Christopher Angus Wurtele was modest of stature, gentle of voice and shy of the spotlight. But he was a towering figure in Minnesota philanthropy and business. To the degree that the Twin Cities has world-class arts and cultural institutions, Wurtele played a strong part.
Wurtele, 83, died Sunday in hospice care of Merkel cell carcinoma, a rare skin cancer.
“He was a man made of blue ribbons,” said community leader Penny Winton, who had known him since both were teenagers. “He was a totally honorable person in every aspect of his life — from business and civic ventures to the vast amount of wealth that he and [his wife] Margaret invested in the city.”
The family gave generously to such cultural institutions as the Guthrie Theater and the Walker Art Center, helping to lead their substantial expansions. The Wurteles also gave to Yale University, his alma mater, where a sculpture garden and a graduate teacher program are named in their honor.
“He was my best friend and other half for 40 years,” Margaret Wurtele said Sunday. “He let all the things that his hard work produced just run through his fingers. He wanted to let things flow to the public and, of course, we both loved the arts so much.”
Although the Wurtele name graces the programs, galleries and stages of those institutions, the man himself never liked attention or to be singled out for praise.
“He just wanted to do good,” Margaret Wurtele said.
The couple’s largest gift was in 2015 to the Walker Art Center; the Walker said it was the largest gift in its history. Other gifts to the Walker preceded and followed that, as well as gifts to the Guthrie, the Loft Literary Center, Minnesota Public Radio, the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy and more.
“Above and beyond their philanthropic work, both Angus and Margaret are such exemplary human beings,” said Joe Dowling, former artistic director at the Guthrie. “He’s part of the generation that understood, deeply, the notion of community. When you saw him coming, he always has this kind spirit, this warmth and openness.”
Building the company
As a businessman, Wurtele was an empire-builder. When he became president of Minnesota Paints Inc. in 1962, it was a $7 million family-owned specialty coatings company. He became president and CEO in 1965.
Through acquisitions and exponential growth, he built the company into Valspar, a Fortune 500 concern from which he retired as president and CEO in 1998. The company was acquired by Sherwin-Williams for $11.3 billion in cash in a deal that closed in June.
He pioneered employee ownership at Valspar, where employees held a 20 percent stake.
“Angus was an exceptionally keen businessman with superb judgment, clear vision and strong implementation skills,” said former Tennant Co. CEO Roger Hale, who had known him since ninth grade. They served on many boards together, including that of the Walker.
“He entered a small family business at 27, became the CEO at 31 and grew it, without ego, into Valspar, this company that made so many of its employees,” Hale said.
A lifetime enjoying the arts
A Minneapolis native, Wurtele was the last of five children, and only boy, born to a businessman and his wife. He used his middle name, Angus, to distinguish himself from the uncle after whom he was named. He played hockey at the Blake School, from which he graduated in 1952.
“He was a better player than me,” said Hale, whose favorite memory of Wurtele is of him laughing as they skate-sailed on frozen Lake Minnetonka.
At Yale, Wurtele immersed himself in American studies. After college, he became an officer in the U.S. Navy, serving a two-year tour in the Philippines. He earned an MBA from Stanford University before joining Minnesota Paints.
He stepped down as CEO of Valspar in 1995 and as chairman in 1998. After Valspar, he dedicated his life full time to the Terra Valentine winery in California’s Napa Valley.
All through his life, Wurtele enjoyed the arts.
“For me, art filled the place of a spiritual life,” said Margaret Wurtele. “For Angus, it was a respite from numbers and the business way of thinking.”
It was while he was serving on the board of the Walker and she was working there in membership that the pair met. Their second date was to the Minnesota Orchestra, where they heard Brahms’ Violin Concerto. “To this day, it still gives me chills, and I still think of him,” Margaret Wurtele said.
The Wurteles were named the outstanding philanthropists for 2015 by AFP Minnesota. In a YouTube video from the professional fundraisers association, the couple talk about the philosophy behind their giving.
“I think the creative act, whether it’s writing a poem or writing a book or performing in a play, is really the highest expression of the human spirit and that’s what I want to nurture in our giving,” Margaret Wurtele said.
Said Angus Wurtele: “You know, there’s always been two or three institutions that were important to us. It’s much more fun to be deep rather than wide.
“I find it’s a great reward and a way to learn a lot about the things you’re doing,” he continued. “It’s an education as well as doing something.”
‘His legacy ... will live on’
In addition to his wife, Margaret, he is survived by sons Christopher and Andrew; a daughter, Heidi Castelein; sisters Mary Vaughan, Joan Wurtele and Connie Packard; his ex-wife, Heather Campbell, and two granddaughters.
A memorial service will be held at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Minneapolis. A time and date have not been announced.
Said Laysha Ward, chief external engagement officer at Target Corp.: “Angus Wurtele represented the very best of Minnesota by being a business, civic and philanthropic leader.
“Angus will certainly be missed by many. However, his legacy, impact and generosity will live on.”