Greenville’s favorite son, Fred Meijer, dies at 91

Posted by Daily News • Last Updated 7:17 pm on Saturday, November 26 2011


GRAND RAPIDS — Black Friday will take on a new meaning at Meijer stores.
The company’s Chairman Emeritus Fred Meijer died Friday from complications of a stroke he suffered early Friday. He was 91.
Meijer, a Greenville native and 1937 Greenville High School graduate, died on Black Friday — the busiest shopping day of the year — at a Spectrum Health hospital, according to a statement from the company. He suffered a stroke during the early morning hours of Friday and was rushed to the hospital, where he died Friday evening with his family at this side.
Meijer’s father, Hendrik, founded the Meijer chain in Greenville with a small grocery at Charles and Lafayette streets in 1934. Fred Meijer took the helm after his father’s retirement and launched the company on a path of explosive growth, bringing more than 190 one-stop-shop superstores to five Midwest states.
Fred also established himself as one of West Michigan’s leading philanthropists while managing Meijer Inc. and in his retirement years. He was no stranger to Greenville, where he grew up in a modest house on VanDeinse Avenue, in his later years.

Business sense born

Fred Meijer would proudly tell you that he was the product of his strong Dutch father, Hendrik Meijer. Their close relationship carried him through childhood and into their business years.
Hendrik was born the son of a Dutch immigrant family, who originally settled in the Holland, Mich., area during the turn of the century with many other Dutch immigrants. Hendrik inherited a stubborn, independent spirit from his Dutch ancestors and struck out to find a new life of his own in America.
Having seen the oppressive working conditions in the Netherlands, where people weren’t allow to vote if they didn’t own property, Hendrik was ready for a life of freedoms in the United States.
He left behind his fiancée, Gezina Mantel, in Holland, promising to write her every day and to send for her when he was ready.
Fred said that his father never took for granted the right to vote or own property, something that Dutch settlers weren’t used to in the Netherlands.

That was a new and wonderful feeling for Hendrik and he spent his life enjoying those freedoms.
Fred said that his father was outspoken about political issues, with lively discussions on a variety of topics following him wherever he.
From that point on, the Netherlands would only ever be a place where Hendrik took his family to visit— they would never move back, refusing to leave the luxuries they had found in America.
Many of the settlers in and surrounding Greenville during the early 1900s were either of German or Scandinavian descent, so the community was very close knit. They shared many similar experiences of crossing the ocean to make a new life in America and enjoyed the familiarity of speaking in their native tongues.
So, after five years of working half a dozen trades and traveling around America, Hendrik decided to settle down and call Greenville his home.
In 1912 Hendrik set up a barbershop in Greenville. It soon became a hub of gossip, politics and practical jokes, and soon he seemed to know just about everything about everyone in town.
But being a barber didn’t satisfy Hendrik Meijer’s entrepreneurial spirit. He wanted something bigger, something better.
While continuing to operate his barber business, he tried his hand at selling furnaces, peddling lace and even raising chickens. Nothing seemed to really fit the bill.
Hendrik’s real dream was owning and operating a successful dairy farm named Model Dairy after a showplace enterprise in Chicago. He did so by buying a 16-acre farm located where the former Meijer store lies vacant at 1220 N. Lafayette St. on Greenville’s north side.
Fred said his father thought farmers lived the ideal life, working at their own place, with their own hands, and spending hours out-of-doors.
But Hendrik soon learned the farming life wasn’t as idealistic as he had thought it would be, though that didn’t deter him from trying. He spent almost 30 years maintaining his dairy farm.
The Great Depression brought more difficult times for Hendrik and his family. Barbershops started to lose business as haircuts became luxuries many couldn’t afford.
After a few other failed business plans, the Dutchman took a huge step of faith and opened the little North Side Grocery near the corner of Lafayette and Charles streets, where the Tuffy Muffler currently stands.
That store brought a change in luck for the Meijer family. It was there that the humble beginnings of one of the Midwest’s largest shopping chains arose. That was a new and wonderful feeling for Hendrik and he spent his life enjoying those freedoms.

