Tracy McGregor was born in Berlin Heights, Ohio in 1869. During his high school years he assisted his parents, Thomas and Elizabeth in founding and operating the Helping Hand Mission in downtown Toledo, Ohio.
In 1890 Thomas decided to open a similar mission for the homeless and needy located in Cadillac Square in downtown Detroit, Michigan. Following the untimely death of his father just three weeks after the Mission opened in April 1891, Tracy left Oberlin College to take over the operation of the Mission.
For the next 45 years Tracy was intimately involved with the Mission for Homeless Men, later renamed the McGregor Institute. During those years, Detroit was one of the nation’s leading industrial centers and the automobile capital of the world, and the Mission provided food and lodging for more than 700,000 men. It also assisted thousands of needy and destitute Detroiters in finding work. The Institute closed in 1935 when the federal and state governments took over the care of the indigent during the Great Depression.
Katherine Whitney was born in 1873 into a prominent Detroit family. Her father, David Whitney, Jr., was one of the wealthiest men in Michigan as a result of his lumbering, shipping and real estate ventures. Not content to spend her time pursuing the usual social pleasures of her class, Katherine was directly involved in helping persons who were less fortunate. As a high school student she volunteered her services at the Infant Ward of the Children’s Free Hospital at the Florence Crittenden Mission. Later she established an orphanage in Highland Park, Michigan, and the Bay Court facility to aid young mothers near Mt. Clemens. She also gave generously to a number of local charities including the Visiting Nurses Association, the Detroit Community Union and the McGregor Institute.
Katherine Whitney met Tracy McGregor while she was a volunteer at the Children’s Free Hospital. Their friendship grew when she volunteered to sing and play the piano at the evening chapel services at the McGregor Mission. They were married in November 1901 and formed a life-long partnership to aid numerous Detroit charities and families in need of assistance.
The marriage to Katherine also gave Tracy the opportunity to advance other innovative humanitarian projects. With the cooperation of other wealthy Detroiters, he formed the Provident Loan Society to make loans available, at reasonable rates, to thousands of Detroit area families.
The severe housing shortage in Detroit resulting from the migration of tens of thousands of immigrants from Europe, attracted by the jobs in the burgeoning automobile industry, also captured his attention. He not only helped develop a new housing code for Detroit and other Michigan cities but also purchased land to build reasonably priced housing. He also spearheaded a successful campaign to reform the inhumane practices in the state prisons in Michigan.
In 1913, Tracy organized the Thursday Noon Group, made up of about 25 community, business and civic leaders. They met weekly to discuss and find solutions to community problems. They were successful in leading campaigns to reform the court and educational systems of Detroit, and establish a hospital and farm for the treatment of epileptics and training centers for young men and women in trouble with the law. Tracy also used his influence with the state legislature to expand services for those in need of treatment for mental illness.
Education was always one of the McGregors’ priorities. He and Katherine gave financial support to schools and colleges and individual grants to hundreds of young men and women for college expenses. Tracy also helped found the Merrill Palmer Institute in Detroit and served as its president for 16 years.
In his later years, Tracy started to collect books and maps relating to the periods of discovery, exploration and the colonization in American History. Within a ten-year period, utilizing his financial resources, his business acumen and his interest in American history, he developed one of the finest extant collections of Americana. After his death, the collection was given to the University of Virginia where it serves as the core of the rare book collection of the Alderman Library.
Tracy also used his financial resources to establish a joint plan with the American Historical Association to aid colleges in establishing rare book collections. He matched grants of up to $1,000 a year to start and maintain such collections. Tracy also was one of the main financial supporters of the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan.
The McGregors gave major support to scores of local and national charities. In Detroit, Tracy led the campaign to re-organize the Associated Charities, which in 1918 became the Detroit Community Union. He chaired the Patriotic Fund of metropolitan Detroit, which raised funds for the World War I war effort. The McGregors’ long-term support of charitable groups was unique in other ways. They not only carefully researched the programs of each charity, but carefully reviewed their work to make sure that their gifts were used appropriately.
In 1925, Tracy and Katherine decided to make sure their extensive financial resources would continue to be used for social, educational and charitable programs. In that year, they established the McGregor Fund. They continued to add to the Fund’s resources until it was large enough to commence an active grant program. During 1931-1936, Tracy identified the Fund’s primary grantmaking priorities. They included higher education, youth services, health care and science. Special grants were given for programs aiding transients and homeless, the chronically ill, and education programs benefiting African Americans. In addition to the Fund, Tracy and Katherine continued to give generously from their own personal accounts to local charities including the Detroit Community Fund and the McGregor Institute.
After Tracy’s death in 1936, Katherine continued to give major gifts to the Fund and local charities until her death in 1954. Since then, the Fund has continued to carry out the legacy of Tracy and Katherine McGregor.