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Updated: Sunday, 27 Nov 2011, 5:43 PM EST
Published : Friday, 25 Nov 2011, 11:00 PM EST
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) - Frederik Meijer, prolific West Michigan philanthropist and long-time chairman of Meijer grocery-discount stores, has died.
He was 91.
According to an statement from Meijer Corp., Frederik Meijer passed away Friday evening at Spectrum Health System in Grand Rapids after suffering a stroke in his home in the early morning hours.
A public visitation will be held from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Tuesday. A private family memorial will follow on Wednesday.
"The Meijer family thanks everyone for their thoughts and prayers and requests their privacy be respected at this difficult time," said Meijer Director of Public Relations Frank Guglielmi.
Meijer was an easy-going man, according to the Meijer Corp obituary. He famously gave out coupons for free ice cream at the Purple Cow to children.
Today, Meijer Corp. has more than 190 stores in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky, plus a chain of gas stations.
Meijer handed over the reigns of the company to his sons Hank and Doug Meijer in 1990.
Meijer remained the Chairman Emeritus of Meijer Corp. until his death.
"Even at 91, he continued to attend meetings in the Meijer offices and motivate new generations of team members with his passion for customer service, fair play and low prices," according to an obituary provided by Meijer Corp. on Saturday.
As of September 2011, he was worth $5 billion and was the 60th richest person in the U.S., according to Forbes.
Meijer was the one of the longest-serving directors of the Food Marketing Institute and the winner of its Sidney Rabb award for outstanding service, according to the Meijer Corp. obituary.
"He was just genuinely a nice man," Executive Director of the Saint Mary's Foundation Michelle Rabideau told 24 Hour News 8.
Frederik Meijer was born in Greenville, Michigan in December of 1919. When Meijer was eight years old, he started working with his father Henderik selling milk and trading horses.
In 1934, Meijer turned 14 and his father opened Meijer's Grocery Store in Greenville.
Meijer credited his father with teaching him about business, and about pleasing the customer.
"Well, I had a great relationship with my father. He was a marvelous teacher. He was a great father in so many ways," he told 24 Hour News 8 in an interview before he passed away.
Two years, later Meijer's Grocery Store is renamed "The Thrift Market," setting the tone for Meijer Thrifty Acres years later.
While Henderik was teaching his son the finer points of the grocery business, he was also teaching consumers about getting the most for their dollar. Henderik used local newspapers to advertise store sales, like a box of corn flakes for eleven cents.
The competition was tough.
"It wasn't a matter of taking them on, it was a matter of surviving. We had to find a way to meet -- as much as we could -- their competition," said Meijer.
1946 was an important year in Meijer's life -- he married sweetheart and Meijer store clerk Lena Rader. Meijer admitted that, at first, he was reluctant to date someone from work.
"We come from totally different backgrounds," Meijer said. "We worked together in the store for four or five years before going together. I didn't believe in going with anybody who worked in the store. It just caused trouble if you broke up. So I never did. But I thought, "She's a pretty good lady," so the first time I asked her out, I said "I'm going to marry her!" I didn't tell her that so she could back out."
Thoughout their life together, Fred and Lena remained a team. Though Lena prefers not to speak in public, leaving Fred to make the speeches, she and Fred were very much partners.
1946 was also a challenging year for Meijer and his family, when the original "Thrift Market" burned down. The family had $10,000 of insurance on what would cost $100,000 to rebuild -- but rebuild they did.
And they never stopped building.
As Henderik Meijer grew older, Fred Meijer took over more and more of the business, never forgetting the lessons his father taught him.
"My dad use to say 'a man a man, a word a word.' You give your word you do it. Period. And you don't need a contract. You need a contract to spell out the details but basically you keep your word," said Meijer.
As the company expanded, Meijer maintained a belief in keeping up the values that the store was built on -- including the importance of family:
"It's our philosophy that everybody is important. They're more important -- everybody in our company -- is more important to their father, their mother, daughter, son. They're more important than Meijer, even though that's where they make a living," Meijer once said.
Meijer, with his wife Lena by his side, spent his life together giving back to the community that helped make them prosperous.
They were and are avid supporters of the arts and have dedicated themselves to playing an active role in promoting cultural and not-for-profit
works in West Michigan.
But Fred Meijer will be remembered for two major contributions to West Michigan: The most recent, opened in 2004, is the Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center. And in 1995, the $15 million Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park.
"It's a dream that developed. I mean, we started out with these sculptures," he said in the interview with 24 Hour News 8, which took place at Meijer Gardens. "Then the garden people wanted a botanical garden. And then we gave them this acreage. We've got two unique things. We've got a wonderful setting and I couldn't be more pleased."
In 2004, the Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center opened adjacent to Spectrum Hospital in downtown Grand Rapids. Having given the largest single donation to the center, Meijer spoke at the center's dedication.
"But when you think of it, all the things we do, so many of them are for future generations, whether we like it or not. We get the benefits of past generations and future generations get the benefit of what we do," he said at that dedication.
Fred and Lena Meijer believed in creating areas where people could enjoy fresh air and exercise, away from the bustle of the city.
"Ninety-five percent of folks live in the city," he says, "and never get to experience the rural areas surrounding them," said Fred Meijer.
Meijer was instrumental in the creation of the Fred Meijer Heartland Trail, which was borne out of an abandoned rail line in Greenville. Meijer donated $265,000 to help purchase the land and turn it into a park. The trail stretches from Geenville to Alma -- a total of 41 miles, according to the Meijer website.
And it was just the first of many trails that Meijer would contribute to.
Fred Meijer is survived by his wife of 65 years, Lena, his three sons -- Hank, Doug and Mark -- and seven grandchildren.
"My body can't keep up where my mind would like to go. But that's life, too," he once said.