A Bridge from West Michigan to the World for 75 Years


Founders Hillman and Orr with Dixie Anderson for 50th Anniversary credit Grand Rapids Press

In 1949, the world was still in the aftermath of World War II, and the United States risked falling back into isolationism. It was at this pivotal time that businessman Edgar Orr and Judge Douglas Hillman embarked on a mission to enhance global awareness in local communities of Western Michigan. Inspired by the legacy of Grand Rapids favorite son U.S. Senator Arthur J. Vandenberg, they founded the World Affairs Council of Grand Rapids, laying the foundation for what later became the World Affairs Council of Western Michigan with NGO status in the 1970s.


Edgar Kiefer Orr (1922-2009) was a prominent leader in the Grand Rapids community for many years. The Council’s mission started when Edgar and his wife Nancy took a 4-½ month trip around the world and saw the remains of the devastation caused by World War II in Europe. From this experience, Orr felt the need for Americans to be more knowledgeable about the world despite the limited opportunities offered in the community at that time.


Douglas W. Hillman (1922-2007) served as a judge in West Michigan and was appointed as U.S. District Judge by President Carter in 1979. He was active on the bench until his retirement in 2002, and significantly contributed to the Grand Rapids community. Douglas shared the same belief and passion with Orr that the American people should enhance their global awareness. He was particularly passionate about encouraging younger people to learn about the world.


Based on the founders’ passions, the Council’s activities have been diverse and far-reaching, encompassing lectures, United Nations initiatives, cultural exchanges, and educational programs. From sending community ambassadors to various countries to hosting foreign visitors and organizing student tours abroad, the Council has sought to broaden perspectives and foster cross-cultural understanding.


The Council is perhaps best known for sponsoring the award-winning Great Decisions Global Discussions Series of the Foreign Policy Association. According to organizational records, the Council is one of the first groups in the nation that hosted the series in the year Great Decisions began in 1954. The series has been used by local colleges and universities as a credit course and is attended by Council members and the public as a gift to the community.


A more recent remarkable footnote to Council history is the Vandenberg Prize started in 2020. It honors individuals who have made a significant contribution on the global stage. Additionally, the Hillman-Orr Award celebrates regional efforts in promoting global connections, paying tribute to the Council’s co-founders and their enduring legacy.


Past award winners of the Vandenberg Prize (Click on each recipient’s name to see an archive of the program):

Ambassador (ret.) Jon M. Huntsman, Jr.

General (ret.) James N, Mattis

Ambassador (ret.) Marie Yovanovitch

U.N. World Food Programme Director David Beasley


Past award winners of the Hillman-Orr Award:

Birgit Klohs

Ambassador (ret.) Peter Secchia

Bing Goei

Sonja Johnson and Kendra Kuo


As the Council celebrates its 75th years and looks towards the future, the heart of its mission is the belief that informed citizens are essential for effective participation in a globalized world. By offering a platform for dialogue and education, the Council continues to empower individuals to engage critically with international issues, dedicating itself to its non-partisanship and non-advocacy principles that ensure focus on knowledge-sharing and mutual understanding.


The Council is grateful for the dedicated board of leaders from corporate, academic, and civic spheres whose continuous supports sustains this mission. Together with its members, the World Affairs Council of Western Michigan serves as a bridge connecting West Michigan to the world.


With your help, we can continue to bring the world to Western Michigan.

“To change the world, first know the world.”