GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Lena Meijer, the devoted wife and mother who was there every step of the way as her husband turned a small grocery store into a retail staple in the Midwest, has died. She was 102.
Rep. Peter Meijer, R-Grand Rapids, announced her death on Twitter Saturday afternoon.
“Gabriella and I are saddened to share that our beloved grandmother, Lena Meijer, passed away today at the age of 102. We are grateful that she is at peace after a long, full, and impactful life. Grandma Lena was the warmest grandmother a grandson could ask for. Our family will forever cherish the memories and legacy she created with Grandpa Fred,” the tweet said.
In a statement, her son Hank Meijer, executive chairman of Meijer, said, “The blessings of a long and fruitful life outweigh the sorrow with the passing of our mom, Lena Meijer. Her gracious, giving spirit and dedication to her family, our company and our community were beyond measure and appreciated by many. She will be greatly missed.”
Lena Meijer never sought the limelight and rarely spoke in public — though she did appear at the 2018 grand opening of Meijer’s Bridge Street Market on Grand Rapids’ West Side — but she was a true partner to her husband, Frederik Meijer, and left a lasting mark on the community.
CHILDHOOD IN MONTCALM COUNTY
Born Lena Rader on May 14, 1919, she worked hard on the small family farm just outside the Montcalm County community of Amble while she grew up, helping the family earn an income.
“We worked in the fields during the day planting corn by hand — we didn’t have a corn planter — planting potatoes by hand,” she recalled during an interview in May 2003. “We carried a bag of potatoes on our shoulders and it in the planters. We helped with the haying.”
As a child, she and her siblings would play in the corn crib when it was empty.
“We had our mother save all the packages and empty cartons and we would set up a little grocery store in the corn crib,” she said.
“She was 7 years old and she had her plans made,” her husband joked.
Later in life, Meijer would remember her mother’s large vegetable garden fondly.
“I tried to make my garden look as good as hers,” she said with a laugh.
She also excelled at sports and was one of the few girls the boys would allow to play baseball with them.
She graduated from Lakeview High School in 1937 and got a job at a Lakeview bank as a teller and bookkeeper.
MEETING FRED MEIJER
Then, one day, she got an unexpected phone call from Hendrik Meijer, who said some of the workers at his store knew Lena and had suggested he hire her. It was at the Meijer Thrift Market in Greenville she met her husband, Fred Meijer, who ran the store alongside his father.
“Fred’s father hired me as a cashier in his store,” Lena Meijer remembered.
“Over the phone, sight unseen, pick of the post,” her husband interjected.
“He called up on a Friday and said, ‘Can you be to work on Monday?’ And that was April Fool’s Day,” Lena Meijer continued.
Fred Meijer told News 8 in 2003 that he was initially nervous about dating someone from the store, so it was Lena who made the first move.
“She invited me to a first dance. There was a group from the store that was going to Edmore and she was working in the office part time and some of the girls said to her, ‘You ask Fred,'” he said. “I turned them down at first and then I changed my mind. I had a good time.”
MARRIAGE AND PARTNERSHIP
Lena and Fred Meijer were wed in 1946. Their marriage was often described as a true partnership. Lena Meijer was by her husband’s side as the Meijer company grew from a single store into a retail giant.
Her involvement with the business continued until the birth of the first of their three sons, Hank, Doug and Mark, in 1952. She then dedicated herself to their family.
“You don’t marry a person, especially when the business is there, you marry the business; you marry the family,” Fred Meijer said in 2003.
“They made their decisions on the family obviously together … but they also made business decisions together,” former Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell said. “Lena was the constant presence at Fred’s side.”
Lena Meijer rarely spoke in public, instead letting her more outgoing husband accept the couple’s honors. It was something he often joked about.
“By the way, if this speech gets too long, half of it belongs to Lena because she won’t talk,” he said in 2004 at the dedication ceremony for the Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center at Spectrum Health in downtown Grand Rapids. “She’s not that bashful at home. If you clock it, knock off half for her half.”
LENA MEIJER’S LEGACY
Despite being among the richest people in the country, the Meijers lived modestly and gave generously to countless organizations and projects in the community, including the renovated Grand Rapids Civic Theatre in 2006.
They also contributed to Grand Rapids’ medical industry. Four years after the Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center opened, the Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion opened at Spectrum, named for two former Meijer employees and funded in part by the Meijers.
One of Lena Meijer’s biggest legacies may be Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park. The gardens, which opened in 1995, feature rare and exotic plants and outdoor paths leading to sculptures by well-known artists.
Visitors can also see the Lena Meijer Children’s Garden and a replica of her family farm in Amble, complete with a barn and the original windmill from the farm. As a child, she said, she would climb that windmill and eat her lunch up there.
The gardens were always special to her and she took pride in the way the project grew.
“It just kind of overwhelms me every time I come out here how much we’ve grown,” she once said.
She was proceeded in death by her husband, who died in November 2011 at the age of 91. She is survived by her three sons, who help run the family business, and several grandchildren.
A private family ceremony is planned.
On the website Remembering Lena Meijer, the Meijer family said it would like to “thank all those who helped with Lena’s care in the home, with her transportation and with other assistance.”
In lieu of flowers, the website says memorial contributions in Lena’s name can be made to the Lena Meijer Children’s Garden at the Frederik Meijer Gardens.