Robert G. Wilmers Integrity Prize will honor late NENI co-owner

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PITTSFIELD — Robert G. Wilmers was an "advocate for the greater good," and to celebrate the ideals he lived by, Hancock Shaker Village has established an annual Integrity Prize, the nonprofit announced Saturday at its gala.

In honor of the longtime CEO of M&T Bank Corp. and co-owner of New England Newspapers Inc., Hancock Shaker Village will award the $25,000 cash prize to individuals who have exhibited "exemplary integrity" in leadership through social justice, art and architecture, design, conservation, community, music, agriculture, commerce and other fields.

"To me, this says that Bob had a big impact on Berkshire County in a quiet way. He also had a big impact in New York and Buffalo and Bordeaux, France," Wilmers' longtime friend, Hans Morris, of Stockbridge, said of the award. "It's a broad recognition of the impact he had."

For decades, Wilmers and his wife, Elisabeth, quietly gave to charities in many communities, including cultural institutions — among them Hancock Shaker Village — in Berkshire County. Since the idea for the new prize percolated two years ago, more than 75 donors, many from the banking world, contributed to its $2 million endowment. The goal of the Robert G. Wilmers Integrity Prize is to create awareness of and motivate integrity.

Morris knew Wilmers for 30 years before both men decided to purchase NENI, which includes The Berkshire Eagle, in 2016. He said that, over the years, Wilmers had saved several institutions in the county from bankruptcy but was always thoughtful about his gifts.

Wilmers was known for his direct business style and blunt and fearless criticism, when he felt it was warranted. He asked tough questions, was discerning, and challenged people while he worked to make a difference, a statement from Hancock Shaker Village said.

"I think he cared a lot about the validity and integrity of the gifts. He would sometimes demand that the organization improve or do something he thought was necessary," Morris said of his late friend's generosity. "It was always anonymous and, in many cases, he would save the institution."

Morris said Wilmers worked with integrity in every facet of his life, professionally and philanthropically.

After purchasing The Eagle, he read editorials with a careful, critical eye and let it be known when he disagreed, Morris said.

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For Wilmers, it wasn't about whether he agreed with the stance in an editorial, but whether he thought the argument was well-researched and developed before it hit the paper, Morris said.

"Facts matter, and don't just say it because someone else has said it," Morris recalled Wilmers telling him.

Morris thinks that the reason so many donors were willing to support the award is because they respect what Wilmers represented.

Hancock Shaker Village Director Jennifer Trainer Thompson said the idea for the award came about when staff was ruminating about "recognizing integrity on the national stage" and how to award people who quietly are making a difference in the world.

"It hit me like a thunderbolt," Maureen Jerome, a friend of Robert and Elisabeth Wilmers and a new trustee at Hancock Shaker Village, said in a statement. "To create an Integrity Prize to honor Bob and to perpetuate his approach to life and business would be a way to keep his memory alive. His name, over the decades, would become synonymous with integrity."

Within weeks, four friends of Wilmers —Trainer and Jerome, along with Rene Jones, Wilmers' successor at M&T Bank, and H. Rodgin Cohen, senior chairman at the Sullivan & Cromwell law firm — met to explore the idea of naming the prize after Wilmers.

The first Robert G. Wilmers Integrity Prize is expected to be awarded in 2020.

"Bob's generosity and his legendary commitment to the highest standard of integrity represent an ideal of leadership that sets a standard for the leaders of today and tomorrow," Jones said in a statement.

Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at horecchio@berkshireeagle.com, @HavenEagle on Twitter and 413-770-6977.


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