William and Dolores (Bill and Dee) Brehm
Bill and Dee upon their engagement in 1951The Vaughan House Trio, 1948: Stan Challis, Don Skrull, Bill BrehmBill and Dee in Britton Recital Hall, 2013

Bill & Dee Brehm Invest in Music's Future

by Marilou Carlin


The Brehm name is well known at the University of Michigan. For the past decade, Bill and Dee Brehm have played a vital role in the evolutionary progress of U-M, donating more than $60 million to support a range of projects and programs, including the construction of an eight-story 230,000-square-foot addition to the Kellogg Eye Center and the founding of the Brehm Center for Diabetes Research & Analysis. They have also supported two professorships and created the Brehm Scholars program for graduates of Fordson High School in Dearborn, Michigan (Bill's alma mater), which, to date, has supported 35 students with full tuition scholarships. In honor of his tremendous support of higher education, Bill Brehm received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree at U-M’s commencement ceremonies this year.


The Brehms’ philanthropy is motivated by a deep personal interest in the projects and students that they support. And so it is with their generous gift for the renovation and expansion of the Earl V. Moore Building at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, a gift that reflects the importance that music has played in their lives.


Although they are especially gratified when their support yields immediate and tangible impact on lives, the Brehms are very familiar with the importance of building projects, which take years to complete. When they first approached the U-M Health System about the possibility of funding research that would find a cure for diabetes, which Dee has lived with most of her life, they weren’t immediately proposing a capital project. But they soon came to realize that this goal could only be achieved by first creating a cutting-edge facility dedicated to the kind of research they envisioned.


At SMTD, they came to a similar conclusion: that the School would continue to attract the best students and help them achieve the highest level of scholarship, performance, and success by providing the facilities of the finest 21st-century conservatory and research institute. By helping to create such facilities, the couple would provide support to every student that studies, trains, researches, practices, rehearses, and performs at the Moore Building—now and well into the future.


The Brehms’ relationship with SMTD officially began five years ago, but in fact had its true beginnings when Bill Brehm launched a lifelong love affair with music at the age of four. That was when he started playing piano, which he studied throughout his formative years and at which he continues to excel.


At Fordson High School he played in a big band, which he also managed. “I was selecting the music, getting jobs, setting up the logistics to get everyone to the jobs,” he said, “and of course I took care of all the finances: bought the music, bought the stands, bought the lights…it was my introduction to small business.”


When Bill attended U-M in the late 1940s/early 1950s, he decided to major in mathematics and physics, deducing correctly that the big band era—where his musical interest was then focused—was ending. But his love of music continued, as a singer in the Vaughan House Trio, a successful vocal group that performed all over campus, including at Varsity Night in Hill Auditorium. “I did the arranging for the trio and the three of us had a lot of fun,” said Bill. “After 10:30 we’d go out near the dormitories and serenade the coeds. They came to expect us. We had all these wonderful love songs.”


Music, in fact, was responsible for introducing Bill and Dee. She was working as a fashion model at the time, while getting her degree in special education at Eastern Michigan University. At one of her shows, at the Dixie Shop in Ypsilanti, the Trio performed during intermission and Bill was asked to play piano for the after-party at a local hotel. “I remember my first view of Bill was of him sitting at the piano,” said Dee. “And my first memory of seeing Dee was her watching me,” said Bill. “I was smitten. For me, that was it.” Later, outside the hotel, the Trio and Dee and a few of the other models stood on a corner and sang together. “And that really did me in,” said Dee. “I thought, ‘this one I kind of like.’ There’s no doubt that music brought us together.”


After graduation, Bill began his career in advanced engineering in the aerospace industry. In the late 1960s, he served as assistant secretary of the Army, and, in the 1970s, as assistant secretary of defense in the Ford Administration. Throughout the years, he has served in five administrations, both Republican and Democratic. He is co-founder and former executive chair of SRA International, Inc., a technology and strategic consulting firm, and has also served as a director of the Herman Miller Corporation of Michigan and as board chair for CAN, a nonprofit institution that conducts high-level research and analysis to inform the important work of public sector decision makers.


Yet throughout the years, as his career evolved in the highest levels of industry and public service, his involvement with music deepened. Early in his marriage he began composing, and in the 1970s he began writing songs for his church, ultimately composing 35 hymns, many of which were translated into German. Dee, who sang in choirs when the couple first started out (“She sang a solo from Messiah one time that brought tears to my eyes,” said Bill), has had a critical role in the composition process. “When he’s done composing for a choral group, he’ll ask me to sing it. If I can, he goes for it. If I have trouble with it, he’ll change it.” “She’s my first critic,” said Bill.  


In the 1990s, the Brehms created the Brehm Center for Worship, Theology & the Arts at the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, where Bill is a former board chair. The project brought together their faith and their love of music to encourage arts appreciation in Fuller graduates. Bill’s hope was that graduates would gain “an understanding of how worship enriched by the arts can inspire parishioners.” When a new president was appointed at Fuller, Bill was asked to compose a work for his inaugural service. Bucking his own trend at writing mostly choral music, he composed a serious work for piano titled the “Inaugural Suite.”


Bill’s compositions are also what triggered his relationship with SMTD. In recognition of the Brehms’ extraordinary support to the University, President Coleman hosted a concert of Bill’s music, performed by the Chamber Choir at the Clement Library in 2008. Jerry Blackstone, chair of SMTD’s conducting department and director of choral activities, was introduced to Bill and the two worked together on the concert repertoire, choosing and fine-tuning the works for the Chamber Choir. In the process, a great friendship was born.


The concert also introduced Bill and Dee to Dean Christopher Kendall. They soon learned that Kendall was the artistic director of the 21st Century Consort, the resident ensemble for contemporary music at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., near their home in McClean, Virginia. The Brehms became fans and supporters of the ensemble, and Bill was soon invited to compose music for the Consort. The most recent of these pieces, performed in December, was Civil War: Images and Echoes with composer/arranger Danny Pelfrey, a work merging music and images from the American Civil War period. It coincided with the American Art Museum’s exhibition The Civil War and American Art.


“It is an honor and special pleasure to work with such wonderful people as Bill and Dee in a project of lasting, transformative impact for the School,” said Kendall. “They have become great friends of my family’s, and we relish the prospect of their return to Ann Arbor. I am constantly amazed by the depth of Bill’s understanding of the process and principles of design involved in the creation of a complex project such as the renovation and expansion of the Moore building. In his quiet way, Bill is always able to home in on the crux of any question. His deep commitment to collaborative problem solving also extends to his joy in collaborative creation, making him an equal inspiration in making a building or creating music. All of us at the School are profoundly grateful to Bill and Dee for their vision and generosity.”


A short time after he had been introduced to Blackstone and Kendall, Bill approached them to find out how he might support SMTD. Soon, a scholarship in support of graduate choral conductors was created, to be followed by the Brehm Prize in Choral Composition and the establishment of a fund to commission new works for the Chamber Choir every other year. The Brehms later chose to endow all three programs. But they wanted to do more.


Bill asked for a wish list. “I said, ‘I want it to be complete; put everything down that you can think of, don’t make any assumptions about anything.’” After a great deal of consideration and discussion, the result was a list that was topped by the need to renovate and expand the Moore Building.


The Brehms are looking forward to seeing the building’s transformation, something they’ll be able to witness firsthand when they move back to Ann Arbor next year. Already Bill has been involved in the planning process, bringing his years of expertise in systems design to the table. But what they are most looking forward to is being closer to friends, students, faculty, and, of course, an abundance of music.