Milford Christenson claims he's not a philanthropist, but many others would disagree.
Christenson, president of Highland–based Christenson Chevrolet, is well-known for his generosity to the Griffith school, its Foundation and sports teams; to Indiana University, Purdue and Purdue University Calumet; and to local churches and civic organizations, as well as local, state and national charities.
"I give away $50,000 to $100,000 a year," said Christenson, who owns the almost 60–year–old Highland dealership with his son and brother. "I give to those who do good and help them do more good.
"I learned to share at an early age," he said. "I learned to be generous by having a proper childhood. No one had very much, but no one was on relief because we helped one another and that just carried on."
As a child growing up during the Great Depression, Christenson and his brothers, Roy and Dale, worked at their father Warner's hardware and furniture stores, construction business and coal–delivery business. After completing high school, Milford Christenson went Indiana University.
"When I went to college, my mother told me not to get a job because it was the time to study," he said. "I got by on $500 my first year. I spent 70 cents a day for food, $2.50 a week for my room, and 5 cents for Coke or a Pepsi every other week. I never bought a shirt with IU on it because it cost too much. I lived very tight. I don't need a lot of money to live on. That allows me to share."
During his high school years, Christenson was a member of the basketball team and a student manager of its football team. He wanted the same gridiron job at IU, and vigorously pursued the position.
"In the spring of '41 I would go over and watch team practice," he said. "One day I asked one of the student managers how to get a job like his. He said, 'who's your sponsor?' A week later I asked another student manager and he asked me what fraternity I belonged to. Then I understood it was the fraternities and sororities that controlled things there."
Not giving up, Christenson asked one of the coaches for the position.
"He put me on," he said. "He told me he had a lot of student managers – all fraternity boys – but they never did anything."
During his senior year when World War II was at its height, Christenson was drafted. He was sent to Europe as a member of General Patton's Third Army, and was in the Battle of the Bulge. He served as a radio operator and earned a Bronze Star for his service.
When Christenson returned home in December 1945, he decided not to return to IU for the spring semester.
"I wanted to be there for the football season," he said. "I waited until fall to finish so I could be a student manager. I graduated IU in its Class of 1947."
Christianson's experiences with IU's football team are a big factor in his life–long devotion to the school and to its football program.
"To this day I'm close to the team," he said. "I go to all the home games and to one away game a year. I travel with them."
Christenson is a proud member of IU's Alumni Association and was a member of its Varsity Club Board for 10 years. Through his generosity, his dealership has supplied the university's athletic department with an automobile annually.
In the 1970s, he was made a member of the team's 12th Man Club after he made a large donation to help the university remodel the football stadium dressing rooms,
"I have a football jersey with my name on the back and the number 12," Christenson said. "I wear it to all the games."
After receiving bachelor degrees in cost accounting and industrial management, Christenson rejoined the family businesses. In 1949, he married Margaret, his college sweetheart. She taught in the Griffith schools for 10 years before their children were born.
Son Dean Christenson is the dealership general manager. His sister, Dana Long, is a staff lawyer for the Indiana Department of Education.
In 1951, the Christiansons bought a Chevrolet dealership in Griffith and began liquidating their other holdings. Twelve years later the dealership moved to a new building, which is its current location on Indianapolis Boulevard.
In 2001 Christenson Chevrolet was named Indiana Dealer of The Year by Time Magazine. And out of 87 dealerships in the Chicago/Northwest Indiana zone, it was listed No. 3 or 4 for the last six or seven years, Christenson said.
The country's recent recession has made it tough for car dealerships, he said.
"Our dealership's survived because we have good employees and we treat our customers right," Christenson said. "I don't go on vacation two or three months to Florida every year.
"Weekdays I'm here from 8 to 8 and from 8 to 6 on Saturdays," he said. "I get tired, but I want to keep this dealership open. It's been tough at times, but you got to keep plugging away."
Christenson has served his community as a 25-year member of the town's volunteer fire department, and 47-year member of the Rotary Club, Veterans of Foreign War Post 9982 and American Legion Post 66.
He also served on the Griffith Board of Education for 15 years. During those years, the Christianson's came to know Robert Kurtz, former superintendent of the Griffith Public Schools.
"I've known him since I was principal at Franklin School in 1964," Kurtz said. "He came on the school board a year later. He's always there for you. He's been very good for Griffith and the Griffith Public Schools."
Christenson has been on the Griffith Educational Foundation Board, serving as chairman of its finance committee since the organization's inception in the early 1980s.
"When something comes up, I talk to Milford and he helps invest the money," Kurtz said. "We have a program of giving educational grants to teachers. ... Since the foundation was founded, it's given 950 grants totaling $383,000. He was a gigantic part of that."
Christenson also contributed almost a third of the funds the school system needed to raise in order to assure that its sixth grade students would have access to the Challenger Learning Center at Purdue Calumet.
"Milford has been a big part of Griffith for a long time," Kurtz said. "He's very free with his time and very generous. He does a wonderful job with everything he gets involved in."
For many years, Christenson also was on the Board of Directors for the First Bank of Whiting, which is now Centier Bank.
His financial expertise has been instrumental in giving him the ability make substantial donations.
In January 1966, Christenson incorporated a life insurance company in Arizona, and later bought a second one. He remains president of the Canyon State Life Insurance Co, and the Coast Life Insurance Co., which both sell short–term life insurance to the dealership's customers who take out a loan to buy a car. The insurance is in force for the duration of the loan.
"The dividends from the companies give me the cash flow to contribute to non-for-profits, which is why I have to live forever," he said. "I'll retire when I die. I'll die in this office."