youth basketball teams, recruited distance runners for Christian charity events, and – for about two decades – organized a church co-ed softball tournament in Reese.
“He was a mentor to tons of people,” said Zimmer, a former president of the Tuscola County Community Foundation, which oversees endowment funds such as The Don Petro Fund, which keeps the principal intact and provides only the fund’s earnings as grants.
“Selfishly, I can tell you this: I thought, man, Don and I just had this special relationship,” Zimmer said. “Well then we get to the funeral and I’m talking with people, and they felt exactly the same way.
“He made everybody feel special.”
The late Petro’s relatives and acquaintances figure the fund will grow, according to Hunter.
“There may be some other family members right now that might contribute, and they think there will be other people that will contribute,” Hunter said.
Donors to The Don Petro Fund of the Tuscola County Community Foundation can make a check payable to either “Tuscola County Community Foundation” or to “TCCF.”
A donor can write “The Don Petro Fund” in the check’s memo line when mailing the check to Tuscola County Community Foundation, P.O. Box 534, Caro, MI 48723.
“The biggest issue for me, in talking to Terese (Petro) and to Don’s sister Debbie (Liebknecht), is the foundation lives forever,” Zimmer said. “I told Terese that this fund is a way that Don’s name is going to live forever.
“That’s quite a testimonial, and she kind of teared up a little bit, and said ‘He would just love that.’”
Tom Gilchrist is a staff writer for The Advertiser. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.