MAUREEN BURNS: Lessons from a real giant

By Maureen Burns • Last Updated 10:49 pm on Friday, December 02, 2011

When I was a kid, I loved to read fairy tales. In some there would be giants and in my mind I saw them as huge, tall, great big creatures — inhuman. Now I am grown up and I know what giants are really like.
They can be short, slender, normal looking and maybe even walking with a walker. In my adult eyes, Fred Meijer was a giant in every good sense of the word.

So much has been said and written about Fred already, but I want to write about the lessons we can learn from this giant. If followed, his lessons can make all of us better people. How did he teach them? By living his life, of course. We all lead in three ways: by example, by example, by example. Fred did a great job of that.

Lesson 1: Laugh easily and with gusto. Fred punctuated every conversation with lots of laughter. He joked easily, often about himself. He laughed with people, never at people. Are we laughing enough?

Lesson 2: Set the tone. A few years ago, Fred told me how he still went to the office every work day. He said his job was to set the tone. And, boy, did he! There was nobody more excited about Meijer stores than Fred Meijer. His tone was enthusiasm and it was contagious. How is the tone we set in our lives? Are we enthusiastic, pessimistic, optimistic, grouchy or joyful? Whatever we are, we are also contagious.

Lesson 3: Brighten the world with a smile. Oh, you may not think that is much of a lesson, but let me tell you, try going without one and see how life feels. It is hard to imagine Fred without a smile, because he was usually wearing one.

Lesson 4: Give back. Fred lived by John Kennedy’s words. “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” Yes, Fred was one of the richest Americans, but his things didn’t make him happy, his ability to give did. Fred gave and gave and gave. He gave encouragement, kind words, opportunity, and, oh yes, lots of money. We could sum it up by saying, Fred Meijer gave generously always.

Lesson 5: Never forget where you came from. We all know that home is where we start from. Fred started from Greenville and he never forgot it. Fred was a regular at events in Greenville. He lived in Grand Rapids and loved it, but he loved where he came from too. He was proud of his heritage and his history.

Lesson 6: Work hard. I love the fact that Fred worked right up until he died. What a blessing for him and what a blessing for the world. Many times, especially in the beginning of his career and life, he gave up experiences and events because he felt he had to work instead. His work ethic was strong. The world could really be a better place if we all worked that hard.

Lesson 7: Praise others. Fred handed out praise as happily and as often as he handed out Purple Cow ice cream cards. One Friday night I was home alone. It was about 8:30 at night. The phone rang and it was Fred. You can imagine my surprise! He said he had especially liked one of my columns and had copied it to give to people. He then went on to chat about other things I had written, encouraging me all the time. When I hung up, I was stunned and honored. I could not believe that on a Friday night, when there is so much to do, that he would take the time and effort to call me with praise. I know I am just one of the many thousands of people that he praised. I am also quite sure that we each remember his praise and encouragement with fondness. We can pass this lesson on if we remember to praise others often.

Lesson 8: Be open minded and forward thinking. Fred hired minorities when it was a novel idea. He didn’t seem to see color or sex as barriers. He saw people as people. He saw the world as what it could be, not necessarily as what it was. How do we see it?

Lesson 9: Be a dreamer and run with those dreams. Fred collected sculptures long before the gardens and sculpture park were even discussed. Fred dreamed the concept of one stop shopping before it was a concept. Yes, he dreamed big and then he added the magic to his dreams — work. And a wonderful thing happened — reality.

Lesson 10: Love big. Fred loved his dear wife, Lena. He loved his children and grandchildren. He loved people. He loved life. He loved the road he had traveled and was traveling.

Harry Emerson Fosdick sums up Fred nicely. “To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”

If we follow the above lessons that Fred showed us, we can succeed too. It may be that the way Fred lived his life is his greatest gift of all. He was a true giant in the real world.

Maureen Burns, a Greenville resident, is a professional speaker and author. Her e-mail address is

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