Farmer Boy

Hendrik and Gezina Meijer had two children — a daughter, Johanna, born in 1916, and a son, Frederick “Fred” Gerhard Hendrik Meijer, born Dec. 7, 1919.
Fred was born in the family’s farmhouse at the north edge of Greenville.
As was common for many families back in the early 1900s, Fred wasn’t usually called by his name around the farm. He was known more for his position in the Meijer household, often dubbed “Brother” by his family.
It was on this farm that he spent many of his childhood years, creating many cherished memories that lasted throughout his lifetime.
Hendrik’s dream of becoming a truly successful dairy farmer just never had the chance to become a reality. He couldn’t really afford to close down the barbershop to devote all his time on the farm, so Gezina, Fred and hired men kept the farm from failing.
Fred would spend mornings in school before heading straight home to help around the farm. He usually peddled milk in the community, sometimes making trips out before school in the morning.
Football games and afterschool activities just weren’t something Fred could afford to do. He was too busy around the farm, working hard to help provide for his family.
“I had more fun than the other guys did,” he said. “Sure, they had all the girls, and I was a little jealous, but I was working and I enjoyed the responsibility.”
The years spent together on the farm developed a tight bond in the Meijer clan. This tight bond was later carried over into the grocery store years.
“You’re working together, having common problems,” he said of the times his family working together. “I think if young people can have responsibility and feel needed, it’s a wonderful thing,”
One of the few activities Fred enjoyed outside of chores was 4-H. He raised cows every year and showed them at the Montcalm County 4-H Fair.
Fred also had a real passion for horses, having many throughout his childhood. Farmers would unload bad horses at the local horse dealer and the Meijers ended up with many of them. Many of them would lay down in the stall, balk, kick out and just be plain mean. But Fred loved each and every one of them, despite their problems.
“We had them all,” Fred said. “But I had a love affair with every horse I worked with.”
He had a favorite pony, Jip, that wouldn’t let him put a saddle on her. He had to ride the feisty pony bareback every time.
He also enjoyed “chariot races” with his friends, racing carts down the back roads of Greenville.
And it was with a horse that Fred received his first and only ticket. He was driving the family sleigh home on Lafayette Street after delivering milk when he was stopped by police officer Frank Satterlee for not having visible tail lights on the sleigh. Though he was only 10 years-old at the time, Fred joked about it until the day of his death.
“You never forget that, when police pull you over,” he said. “I bet you I’m the only one… in Greenville that got stopped by a policeman for not having a tail light on a horse and sleigh.”
Fred also enjoyed swimming in the Flat River and at various swimming holes around Greenville — generally skinny dipping without any clothes.
“We used to go down to the river and then we didn’t need swimming suits,” Fred recalled. “Unless some mean girls came along and the girls were mean when you were 8 or 9 years old.”
He said that girls would sometimes throw the boys’ clothing into thorn trees, creating an awkward situation for the boys out in the water.
“If anyone would holler ‘girls coming,’ boy, we’d scramble and take care of our clothes,” Fred said while chuckling.
He remembers swimming in another swimming hole by the Gibson refrigerator factory as well as in Burgess Lake. Fred said the bottom felt like walking bare-footed through a pile of “fresh cow pie.”
He said he never went swimming in Baldwin Lake.
“That’s where the south-end guys went with no clothes on,” Fred said with a wink. “I never went there. I just know about it.”

