‘Giant,’ ‘public servant,’ ‘loved and esteemed’: Reacting to Peter Secchia’s death

Kent County

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — West Michigan is mourning the death of Peter Secchia, recalling the former U.S. ambassador, West Michigan businessman and philanthropist as a force of nature in the community and a dear friend.

Secchia died at his home Wednesday morning at the age of 83, family says.

A graduate of Michigan State University, Secchia was also a major donor to the school and its athletic programs. He became a good friend and even lakeshore neighbors with MSU basketball coach Tom Izzo, who last saw him Friday, a few days before his death.

“He helped me as a father; he helped me as an investor; he helped me build a culture because I looked at what he did with his company; as a friend,” Izzo said. “Not many people can impact the country, when he was ambassador; a state, because the state of Michigan; a city … I think he might have loved Grand Rapids more than Michigan State. Millennium Park, all the things that went on there, he was so excited about those things. And of course, he helped his beloved Spartans.”

He said Secchia taught him the meaning of philanthropy.

“As I’ve kind of grown in my profession, I’ve learned to give back myself and it’s an incredible feeling and that was all taught to me by Peter Secchia,” Izzo said. “He’s a giant in his community, he’s a giant at Michigan State.”

Secchia was also a driving force behind the West Michigan Sports Commission, donating seed money to get it up and running. The commission now runs the Meijer State Games of Michigan, brings big events to downtown Grand Rapids, supports events like the Meijer LPGA Classic and built the Art Van Sports Complex in Rockford.

“Why was he so gung-ho on starting the sports commission, why was this so important to him, I really think it’s about community,” West Michigan Sports Commission President Mike Guswiler said. “He had such a passion for West Michigan and this community and we saw it in many different projects that he had. … I think it was about giving back and bringing that vibrancy to the community through the many different events.”

Below, find statements from West Michigan groups and leaders mourning Secchia and honoring his legacy:

THE GERALD R. FORD PRESIDENTIAL FAMILY AND FOUNDATION

We are deeply saddened by the loss of our great friend, Peter Secchia, and our hearts and prayers go out to Joan and their four children—Stephanie, Sandy, Charlie, and Mark. What a remarkable legacy Peter leaves behind. Whether he’s remembered as an entrepreneur rebuilding Grand Rapids, or as a philanthropist making life better for the people of Michigan, or as a counselor having the President’s ear, or as an ambassador bridging connections to Italy, Peter made things happen. He was bigger than life. Everything he did, he did with gusto. Just look at how he was devoted to his family, generous to his friends, fierce in his beliefs, and unwavering in his support for the causes he held dear.

Peter and our dad first met back in 1964, during one of our dad’s congressional campaigns, and it seems he’s been part of our family ever since. Dad and Mom treasured his playful sense of humor, good counsel, and abiding friendship; also the good-natured rivalry between a Spartan and a Wolverine. Our family will miss Peter. We will remember his generous spirit and be inspired by his determination to make everything he touched better than he found it.

Thank you, Peter, for letting us share in your wonderful life and journey.

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him.

THE DEVOS FAMILY

Ambassador Secchia left a lasting impact on our nation, community and family and he will be deeply missed. He was a committed public servant throughout his life, including his time as a beloved Ambassador to Italy. In his adopted hometown of Grand Rapids, he led countless efforts to improve and grow our community by supporting local investment, education, arts and parks. But beyond his public acts, and his strong leadership, our family is most thankful for his warm and loving heart, and his and Joan’s deep and enduring friendship with our parents and grandparents, Rich and Helen DeVos. He always found a way to share a joke or local insights to keep them smiling, which we all especially appreciated when Rich was waiting for his heart transplant in London. Our thoughts and prayers are with Joan and the Secchia family during this time.

THE VAN ANDEL FAMILY

West Michigan owes much of its rich culture to Peter Secchia, whose generous heart and hands helped transform our area into a dynamic stronghold for healthcare, sports, music, the arts, education and more.

His reach and influence will live on forever, and he leaves a legacy of giving that can be traced, not only to the establishment of widespread initiatives like Millennium Park, but to parks and playgrounds and other subtle needs for which he wrote checks and shunned publicity.

Our family joins untold others in mourning his passing and extends to his beloved wife Joan and their four children prayers that will lift him up and help them find peace as they take solace in knowing that he was indeed loved.

UFP INDUSTRIES

The employees of UFP Industries, Inc., formerly Universal Forest Products, Inc., are mourning the passing of former Chairman, CEO and president Peter Secchia, who died of natural causes on October 21. After growing up a poor kid from Demarest, N.J., Peter became the architect of UFP’s early expansion into a respected multinational corporation, and became known as a philanthropist, confidante of U.S. presidents and diplomat.

