Jennifer Neville, Special to The Catholic Virginian
The leadership and staff of Catholic Charities of Eastern Virginia (CCEVA) describe philanthropist George Stenke as “a head and shoulders contributor” and “an icon of the goodness” of the organization’s services. And with good reason.
At the urging of his late wife, Josephine, who volunteered for decades at CCCEVA, Stenke became involved with the agency’s board of directors as a supporter and advisor. He has been on the board for more than 30 years, and in 1997 he became a founding member of the CCEVA foundation — a funding arm of the agency.
Stenke’s support of CCEVA included establishing, in 2015, the George and Josephine Stenke Fund. With his gift of $150,000, he created a “legacy,” according to Tracy Fick, the agency’s director of development and marketing, in honor of his wife of 64 years so the couple would continue supporting CCEVA for generations to come.
This past November, CCEVA honored the 95-year-old philanthropist with its first Lifetime of Giving Award as the agency wanted to highlight Stenke’s long-term commitment to the Hampton Roads community, according to Bruce LaLonde, chairman of the CCEVA board of directors.
“You have those contributors, and you have those head and shoulder contributors,” LaLonde said. “He’s a head and shoulders contributor.”
In 2006, CCEVA presented the Stenkes with the Bishop’s Humanitarian Award for their community service, serving as role models of the Catholic faith, and for participating and inspiring others in philanthropic and charitable works, Fick said.
Stenke’s generosity has benefited not only CCEVA, but also the Diocese of Richmond, St. Pius X Catholic School and Parish in Norfolk, Bon Secours’ Virginia Foundation and the McMahon Parater Foundation for Education, which provides need-based tuition assistance for children to attend Catholic schools in the diocese.
Margaret Keightley, executive director of the Catholic Community Foundation and the McMahon Parater Foundation for Education, called Stenke’s generosity to the diocese “unparalleled.”
“There have been donors who gave larger amounts of money, but he is my ‘go-to’ person who puts Catholic causes at the very top of his list of philanthropic priorities,” she said, noting that Stenke was the first member of the late Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo’s giving society within the McMahon Parater Foundation to contribute at the $500,000 level.
Keightly said Stenke was a “loyal donor” to the Diocesan Annual Appeal, contributing at the Bishop’s Circle level, and that a portion of his $1million pledge to the Living Our Mission capital campaign went to CCEVA.
Janet Murphy, St. Pius X Parish business manager, said, “George is a driving force in the parish whose philanthropy has run the gamut from purchasing raffle tickets to being the major benefactor of the recent renovation of the school.”
Stenke, the fifth of 12 children, was born in Michigan and raised on the family’s farm. He said “coming of age” in the Great Depression showed him the value of hard work and perseverance.
At age 16, Stenke joined the Navy, where he rose from enlisted to officer, retiring as a commander after a 29-year career. He served in World War II, the Korean War, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War.
He married Josephine in 1946. After attending Masses with his wife for years, he converted from the German Lutheran faith of his childhood to Catholicism in 1967 because it was “Josephine’s deepest desire” for him to become Catholic and because he was attracted to the faith’s values, particularly its recognition of the value of the family, and its emphasis on good works.
The Virginia Beach resident describes himself as “a devout Catholic” who “has a strong need to help people.”
Stenke said that while he was in the Navy, he moonlighted as a fence, siding and installation salesman, and upon retirement, he purchased Hercules Fence. He later started OK Moving and Storage, Picket Road Enterprises and Harmony Roads Property.
“He wasn’t given the gift of gold,” LaLonde said. “He worked hard to get to where he is at. He has never forgotten where he came from.”
While Stenke was still in the Navy, he noticed that low-ranking enlisted sailors leaving the military often could not find affordable housing in Hampton Roads, so he purchased property and rented it to them at a low cost, allowing them to remain in the area rather than returning to their hometowns where jobs were often scarce, he said.
Stenke has used his financial and business expertise and sometimes financial backing to help individuals begin their own businesses.
“George is always helping other people that he knows are in trouble,” Fick said. “He’s a big businessman with a big heart.”
LaLonde said, “The George Stenkes of the world only come around one or two times in your lifetime,” noting the philanthropist is a “phenomenal Catholic” who “lives the values of the Catholic Church every minute, every hour, every day of the year.”