By Kelli Ameling and Elisabeth Waldon
GRAND RAPIDS – Debrah Tubergen remembers May 22, 1946, like it was yesterday.
The little girl heard and watched fire trucks race down Lafayette Street as Meijer’s Thrift Market was destroyed in a fire in downtown Greenville.
Tubergen, who grew up in Greenville and now resides in Hudsonville, attended Tuesday’s public visitation for Fred Meijer at the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids. Meijer, a Greenville native and 1937 Greenville High School graduate, died Friday at the age of 91.
An estimated 5,000 people attended Tuesday’s visitation, according to Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park Public Relations Specialist Amy Sawade.
Meijer’s father, Hendrik, founded the Meijer chain in Greenville. Fred Meijer took over the company after his father’s retirement and expanded it to include more than 190 superstores in five Midwest states.
Tubergen’s father, Calvin Green, formerly worked for Meijer.
“Fred Meijer was a good man,” Tubergen said. “Meijer is the place to work. He treated his employees well.”
Bruce DeWindt of Oakfield Township volunteers at the Frederick Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park on Tuesday mornings. He waited in line with everyone else at Tuesday afternoon’s visitation.
“He was the most down-to-earth, unpretentious man you’d ever meet,” he said of Meijer. “He was a billionaire, but he made you feel like you were talking to your next door neighbor.”
Many current and former employees of Meijer attended the eight-hour visitation despite the afternoon’s cold and windy weather.
Sue Hill worked for Meijer for 13 years and her son, Justin Hill, worked for Meijer six years. Both came from Lansing to pay their respects to their former boss.
“It was a good place to work,” Justin Hill said. “It was a big company with a small family feel.”
Larry Koole of Grand Rapids worked for Meijer for 32 years. He recalled how Meijer enjoyed walking around the store and talking to people.
“I enjoyed working for Fred,” Koole said. “I spent half of my life (at Meijer). I appreciate him.”
Bill Rae of Grand Rapids said he appreciated how Meijer never forgot his roots. He reminisced about how Meijer would bring Purple Cow coupons to Meijer stores and hand them out to children.
“He lived his life like that until the end,” Rae said. “It’s a better way to live.”
William Kitchen of Kitchen Farms in Elmira has been growing and selling potatoes to Meijer stores since 1975.
“(Meijer) had a great relationship with all of his buyers,” Kitchen said.
Kyle Cutler of Grand Rapids said he attended Meijer’s visitation in honor of all Meijer’s work with the American Cancer Society over the years.
“I came to pay my respects,” Cutler said. “He was very generous.”
Diane Jedrzejczak of Standale carefully held a photograph while waiting in line Tuesday. Jedrzejczak had her photo taken with Fred Meijer this past May in Walker.
“I love Meijer,” she declared with emotion. “I really do. I’m thankful for the store and for all it’s done for our communities.”