GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Following the weekend death of Lena Meijer, many are remembering her and her late husband Fred Meijer not only for the successful grocery store chain that they built but also for the way they gave back to their community.
One story of the Meijers seeing a need and stepping in to help dates back to 2004. Though you wouldn’t know it looking at the Grand Rapids Civic Theatre downtown now, back then, the building need a lot of work. Two season ticket holders, Fred and Lena Meijer, had a chance encounter with a wobbly balcony.
“We were running a very successful production of ‘Ragtime’ at the time and the Meijers, longtime season ticket holders, been attending shows for many years, had to move their tickets and the only seats they had available where in the balcony,” Civic Theatre Executive Director Bruce Tinker.
That balcony that was only accessible by stairs, had very little leg room and, according to Tinker, “was a pretty rickety place.”
At the time, the theater was trying to raise money to renovate lobby restrooms, the balcony and whatever else it could. It even passed the hat — or in this case, bedpans — at performances.
“And the Meijers, being community people like they were, they said, ‘You know, we respect this is the last historic theater in Grand Rapids and we think more needs to happen,'” Tinker said.
Partnering with Grand Action, Fred and Lena Meijer made a major investment and impact, as they did for so many other sites. For the Civic, it was an $11.5 million facelift that included fixes for the balcony and restrooms, a new elevator, refurbishing the auditorium and updating the entrance.
“That’s just who they were,” Tinker said. “They really believed in community, they believed in community activities and they believed in helping people who really need help. And at that point, we really needed help and they saw it and answered the call.”
When the Meijers returned to the renovated Civic, it was in their typical style, no doubt appreciating the results of their investment.
“They did, but again, incredible humility and thankfulness,” Tinker said. “They were just such thankful people and they were just thankful to be able to help organizations and people in need because they wanted to see things get used. They wanted the community to come together, they wanted the community to share in experiences.
“Both Fred and Lena were just incredible guests,” he added. “They were just so gracious in everything.”
Fred Meijer died in 2011. Lena Meijer died Saturday at the age of 102.