GREENVILLE — Fred Meijer kept his trademark wit and vigor until the end.
Friends are remembering the Meijer Inc. chairman emeritus for the humble, pleasant presence he brought to any gathering and the many ways he helped West Michigan — especially Greenville.
Meijer died Friday of complications from a stroke suffered in the early morning hours. He was 91.
Author Larry tenHarmsel knew Meijer for more than two decades and cowrote Meijer’s biography with longtime Meijer executive Bill Smith. TenHarmsel said Meijer was full of life when they last met for lunch on Wednesday.
“He was happy, well and having a good time,” tenHarmsel said. “Until the end he was always healthy. He always tried to get as much as he could out of life.”
TenHarmsel will miss seeing Meijer’s grin.
“He was a really joyful man,” tenHarmsel said. “It’s hard to imagine he’s gone.”
Meijer may be best known for his business accomplishments. He took the small chain of grocery stores his father started in 1934 and helped propel it into a regional retail powerhouse with more than 190 superstores in five states.
Meijer also will be known for his generous philanthropy throughout West Michigan. His notable contributions include Frederick Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park, Spectrum Health’s Fred & Lena Meijer Heart Center and dozens of miles of recreational trails across West Michigan.
“Their generosity extended all around the state,” tenHarmsel said.
Former Greenville Mayor Lloyd Walker, who maintained a relationship with Meijer since childhood, recalled Meijer’s generosity to the Greenville community.
Meijer gave lead gifts for a $17 million expansion at Spectrum Health United Hospital, dozens of miles of recreational trails and behind the scenes in many other small ways.
“There are a lot of things in Greenville that wouldn’t be here without Fred Meijer,” Walker said late Friday evening. “He did probably more for Greenville than any single person has ever done.”
Walker said Meijer called him soon after he received word in 2003 that Electrolux was considering closing the sprawling refrigerator factory in Greenville, which eventually put more than 2,700 local workers out of a job. Meijer offered to help any way he could, Walker said.
“Fred and Lena were the most supportive of Greenville as any of us,” said Walker, whose wife, Marcia, grew up across the street from the Meijer family on VanDeinse Avenue.
Lloyd Walker said many people wouldn’t know the Meijers were multi-millionaires with their unassuming personalities.
“People never felt they were in the presence of greatness because Fred was so friendly,” Walker said. “He was one of the friendliest people I ever met.”
Spectrum Health United Memorial Foundation Executive Director Shirley Hayes said Meijer enjoyed meeting and getting to know people.
“He couldn’t walk more then a few feet without someone coming up and starting a conversation with him,” she said. “He always made a connection with people. He tried to connect with everyone he talked with.”
She said most of the time he and his wife, Lena, would be the last to leave an event.
“They enjoyed being with people.”
Meijer wanted to recognize all gifts large and small the same way during the capital campaign for the Hendrik & Gezina Meijer Surgery & Patient Care Center.
“It was very important to him for the plaque to have everyone’s name honored, no matter if they donated a $1 or $100,” Hayes said. “He said sometimes it is harder for someone to donate a $1 then it is for others to donate more.”
Meijer was no stranger to the Greenville area in his later years. He visited his hometown often and enjoyed sharing stories of his boyhood years.
One of his favorite stories was about when he was a young boy peddling milk on Lafayette Street downtown on a horse and buggy. A police officer gave him a ticket on the buggy one day because one of its lights was out.
Meijer liked to quip that he likely was the only person pulled over and ticketed on a horse and buggy in Greenville.
Meijer also brought along plenty of Purple Cow coupons for a free ice cream cone wherever he went to pass out to young children.
“He will be remembered for all the right reasons,” tenHarmsel said. “He enjoyed his memories. He enjoyed the thousands of people he came to know over the years.”
TenHarmsel said he feels sad for Lena, who won’t have Fred at her side for the first time in 65 years.
“They did so many things together. They were together all the time,” tenHarmsel said. “I’m sure it’s very sad and difficult for her.”
The only silver lining he sees is the fact that Meijer didn’t suffer from a long illness before death.
“When somebody lives to a ripe old age and has happy life you can look at it as a happy experience,” tenHarmsel said.
Still, he feels the sting of Meijer’s death.
“It’s still a bit of a shock,” tenHarmsel said. “You say to yourself it is inevitable, but it is still shocking and sad when it happens.
“It’s hard to imagine he’s gone,” tenHarmsel added.
Staff writer Kelli Ameling contributed to this report.
Fred Meijer’s life
1919: Fred Meijer is born in Greenville.
1923: Hendrik Meijer constructs a building in Greenville for his barbershop.
1928: Hendrik builds storefronts next to the barbershop for rental property.
1934: Hendrik Meijer and family open a grocery store called the North Side Grocery in a vacant storefront with $328.76 worth of merchandise he purchased on credit. The name later changes to Thrift Market.
1935: Thrift Market switches from credit to strictly cash.
1936: Thrift Market goes self-service.
1937: Fred Meijer graduates from Greenville High School. Thrift Market doubles in size.
1941: Lena Rader is hired as a cashier.
1942: A store opens in Cedar Springs.
1946: Fred Meijer marries Lena Rader. The original Greenville store burns. A store opens in Ionia.
1949: The first Meijer supermarket opens in Grand Rapids.
1952: The company’s offices move to Grand Rapids above store No. 6 on the northeast side. Son Hank is born to Fred and Lena Meijer.
1954: Son Doug is born.
1957: Son Mark is born.
1962: Thrifty Acres stores open in Grand Rapids, Muskegon and Holland.
1964: Hendrik Meijer dies at 80.
1966: The first Lansing store, No. 23, opens.
1969: The first Meijer gas stations open. Meijer stores open on Sundays.
1974: The first Detroit-area store, No. 32, opens. The Lansing distribution center opens.
1978: Gezina Meijer dies at 91.
1984: A new Meijer logo is adopted.
1988: Meijer stores stay open 24 hours.
1993: Meijer stores begin accepting charge cards for groceries. Plans for the Fred Meijer Heartland Trail in Montcalm County take shape as Meijer donates a lead gift.
1994: The first Meijer stores open in Indiana. Ground is broken for the first Illinois store.
1995: The Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park opens in Grand Rapids. The first Meijer store opens in Illinois.
2006: Spectrum Health United Hospital opens the $17 million Hendrik & Gezina Meijer Surgery & Patient Care Center thanks to a lead gift from Fred and Lena Meijer.
2007: Fred and Lena Meijer donate $250,000 as a matching grant for the $850,000 Lena Rader Meijer Emergency Department at Spectrum Health Kelsey Hospital in Lakeview.
2009: Biography on Fred Meijer’s life, “Fred Meijer: Stories of his Life” by Bill Smith and Larry ten Harmsel was published. Donates old Meijer building in Greenville for a community outreach center.
2010: Fred and Lena Meijer donate $100,000 to nearly pay for two new horse barns at the Montcalm County 4-H Fairgrounds in Montcalm Township.
2011: Work is completed on the Fred Meijer Heartland Trail in Montcalm County and Fred Meijer Flat River Trail around Greenville. Fred Meijer dies at 91.