Peter joined Universal Forest Products in 1962 after graduating from Michigan State University and led the company from 1971 until 1989. He left the company to serve as U.S. Ambassador to Italy from 1989 until 1993 (appointed by his friend, President George H.W. Bush, whom he met through his friend President Gerald R. Ford), then returned as chairman of the board until his retirement in late 2002.

Peter was loved and esteemed by generations of UFP employees, who knew him as the vigor behind the company’s growth from $1 million in sales in 1962 to $386 million in 1989. (UFP Industries’ 2019 sales were $4.5 billion.) He is remembered for his energetic spirit and commitment to the well-being and success of UFP employees. His legacy includes an employee profit sharing and retirement trust fund, which was established in 1972 with an initial contribution of $10,000 and grew to more than $23 million by 1991, just before the fund was replaced with a 401(k) profit-sharing plan. He also founded a scholarship fund that has provided more than 320 four-year scholarships to children of UFP employees since its founding in 1989.

Peter was known for many firsts in the construction industry, including just-in-time inventory systems. Before the company went public, he branched into restaurants (the flagship – Pietro’s, named after his grandfather – remains a popular restaurant in Grand Rapids today) and athletic clothing retail.

He was known as much for his irascible ways as for his generosity, humor and disdain for political correctness. No detail was too small for his attention. He was impatient. Smart. Demanding. (He required a lot of employees but no more than he required for himself. No one could outwork him.)

And no one could get things done like him. He convinced Michigan State University to relocate its medical school to Grand Rapids, Michigan. (And he raised $40 million to get it done. Today, the headquarters for the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine—the Secchia Center—is a cornerstone of the success of the City of Grand Rapids.)

When Peter decided Grand Rapids should have a park bigger than Central Park in NYC, he made it happen. Today, Millennium Park hosts thousands of visitors each year who swim in its lakes, bike and hike its trails, and use its beautiful pavilions for weddings and events.

In addition to his many business achievements, Peter is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and is greatly admired for the endless generosity he and his wife, Joan, have extended to many organizations and charitable endeavors throughout Michigan. Peter was often a quiet giver, avoiding public recognition for gifts to private individuals and causes. Although the Secchias’ beneficiaries are too numerous to name, they have had a significant impact on the lives of students, children, families and communities throughout Michigan, and beyond.

Arriverderci, Peter! Grazie!

GRAND RAPIDS COMMUNITY COLLEGE, HONORING THE SECCHIA INSTITUTE FOR CULINARY EDUCATION

Businessman, ambassador and philanthropist Peter Secchia was a staunch supporter of higher education, and was well-known for his love of great cooking. At Grand Rapids Community College, he found a place to combine both passions.

Mr. Secchia, who passed away Wednesday at the age of 83, generously supported GRCC’s culinary programs through the years. The Secchia Institute for Culinary Education is known internationally for attracting top faculty members and preparing students for rewarding careers in the hospitality industry.

“Peter Secchia understood the importance of supporting his community, and how a community college education can transform a person’s life – and, in turn, make that community stronger,” GRCC President Bill Pink said. “With his support, our culinary students have become among the best in the field, working around the globe and right here in West Michigan.”

GRCC’s culinary program was renamed after Mr. Secchia and his wife, Joan, in 2007. The state-of-the-art Pietro and Regina Amphitheater, named after his grandparents, was added in 2012. The 54-seat facility is used for teaching, cooking demonstrations and special events.

“My grandparents were just wonderful people,” Mr. Secchia said at the unveiling of the amphitheater. “I am very proud of all of these students and really honored to be celebrating that Pietro and Regina are still alive and their spirit is in this room.”

Peter’s Pub, named for Mr. Secchia, was launched in 2016 as part of GRCC’s Fountain Hill Brewery, tapping into the demand created by Grand Rapids’ growing craft beer industry.
Secchia Institute for Culinary Education programs are housed in the Wisner-Bottrall Applied Technology Center at 151 Fountain St. NE, and also include the Heritage Restaurant and Art & Bev’s restaurant.

“This is a tremendous loss for West Michigan.,” said Chef Werner Absenger, Secchia Institute director. “In large part, the Secchia Institute for Culinary Education is a world-class culinary school because of Mr. Secchia’s generosity and contagious drive for excellence. Mr. Secchia always wanted to make sure our students had the tools necessary to become successful hospitality industry leaders. His spirit and drive for excellence will be sorely missed. Our most heartfelt sympathy goes to Mr. Secchia’s family and friends.”

