John and Joan Herlitz: A Lifetime Commitment to the Arts

In late 2010, Interlochen Center for the Arts received an unexpected gift of nearly half a million dollars from the estate of John and Joan Herlitz to establish an endowed scholarship for visual artists and to support the construction of new visual arts studios. To those who knew John and Joan Herlitz, the gift was a continuation of their lifelong commitment to the arts and to the development and training of artists.

A Pioneering Artist and Designer

A renowned designer of cars, Herlitz created many iconic designs including the groundbreaking 1970 Plymouth Barracuda, which is now widely sought-after by collectors. Thirty-eight years after the release of the Herlitz original creation, his timeless design has served as the inspiration for new cars including the 2008 Dodge Challenger. Herlitz continued to shape design at Chrysler for several decades, eventually becoming the vice president of product design.

 “Our father always knew he wanted to be an automotive designer,” explained John’s son, Todd Herlitz. While he had many artistic interests and was an avid cartoonist, cars were his passion. “He started drawing cars as early as he could remember and actually started sending designs to Chrysler at age 13.” The designers he wrote took the time to write back, with comments, encouragement and advice. “He was absolutely ecstatic when he received hand-written feedback from Chrysler,” said John’s other son, Kirk Herlitz. “For a young boy in upstate New York to receive such feedback from his car design heroes at the time, it was really amazing validation that he could potentially fulfill his dreams of being a car designer at Chrysler.”

Decades later, when Herlitz found himself leading design efforts at Chrysler, he seemed to take this formative experience to heart. “Throughout his career, he never lost touch with that kid from Pine Plains, New York; he was always very humble and down-to-earth,” noted Todd.

A Commitment to Helping Others Grow  

John was always willing to share his experience with others and frequently made the three-hour drive to talk with students at the Cleveland Institute of Art. It was on such a trip that Bill Zheng, a 1996 Arts Academy visual arts graduate, first encountered Herlitz. Zheng still recalls how attentive the Chrysler executive was with the students. “He would listen to the students very carefully and would remember what you said and what you presented and give you very precise feedback about what you needed to do to improve,” said Zheng. “He really cared about your project and what you had to say. As a student, it was a very positive experience.” Zheng later went to work for Herlitz and discovered that even in the busy Chrysler studios, John maintained the same constructive demeanor.

 “At my father’s memorial, I had several car designers approach me and tell me what an inspiration our father was to them,” said Todd. “More often than not, they first met him as a student and his encouragement was what made them believe they could find a career in car design. To this day, you would be hard-pressed to walk into any American automotive design studio and not find someone that had been influenced by our father.”

The Herlitz Legacy at Interlochen

John Herlitz first became involved with Interlochen through his Chrysler colleague, Gary Valade, who recognized John’s interest in the arts. In 1998 he joined the Corporate Council, a volunteer business advisory group comprised of professionals in a wide variety of industry sectors, and quickly took an interest in the visual arts facilities. They were gathering momentum for a new building at the time and he soon took a leading role in the planning for the facility. He wanted to make sure it was designed well, inside and out, with functional workspaces for the artists who would use it.

 “As a great appreciator of architecture, our father was thrilled to able to be such an integral part of the design process for the new [visual arts] building,” said Todd. “Whenever we came back home for a visit or the holidays, he would often proudly roll out the latest drawings of the new building and describe how the different studios would be organized. You could just sense how excited it made him thinking of all of the creative work that was going to be done in this space and how good it made him feel to be a part of it.”

Current Corporate Council member, Bob Smart was also struck by John’s commitment to the new facility.  "John believed in the importance of providing young people with the resources and support for the early development and refinement of skills in the arts,” said Smart. “He was passionate in his dedication to the planning and completion of Interlochen’s Visual Arts building.” 

The generous gift from the Herlitz estate will be used to create an endowed scholarship for visual arts students and will also support the construction of the new visual arts studios. “Even before he came to Interlochen, John Herlitz had already built an amazing legacy,” said Beth Stoner, Associate Vice President for Advancement at Interlochen Center for the Arts. “When he joined the Corporate Council, he threw himself into the visual arts building project with infectious enthusiasm. He networked for Interlochen from within the professional design community as well as brought many valuable insights about how to build a workspace for artists. His significant philanthropy will help even more young artists come to this wonderful space to develop their skills and realize their own artistic dreams."