Work and War

After graduating from Greenville High School in 1937, Fred became more and more active in his father’s business.
A job that had started out as peddling groceries and painting signs developed into much greater responsibilities. Fred helped his father make day-to-day decisions that would affect the entire business.
“He and I had a good partnership — I think an unusual partnership,” Fred said. “He never second-guessed me, even when I made a mistake. I think we had as fine a relationship that you could have.”
When the opportunity came for expanding into a second store, Hendrik pretty much left the decision to his teenage son.
“He said, ‘If you want another job or if you wanted to go to college, now is the time to do it,’” Fred remembers his father saying one day. “And I said, ‘well, I don’t want to. I like what I’m doing.’”
Fred opted to stay in the family business over attending college to study history and was soon made a full partner with his father in the growing business.
Fred said that if he had elected to go to college, the family never would have started its second store in Cedar Springs and the original Meijer-owned grocery store in Greenville would have been only a memory today.
“It never happened (his going to college), but it’s just one of those things,” Fred said.
When World War II broke out in 1941, Fred tried to enlist repeatedly, but a hernia disqualified him from service. He tried to enlist so many times that he soon was nominated to lead the bus with area recruits on each trip it made to Detroit.
Fred was able to help those new to the process find out where they needed to go, tell them what to expect for breakfast and fill them in on just about everything else they needed to know. He said that during his last attempt to enlist in the Army, his doctors couldn’t find his hernia.
“So I get accepted in the Army in Detroit,” Fred remembered.
He said that as soon as they discovered that he couldn’t cook, he was assigned to the infantry.
His time in the Army was short-lived, however. A sergeant, who knew that Fred had been rejected several times due to his hernia brought the situation to the attention of an Army doctor.
“The doctor never checked me,” Fred said. “He just said, ‘throw him out.’”
That ended Fred’s one-hour stint in the Army.
He said it was both a relief and a disappointment not to be able to serve his country during World War II.
“I felt guilty looking healthy and not being in the Army,” Fred said. “One of my friends, Dan Smeed, had already been killed.”
Those mixed feelings have stayed with Fred down through the years.
“On one hand you’re happy. On another hand you’re not happy,” he said, trying to explain the conflicts he has felt. “But probably I was lucky ’cause I would have been in on the whole thing.”

Enter Lena

Fred credited his father for bringing his wife, Lena, into his life. Hendrik had hired Lena Rader as a clerk for the diminutive salary of $12 for a 54-hour workweek. She was a good hard worker, and it didn’t take long for Greenville Hardware Store to offer her $3 more per week and less hours to work for them.
Fred told Hendrik they’d soon be losing one of their best cashiers and, though they would have liked to keep her, they just couldn’t afford to.
“Dad said, ‘Well, we don’t want to lose her,’” Fred said. “And I was like, ‘well, we can’t afford to keep her for $15 a week.’”
Hendrik disagreed— she was worth keeping— and raised the salaries of all the cashiers just to hang onto Lena.
Lena actually initiated the relationship between the two of them by asking him to a Farm Bureau dance after some co-workers dared her to do it. Fred initially turned her down, but after a few minutes he chased her back down and accepted.
Since Fred decided not to ask any girls out unless he intended to marry them, it took him a few weeks to decide whether to ask Lena out on another date. Fred never told his parents (or Lena) about the pact with himself, just in case he couldn’t keep the promise.
But he had nothing to worry about, as they celebrated 65 years of marriage before his death. Both were 26 when they married at her house in Amble.
The couple spent their honeymoon in Pensacola, Fla., sitting on a chilly beach bundled up in heavy coats.
“I thought when you went to Florida you could go swimming anytime,” Fred said. “I didn’t know anything.”
When the couple returned from their chilly honeymoon in Pensacola, Fla., they both got right back down to work at the store. As soon as she joined the family, Lena was taken off the payroll, just like the rest of the Meijers.
The two lived at the Meijer family home until they could purchase a house of their own, finally settling in the old Tucker homestead on Second Street near VanDeinse Street.
It was a hard financial start for the pair. Even obtaining a loan was a struggle. Fred remembers asking a friend who was a banker to loan him money and nearly being turned down.
“He knew we didn’t have any money, except what was coming to us through the store,” Fred said. “So when I took out $500 or something he wanted to see Lena’s finger.”
Lena said she still recalls the morning that the banker walked into the store and asked to see the three-fourths carat engagement ring on her left hand. Because the wedding ring was used for collateral the couple were approved for the loan.