Mr. Secchia’s family also supported the installation of a statue of Helen Claytor on GRCC’s Juan Olivarez Student Plaza in 2014 as part of the Grand Rapids Community Legends project. Claytor was a civil rights activist and the first African-American president of the national YWCA.

“Peter Secchia touched so many lives throughout West Michigan,” said Dr. Kathryn K. Mullins, vice president for College Advancement and executive director of the GRCC Foundation. “He believed our students are capable of great things and worked to make sure they had the support they needed to achieve them.”

Grand Rapids Community College offers learners of all ages opportunities to gain credits for degrees or transfer and in-demand career skills leading to rewarding careers. GRCC was established in 1914 – Michigan’s first community college — and offers affordable classes on weekdays, evenings, Saturdays and online at locations throughout Kent and Ottawa counties.

GRAND VALLEY STATE UNIVERSITY

Leaders at Grand Valley State University and in West Michigan are mourning the death of philanthropist Peter Secchia, who died October 21 at his home. He was 83.

Secchia was a longtime Grand Valley University Foundation director and a generous West Michigan philanthropist who had a special passion for education.

“Peter is a Grand Valley icon who played a deeply influential role in the growth of the university over the years,” said President Philomena V. Mantella. “His passion for education and the growth of our community has made a tremendous difference in West Michigan and he will be missed.”

Peter Secchia, along with his wife, Joan, gave generously to a number of areas in the university. He was an active supporter of the Seidman College of Business. The Secchias were recognized for their gifts to the L. William Seidman Center with the Peter F. Secchia Family Wing. They also created the “Peter F. Secchia Lecture Series,” which highlights national and regional business leaders who discuss trends and current issues. 

Diana Lawson, dean of the Seidman College of Business, said Secchia’s generosity touched many students. “Peter’s influence on the Seidman College of Business cannot be underestimated. Generations of Grand Valley business students and alumni will benefit from his generosity and his legacy here will live on in them,” Lawson said.

The Secchia Family Foundation provided the lead gift for one of the downtown living centers at Grand Valley in 2000. Secchia Hall was named in honor of their generosity.

Peter also initiated the Ambassador Secchia International Studies Scholarship, which will ensure that students have the opportunity to study business and public administration overseas. This scholarship plays an important role in ensuring financial barriers can be overcome for students who wish to pursue studies in Italy.

Peter was a director and later Advisory Cabinet member for the Grand Valley University Foundation and served on the committees for the Grand Design 2000 and Shaping Our Future campaigns. Secchia was granted an Honorary Doctorate of Laws by Grand Valley in April 1991.

THE CATHOLIC DIOCESE OF GRAND RAPIDS

With the death of Peter Secchia, the people of Grand Rapids lose an individual whose generosity and commitment to the community will have a lasting impact. An astute business leader, Mr. Secchia served our country as Ambassador to Italy and was fully engaged in the revitalization of downtown Grand Rapids.

The Diocese of Grand Rapids has been blessed through the philanthropic giving of Mr. and Mrs. Secchia. In 2012, as part of his family foundation’s Grand Rapids Community Legends project, a sculpture of Bishop Baraga, a missionary priest who brought Catholicism to Grand Rapids, was erected east of the Cathedral of Saint Andrew. Connected to the area where the sculpture stands is the Piazza Secchia, a beautiful gathering space outside the cathedral made possible through a generous gift from his wife, Joan.

We offer our prayers and condolences to the Secchia family on the loss of their beloved husband, father and grandfather. May Mr. Secchia now rest in eternal peace.

Bishop David Walkowiak

U.S. REP. BILL HUIZENGA, R-ZEELAND

Through it all, Peter will be remembered not only for his giving but his ability to encourage and help others give back to our community. His philanthropic endeavors and those he inspired have made West Michigan a better place to live, work, and raise a family. I will miss his “smiley face” notes and memos as well as the occasional I’m not happy “frowny face.” One thing is for sure, you always knew where you stood with Peter Secchia.

THE RIGHT PLACE, INC.

Grand Rapids has lost an icon in the passing of Peter Secchia. More than a business leader, community leader and philanthropist, Peter was a giant in our community. My heartfelt condolences go to Joan and the Secchia family.

Peter’s love for this city and its economic success was second only to his love of Michigan State University, for which the community will remain indebted to him for his leadership in bringing MSU’s College of Human Medicine to the Medical Mile. There are countless new opportunities our region has experienced in the health sciences due to his efforts in strengthening MSU’s relationship with Grand Rapids.

His list of accomplishments and philanthropic endeavors will leave a lasting mark on our region. I am grateful to have worked alongside Peter on several projects, and will remain grateful for the opportunity to have known him.

