Portrait of Michael Meckel (Ekkehard-Stiftung)

The Ekkehard Foundation was founded by Karl Friedrich Meckel in 1960. Its noble goal: to bring together students from around the world, so that they could meet and understand each other’s points of view. Today, 63 years later, Karl Friedrich’s grandson Michael Meckel and seven other trustees are continuing this work, as the foundation’s goals of world peace and international understanding are as important as ever.

One day in the fall semester, the baroque palace is a bustling hive of activity. Students are rushing between lecture halls, chattering as they go. But in the President’s meeting room, where the big penguin picture hangs on the wall, things are a little more sedate, thanks to the steaming cups of coffee on the table in front of us, the warm light, the plip-plop of raindrops on the windows—and, above all, the soothing voice of Michael Meckel, who is paying a visit today. The Frankfurt businessman, sporting a casual ponytail and black horn-rimmed glasses, makes an immediately likeable impression. His eyes glisten as he tells me about his life, only occasionally interrupting his recollections to pop a small, pungent peppermint candy in his mouth. “My little vice,” he says with a conspiratorial wink, before continuing.

His story unfolds in the bustling metropolis of Frankfurt, shortly after the Second World War. The Meckel family home was in the city’s Westend district. Grandparents, parents, and children all lived there under one roof, with the offices of their business in the basement. Karl Friedrich Meckel, originally from the Palatinate region to the west and now in his 40s, was starting out there from scratch with his wife Erna. Having left his home and his traumatic experiences as a prisoner of war behind him, he now threw himself into his work and expanded the Trifels publishing house, named after an imposing castle in Karl Friedrich’s native Palatinate. “Just imagine it: After the war, everything literally had to be rebuilt. There were new streets, new businesses—and my grandfather, in partnership with the publisher Deutsche Postreklame (now DTM), seized the opportunity to make a success of his publishing house,” explains Michael. That was how the family business was born, whose most successful product was the “Gelbe Seiten” (Yellow Pages). The company grew rapidly and the telephone books were a huge success. Even those who grew up in the 2000s will remember how ubiquitous they were: Every phone box and every house in the federal states of Hesse, Rhineland-Palatinate, and later Saarland had a copy of the thick, yellow book with its thin, densely printed pages. If you were searching for a tradesperson, needed the weather hotline number, or simply wanted to look up the opening times of your favorite pizzeria, you would automatically reach for the Gelbe Seiten.

Once the company was on a firm footing, Karl Friedrich realized a long-harbored ambition: In 1960, he and Erna founded the Ekkehard Foundation International Student Homes. Because he could not and did not want to forget his experiences during the war. The chief goal was to bring together German and international students, so as to foster open dialogue and promote peace and international understanding. The idea was that the Ekkehard Foundation would provide housing and support to students of many different nationalities. At his alma mater, the University of Mannheim, where he had studied business administration in the 1930s, the idea was warmly welcomed. For more than 55 years, the Ekkehard Foundation has worked with the university to help international students. It pays the rent for the three-person apartments in the university guesthouse, awards scholarships, and supports business administration tutorials and the Studierendenwerk’s intercultural counselling service.

When Michael speaks of the foundation’s founding, he sounds both proud and humble. “I sadly never got to meet my grandfather, as he died before I was born. But the stories of his resolve, enthusiasm, and courage still often leave me speechless today. It’s amazing that he made his dream a reality. I can only say bravo!” Michael was born in 1972, two-and-a-half years after his grandfather’s death. The family business and foundation had passed to two of Karl Friedrich’s sons. One of them, Ekkehard, was Michael’s father. “I was practically born into the family business. My dad always dropped me off at the kindergarten on his way to work long before the other kids showed up, as he was a real early riser,” Michael recalls with a grin. He says he had a great childhood surrounded by the extended family. It was only after finishing school that Michael got his first proper taste of the business , when he did an internship at the subsidiary SARAG in Saarland. “I had to find out whether publishing was for me. Could I do it? Could I meet my dad’s expectations?” Michael enjoyed the work right from the get-go. He liked being able to contribute creatively, to build things, to juggle new ideas.

And those talents suddenly became even more important at the dawn of the new millennium. With the internet boom, the Trifels publishing house had to get inventive. “We did a lot of really exciting things during that time of upheaval. To my dad’s and uncle’s great credit, they gave me free rein—they listened to me and trusted me. We had a lot of serious, in-depth discussions. It was a great working relationship.” Besides innovative business ideas, such as developing industry websites and investing in social media agencies, Michael also supported the foundation’s work with regular personal donations, which meant it could fund more scholarships for international students. The foundation could count on him even in times of crisis. For instance, during the pandemic and after the outbreak of the Ukraine war, he made some generous additional donations. Michael has also supported the Deutschland Scholarship at the University of Mannheim both financially and nonfinancially for many years. Recently, in summer 2023, he was awarded a university medal for his work.

“I have always seen it as a very personal mission, and the trustee meetings are still some of my favorite events of the year. I’m also very grateful for the close and cordial working relationship that I’ve always enjoyed with the University of Mannheim and Sparkasse Kaiserslautern.” Each branch of the family is still represented by a trustee on the board, and Michael hopes that will remain the case in the future too: “My daughters are 14 years old. Careerwise, they can do whatever they want—but I do really hope they will keep the Ekkehard Foundation going!” He is planning to bring the twins to the next scholarship ceremony at the University of Mannheim so that they can meet the many people from around the world who have been able to come to Mannheim thanks to the Ekkehard Foundation.

Text: Jule Leger/December 2023