SALT LAKE CITY — University of Utah athletics director Chris Hill remembers having a discussion with Ezekiel R. “Zeke” Dumke about whether they should put the Dumke name on the gymnastics training center Zeke and his wife Kay had just donated $1 million to help build.
Dumke was hesitant. Hill wasn’t.
“I assured him it wasn’t so his name would be associated with us,” said Hill. “It was because we wanted our name to be associated with his.
“He was the sweetest guy going. A wonderful, wonderful man.”
A person whose vision and giving knew virtually no bounds, Zeke Dumke passed away at his Salt Lake home Saturday afternoon, surrounded by family. He was 94.
“A true philanthropist, in every sense of the word,” said Chris Nelson, the University of Utah’s communications director. “He saw a cause and it was his gift to make a difference, to make things better.”
Added Gregory Lee, executive director of Red Butte Garden, the state arboretum Dumke helped establish on the University of Utah campus in 1983: “He was someone who was an active planner and a doer, who took an interest and had a vision for everyone. He was not just a check writer.”
Red Butte Garden — where the summer concert series was an original Dumke brainstorm — was just one of Dumke’s many contributions to his native state. He was responsible, in part or in whole, for founding any number of venues and institutions.
In the 1950s, fresh out of college and inspired by an MS sufferer, he helped establish the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Utah. In the early 1960s, his support was instrumental in helping create the boundaries for Canyonlands National Park. In 1965, foreseeing the need for a Utah-based marina on the emerging Lake Powell shoreline, he founded Bullfrog Marina & Resort with two business partners.
Eleven years later, Bullfrog was sold to the Del Webb Corp. for a healthy profit, freeing Dumke from then on to devote the lion’s share of his time to civic and charitable causes.
Said Dumke’s son-in-law Scott Thornton, who helped manage his father-in-law’s investments, “He didn’t spend his money on himself; he wasn’t into buying jets and flying all over the world. His thinking and his efforts were focused on community projects and people. He was a dreamer and a planner. He liked to be involved in initiating things.”
In 1988 Zeke and wife Kay, who preceded him in death in 2014, established the Katherine W. and Ezekiel R. Dumke Jr. Foundation to support a wide variety of charitable causes, from the symphony to the food bank. He also was a founder of the Salt Lake Rotary Foundation, and in 1990 he was one of three men who founded the University Hospital Foundation at the University of Utah.
“The hospital was one of his passions,” said Nelson, who at the time was executive director of the hospital foundation. “But he really spanned the whole gamut of support at the university, from patient care to education to research to athletics. I think that’s what his legacy will be: He saw the university for what it truly was, a way to improve society, to better the human condition.”
Besides the University of Utah, Dumke donated generously to Westminster College and Weber State University. At various times, all three institutions honored him with honorary doctorates.
“Zeke and Kay Dumke have had a profound impact on the Westminster campus and community," said Stephen Morgan, Westminster College president. "Through their incredible generosity, our students will continue to benefit from the college’s Dumke Center for Civic Engagement, Dumke Opportunity Fund, the Dumke Field, the Dumke Blackbox Theatre and our nursing skills lab renovation. We are grateful for the Dumke’s belief in the value of student engagement in the community and support for the quality of our education, and their legacy will live on with the opportunities and programs they have created for our students.”
University of Utah president Ruth V. Watkins stated, "On behalf of the entire University of Utah community I want to thank the Dumke family for sharing Zeke with us. We will miss him. Zeke and his beloved wife Kay gave generously of their time, enthusiasm and financial resources to support dozens of university programs. I will especially miss Zeke’s intellectual curiosity. Even toward the end of his life, he welcomed and wanted to hear new ideas from all areas of campus. He loved asking questions of everyone he met — faculty, staff and students alike. His enthusiasm and energy were unmatched."
Born in 1923 in Ogden, Dumke was named after his father, Ezekiel Dumke Sr., an orthopedic surgeon. His mother, Edna Wattis Dumke, was the daughter of E.O. Wattis, who founded with his brothers the fabled Utah Construction Co. that helped build Hoover Dam and was at one time considered the world’s largest construction company.
Dumke’s boyhood was one of privilege. As a teenager he was sent away to boarding school, graduating from the New Mexico Military Institute in Roswell, New Mexico, just in time for the start of World War II. He was commissioned as a cavalry officer, but with the need for horse skills becoming obsolete in the military, he enrolled in flight school. By the time he certified as a pilot, the Navy had enough flyers, so they put his navigational skills to use on a submarine chaser in the South Pacific.
Home from the war, he graduated in 1950 from the University of Utah in banking and finance. He established his own insurance agency before embarking on the Bullfrog Marina venture. Dumke was able to put his pilot training to good use, flying above the barren stretches of southeastern Utah to scout out the best location for the marina long before the highway was built from Hanksville.
“He was just really good at seeing things on the front end,” said Dumke’s daughter, Betsy. “I remember as a little girl how excited he was, flying over the area, identifying where this would go and that.”
Dumke was still a young man, at 53, when the marina was sold and he made the choice to become a full-time philanthropist.
“If he’d put his efforts into reinvesting everything, he could have been wealthier,” said Scott Thornton. “But he didn’t think he needed to do that. He’d been blessed to inherit, just like the Eccles and others, from his forefathers who had worked hard and been successful. Then out of his own efforts he’d made his own money, and decided his life would be better spent in serving the community. He was good about keeping his money invested but it wasn’t his goal to parlay what he had into millions more.”
Never a self-promoter, Dumke often had a soft spot for some of the less visible needs. When Hill was soliciting funds for a football stadium renovation in the mid-1990s, Dumke surprised him by talking instead about women’s gymnastics.
“He said his family wanted to give a million dollars to get this gymnastics thing going,” remembers Hill. “They were very supportive of all our men’s programs too, but they poured their heart and soul into women’s sports. It wasn’t just financial. He got to know our coaches, he loved to talk to everyone, and he remembered everything. He embraced our gymnastics team and that led to him embracing a lot of our women’s programs. We couldn’t do the things we’re able to do without him. He’s been wonderful in so many ways to the university.”
At Red Butte Garden, Dumke’s pride and joy, executive director Gregory Lee echoes the same sentiment.
“Many of the best there is at the garden is due to the ideas and visions he had of what it could be,” Lee said.
Lee noted that when the acreage at the mouth of Red Butte Canyon at the edge of the Utah campus was first designated for the garden in 1984, it was Dumke who paid to have 20 semitrailers remove the refuge from what had been a garbage dump.2 comments on this story
“Most people can’t see as far as he can see,” Lee said. “He never insisted you had to do anything, you never felt bullied, it was always an idea, but he wanted to make sure you’d think about it. So he wouldn’t pressure you to do something. But on the other hand, he’d keep reminding you of it, and if you were going to reject it, you needed to come up with rationale why it wasn’t a good idea.
"If you couldn’t explain why it wasn’t a good idea he’d say, 'Well, what about that?' But always in a very friendly, gracious manner. He treated everybody graciously and with respect.
"Gardens tend to attract nice people, and none nicer than Zeke and his wife Kay.”