Fred & Barbara’s Legacy

fred and barbara erb

Fred and Barbara Erb

Born February 11, 1923 in Detroit, MI, Fred attended Cranbrook School in Bloomfield Hills where he excelled in sports, music, science and math. Fred went on to study engineering at Cornell University. In 1942 he transferred to the University of Michigan where he met his wife Barbara.

With the onset of World War II, Fred joined the Army Enlisted Reserve and was called to active duty in June 1943. While stationed in Maryland he spent his weekends in New York City listening to jazz greats like Art Tatum, Billie Holiday and his favorite, Sidney Bechet, developing what would become a lifelong love of jazz.

After the war, Fred and Barbara married and Fred resumed his education at Michigan. Having decided that he wanted to be an entrepreneur, Fred transferred from engineering to business and earned his BBA degree with honors in 1947. Shortly after graduation, Fred went to work for his uncle’s lumber and coal business in Royal Oak. The day Fred began, he learned his uncle was leaving. He told Fred, You’re running the company now. Stunned, Fred took the helm. Starting with seven employees, one store, and sales approaching $170,000 (one third of which was coal), the next year the company’s sales rose to $300,000 and the following year to $1,000,000. By the 1970’s Erb Lumber became the largest lumber supplier in Michigan. When Fred sold the business in 1993, it was a multi-state enterprise covering 45 locations with 1,300 employees and generating $280 million in sales (none of which was coal). Fred was also active in real estate development, often lending money to new builders unable to access traditional financing — a further reflection of his entrepreneurial spirit.

Barbara Erb was born in Detroit, MI on April 17, 1924 as Barbara Jean Morley. Barbara grew up in Pleasant Ridge and graduated from Lincoln High School in Ferndale. As a young child, Barbara and her family spent their summers in Bayfield, Ontario, the lakeside community she cherished. It was her summers on the shores of Lake Huron that instilled in Barbara a lifelong love and respect for the Great Lakes and the natural environment, which would later influence her philanthropy.

Barbara attended the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor from 1942 to 1944 where she met Fred, her husband of 66 years, at a New Year’s Eve celebration. They were engaged a year later. While Fred was stationed Okinawa, Barbara worked as the secretary for the headmaster of Cranbrook School where she would type a letter to Fred every day.

An early environmental activist, Barbara was an organic gardener committed to nutrition and wholesome eating and an environmentalist long before these issues became mainstream. She lectured on organic gardening, frequented the local farmers markets, took her recyclables to the DPW and was known in every health food store in town. Barbara also believed that travel broadened perspectives. As a young mother, she made sure her four children were exposed to
the natural beauty of Michigan and the U.S. through frequent trips to the Great Lakes and to more exotic environments, such as Kenya and the Galapagos Islands.

Always community minded, Barbara’s philanthropy included leadership roles with a broad array of organizations. After years of charitable giving, in 1996 Fred and Barbara made their largest gift ever to create the Frederick A. and Barbara M. Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise, a joint Master’s degree program between the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and School of Natural Resources and Environment. In 2007, as parents and grandparents with a concern for the environment and a love of the arts, Fred and Barbara established the Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation.

Fred died January 10, 2013, just before his 90th birthday, after living 12 years with Alzheimer’s disease. Barbara died ten months later, on November 8, 2013, at age 89. We are pleased that their legacy will live on through the work of the Foundation.