Trial by fire


Though the family business was called North Side Grocery when it opened, it took less than a year to change the name to Meijer’s Thrift Market, incorporating the family name for the first time.
It soon grew to become Montcalm County’s largest supermarket.
However, Meijer’s Thrift Market met a fiery end on May 22, 1946 — barely four months after Fred and Lena were married. Meijer’s Thrift Market was a complete loss, suffering an estimated $125,000 in damage.
Luckily the Meijers had complete insurance coverage on the merchandise within the store. But with only $5,000 worth of coverage on the building and $5,000 insurance on the fixtures, it was still a heavy blow to the business.
However, they had been looking into purchasing a Quonset building from a man named John Watson to be erected at a site across the street and south one block. The new store, called Meijer’s Super Market, opened in the summer of 1946.
“Coincidentally, this all happened the same time as our fire,” Fred said. “The smoke was still smoldering when we had the building delivered to the new site.”
By the end of that year there were three stores in the area under Meijer ownership — Greenville, Cedar Springs and Ionia.
The first Grand Rapids “Thrifty Acres” store opened at the corner of 28th Street and Kalamazoo Ave. in 1962, pioneering the company’s foray into the “one-stop shopping” format.
That started a chain of what is now 196 “one-stop shopping” stores spread across Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio.


Adding to the family

Fred and Lena waited almost seven years before their first son, Hank, was born in February 1952.
“She (Lena) took all kinds of tests in order to get the first baby,” he said. “It all depends on what nature gives you.”
They had just moved from Greenville to Grand Rapids between Christmas 1951 and New Year’s 1952, and Lena remembers making the move while in her final months of pregnancy.
“Boy, did she get flowers,” Fred remembers of the flocks of visitors to see the new baby and wish congratulations. “Because she dealt with the salesmen all the salesmen were around.”
The family soon expanded to four with the birth of Doug in 1954 and then to five with Mark’s arrival in 1957.
Hank and Doug stepping into the shoes once filled by their grandfather and their father. Mark owns Life EMS Ambulance in Grand Rapids.
Fred stayed active in the business from its humble beginnings to its rise into a regional retail powerhouse.

In retirement, Fred and Lena stayed active as philanthropists in West Michigan. Fred used to joke with leaders of several nonprofits and benefactors that “it keeps getting more and more expensive” to have grown up in Montcalm County.
They are best known locally for the millions of dollars in gifts to support development of pedestrian trails throughout West Michigan, including the Fred Meijer Flat River Trail in Greenville, Fred Meijer Heartland Trail from Greenville to Alma, Fred Meijer CIS trail from Ionia to Owosso and the new Fred Meijer River Valley Trail being developed from Greenville to Lowell.
Sometimes called “the Johnny Appleseed of trails,” Fred said he hopes his legacy is marked by the contributions he’s made for local trails.
“I’m very enthusiastic about trails,” he said on a 2006 tour of the Heartland Trail. “I’m just sorry I can’t enjoy them myself on a bike.”
Lena , who logged nearly 60,000 miles on a stationary bicycle in 10 years, said trails are a much better environment for walkers and bicyclists than road shoulders.
“They’re a good idea,” she said. “They give people a nice place to walk.”
He figures they’ve saved “umpteen” lives by moving pedestrians and bicyclists away from motorized traffic. Vehicles “come so close to you” along the roadway, he said. “This way you’re unbothered by cars.”
The trails also provide a place for people to connect with nature that they won’t find along roads.
“People need to get close to nature and the way things used to be for their sanity,” Meijer said. “A lot of these would not have been saved before farmers made their fields bigger.”
Besides trails, the Meijers gave extensively to local health care. They gave the lead gift in constructing the $13.5 million Hendrik & Gezina Meijer Surgery & Patient Care Center at Spectrum Health United Hospital in Greenville and the Fred & Lena Meijer Heart Center at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids.
The Meijers were active in developing Frederick Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, which opened in 1995 in Grand Rapids, with the West Michigan Horticultural Society. The facility has grown into a world-renowned destination and one of the Midwest’s’ premier tourist attractions.
Fred and Lena called the shots on much of the facility’s development and acquisitions over the first decade it was open. The gardens include parts of their early lives with a replica of the Amble homestead Lena grew up in as a child.
The Meijers also gave extensively to Grand Valley State University’s Meijer Broadcast Center in Grand Rapids and the 2006 renovation of the Meijer Majestic Theatre, where the Grand Rapids Civic Theatre performs on Division Street in Grand Rapids.