President and CEO Birgit Klohs

WEST MICHIGAN POLICY FORUM

OTTAWA COUNTY PARKS AND RECREATION COMMISSION

The Ottawa County Parks and Recreation Commission and Ottawa County Parks Foundation mourn the loss of former US Ambassador Peter Secchia, who was a long-term supporter and also a dedicated volunteer for Ottawa County Parks.

Over the last few years, Peter Secchia served as co-chair of the Parks Foundation’s Grand River Greenway Campaign, with co-chairs Monica Verplank and Samantha Verplank.

“Peter had such an incredible impact across West Michigan and was a force behind so many projects and for so many causes. We were fortunate to be able to work with him on the Grand River Greenway, and it was an honor for me to be a co-chair with him. He will be greatly missed,” said Samantha Verplank.

The goal of the Grand River Greenway Campaign is to provide philanthropic funding assistance to help complete the core land purchases along the Greenway and connect them with a multi-use pathway, the Idema Explorers Trail, along the south side of the Grand River.  This trail will also link the trail system in Kent County to the lakeshore in Grand Haven.

“Of course, Peter did so much to help make Millennium Park possible and it was his dream for families to be able to bike and hike from Millennium Park to the Lake Michigan beaches,” said Monica Verplank. “He devoted a great deal of time and energy to make this possible. We are nearly to our goal and Peter is a big reason for that. Thanks in great measure to him, generations to come will be able to get out and enjoy all the incredible, beautiful parks the Greenway has to offer.”

The vision for the Grand River Greenway is to create a model ecological and cultural corridor along the Grand River. It will preserve significant natural, historical and cultural features as well as promote healthier, happier, and more vibrant communities.  

There are currently 9,000 acres of public land along the Greenway in Ottawa County, with 3,130 acres managed by Ottawa County Parks including 17 parks and open spaces. To-date, 13 miles of 36.5-mile Idema Explorers Trail route are in place, with additional miles planned for construction over the next few years. In addition to connecting 13 parks along the Greenway and connecting to Kent County, the Idema Explorers Trail will connect the GVSU Allendale campus to Grand Rapids and Grand Haven, completing the first non-motorized route between GVSU’s two river campuses (including the Pew campus in downtown Grand Rapids). The trail will also include key connections to a growing network of regional trails (over 100 miles) and will connect to the Grand River Heritage Water Trail.

Next year, Ottawa County Parks is planning to construct the Jenison Mill segment of the Idema Explorers Trail from Cottonwood Drive to the City of Grandville, which will connect the growing Jenison area to the trail system along the Grand River in Kent County, with bike and pedestrian access to downtown Grand Rapids. The plan is to construct a “gateway arch” over the trail at the boundary of Kent County and Ottawa County, in honor of Peter Secchia.

“I worked closely with Peter on Millennium Park when I was at Kent County,” said Al Vanderberg, Ottawa County Administrator and member of the Grand River Greenway Campaign committee. “Peter deeply believed in making these connections to communities and opening access to our parks. I look forward to completing this section of trail and the arch. The arch represents things that meant a lot to Peter – connecting Grand Rapids closer to its neighbors, connecting people to Millennium Park, connecting to people to nature and the outdoors.”

GRAND RAPIDS PUBLIC SCHOOLS

On behalf of the Grand Rapids Public Schools Foundation (GRPSF), the Grand Rapids Public Schools (GRPS), and Grand Rapids Board of Education, we are all saddened to hear of the passing of Peter Secchia.

No words can adequately express our gratitude to Peter for the support that he and Joan have given to the Foundation and the District, but most importantly, to the students at the Grand Rapids Public Schools. With Peter’s support, Joan Secchia founded the Grand Rapids Student Advancement Foundation (now the Grand Rapids Public School Foundation) over 27 years ago. She and Peter have continued to help support and guide our mission to raise, grow and steward funds and other community resources to support the Grand Rapids Public Schools for the benefit of its students.

Peter’s larger than life personality and passion for giving and supporting education on all levels has been a gift to our community. This is especially true of his love for the green and white of his alma mater, Michigan State. Peter loved being able to help financially support sending students from GRPS to the University to see a game and experience the excitement of being on a college campus, among the many other things he did to support the Grand Rapids Public Schools

One of Peter’s last gifts to GRPS was the naming of the Great Hall of the new GRPS Museum School after former GRPS Superintendent Teresa Weatherall-Neal, whom Peter admired and worked closely with over the years.

We extend our great sympathy to Joan and the entire Secchia family during this difficult time. We will continue to honor Peter’s work to provide a fair and equitable education to the students of the Grand Rapids Public Schools.

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