Life in retirement
With their sons taking over a majority of the family business, Fred and Lena have been able to enjoy their retirement years at their Grand Rapids home for the past four years.
Upon walking through one of their front doors, one never would guess that they own one of the Midwest’s largest department store and supermarket chains.
“This is all for Christmas,” Fred said, pointing out the many Christmas trees around the Meijer home. “Lena loves Christmas trees.”
Every room has at least one tree. Fred said that his wife has a name for each one.
“Egg Tree, Penguin Tree, a This-N-That Tree…” he explained.
Yes, penguins. Lena enjoys collecting penguins and has a room filled with her collection of the black and white birds.
“We saw them (penguins) in New Zealand and I guess I fell in love with them,” Lena admitted with a laugh.
Fred said the collection may have gotten out of hand.
“When people find out she likes penguins, my gosh, do they give her penguins,” he exclaimed.

Books, exercise and mementos

Where Lena collects penguins and decorated eggs (she makes those too), Fred has walls upon walls of his collection of books. History is his favorite topic to read about, with Carl Sandburg and James Michener as his two favorite authors.
“You can tell true history better presenting it as fiction through people than you can with just names and dates,” Fred said.
He’s not sure how long he’ll be able to continue his passion for reading, however.
“I hope I don’t lose my eyesight to macular degeneration,” Fred said. “I can’t read with my left eye and I’m worried about my right eye. Sometimes I see double and it’s a darn nuisance.”
Exercise also has become very important to Fred, who does six different exercises every day. The couple’s stationary bicycle has more than 60,000 miles on it between the two of them. Fred put 20,000 miles on it before undergoing hip surgery and Lena continues to add to the number every day.
Like many elderly couples, their home is filled with artifacts. Each item has a story to tell.
There’s a purple cow stuffed animal on a side table; a red rocking horse that Hendrik gave their son, Hank; and sculptures from artist friends around the globe.
The piano that Lena received for Christmas when she was 7 has a strategic place in the living room, with old sheet music by Bing Crosby and other bygone artists spread across the music desk.
Pictures of their seven grandchildren are placed on bookshelves, side tables and mantels, one of the most important elements of the home’s decoration.
“Those are my grandchildren,” Fred said with pride, pointing to one of the snapshots.

No regrets

Fred said he was always nervous about whether the Meijer company would work out and continue to grow.
“I questioned it many times,” he said. “It wasn’t really a leap of faith. It was a leap based on faith that if you could do it, that it would work.”
Fred said that though Meijer Inc. appears to be very successful now, the company’s success never was guaranteed.
“I signed my name 99 times to debt and one mistake could have taken everything away from us,” he said. “It was scary times.”
Fred said that though his family has endured its share of hard times, he has enjoyed his life with Meijer.
“It’s been an interesting life,” he said. “I’ve had a good time.”
Fred glanced across the table at his wife with an affectionate smile.
“Hopefully Lena’s had a good time too,” he said.
Fred is convinced that he would be “just as happy” today if he never had decided to open a second store back in 1942.
“If we had never started the second store, and we’d both have been working in the one store, I think Lena and me would be just as happy,” he said.
Lena agreed.
“I never thought we’d have more than one store when we started,” she said. “We’d still be in Greenville.”

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