It is odd how they say that death travels in threes and even stranger how true it seems to be. I have a theory that only when faced with a death do we begin to think about death. In Grand Rapids last week, we witnessed three individuals passing that gave all of us pause.
One of the three was Cindy Van Andel, 57, wife of 33 years to Amway Chairman Steve Van Andel. She passed quickly after a battle with illness.
Another was Martha VanderEyk, 69, who is survived by her partner of 37 years, Leslie Kohn. Martha was one of the founding members of the Grand Rapids Women’s Chorus.
And while I have met both Martha and Cindy while living in Grand Rapids, it was the passing of Fred Meijer that really caused me to reflect on the impact this man, whether directly or indirectly, had on my life.
These intersections between myself and Fred Meijer are so personal, and yet they speak volumes about who he was for many people.
I began to notice this intersecting pattern after I moved into my Northeast Grand Rapids home and I began to hear stories of another neighbor, Fred and Lena Meijer.
I was often entertained by these stories as they provided insights into the type of man I would later begin to understand more fully as I assembled a picture of his life.
As a man who was quickly accumulating wealth, Fred chose not to depart this humble neighborhood for a gated community as other CEOs often do. In fact, he not only choose to stay in the city, but he even sent his kids to the public school.
Neighbors loved to wax and wane, and I lapped up every word of it.
But I had my Fred stories as well that speak volumes as to what kind of neighbor he was on a grander scale.
When I was a child, I had a very entrepreneurial spirit, often selling homemade pizza. I calculated how many ingredients I would need to cover my needs and what I would need to sell a slice for in order to turn a profit. It was a simple exercise in trying to make money as kid and not so much a tale about a budding capitalist.
As I got older and developed more abilities, I approached the local Meijer store in my hometown of Flint, Mich. and struck a deal where I could sell Grit, a weekly newspaper, outside. At the time, the store was called Meijer Thrifty Acres.
In my child’s mind, I imagined that my request had been sent all the way up to Mr. Meijer’s desk and he personally stamped his approval.
Often after selling the edition out, I would beg my mom to let me go inside to look around. One of the joys of having money as a kid was the ability to have a sense of control over how one spends it.
And at Meijer there were infinite possibilities. One item that Meijer carried was a series of classical records featuring a different composer each week. My mother, a musician who can play almost anything she picks up and who, by ear, play back a tune (a trait that skipped me), delighted in my attraction to these recordings at a young age.
Later in life, I would reflect on this offering and begin to understand Fred Meijer’s evolving relationship to the arts
Still later, I would intersect with him again, this time as a fresh-out-of-Calvin- College graduate, working on a documentary for which Fred Meijer was interviewed in his Plainfield store.
During his interview, a woman interrupted him saying she was very upset that he was carrying a VHS of the then wildly popular movie, Basic Instinct, in their video store.
Fred had not seen it, but he brought a copy home to watch at a later date.
As the woman went on to share how upset she was that he was carrying the R-rated film, Fred Meijer nodded as he listened.
After she finished, he gently asked, “Have you seen the film?”
Her answer was no.
I would often replay his reply as he said, “Well, I have a hard time with anyone telling me what to think. I like to make up my own mind.”
But not missing a beat, Fred added, “Well, we might not agree here on this point either, but we can agree that an ice cream is a good thing.” He handed the woman a Purple Cow card good for a free ice cream cone at the popular sweet shops still found in his stores.
Things really began to accelerate in Fred’s life and also for me.
He would go on to create the Frederick Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park, one of the world's greatest depositories of sculpture. I would go on to start a monthly column for On-The-Town Magazine, Artistic Expression -- an Interview-inspired column where I would sit down with artists and art scene makers like Stephen Duren, Nancy Mulinix, Mark Di Suvero,Whitney Bienniel, Artist Chakaia Booker and eventually Fred Meijer.
At our sit-down, face-to-face interview conducted in the Meijers' new residence, we had a conversation during the 90 minutes we spent together.
We talked about his humble beginnings and his hard work ethic, but most of all, how his love for art developed. He told many stories of how artists lives are often shocking to some, but he found those stories exciting and fascinating. There was never any sense of judgment -- just more wonder. He would laugh often during our time as he shared some of his adventures in contemporary art.
I came away feeling like I had completed my story on Fred since he had been so candid with me during our interview.
Almost a decade later, I would intersect with Fred in a similar fashion at a private event.
As I raced to make the reception of Chuck and Ward, who were married during that brief window of equality in California, I had the opportunity to sit at the same table as the Meijers.
As Chuck and Ward bantered around the room, engaging and making each and everyone feel welcome, I, too, felt welcomed when the normally very private Lena opened up to share stories with the guests seated around the table.
Fred did not say much, but he did laugh a lot. He loved life, he loved art and truly, here was a man who loved so many -- no matter who they were.
My partner reminded me that the corporation does not have the best ranking for the LGBT worker, but I reminded him that these numbers have been rising.
I would also love to point out something a wise woman once said to me when I was questioning another local, high profile family. “We have to give people the space to grow and change.”
As a gardener, this is a language I spoke and understood. Density is good in some cases, but in a garden, we often need to allow space for our roots to take hold and let our flower bloom.
Fred was a man who not only bloomed in our community, but he made sure the legacy he left behind would give others a place to grow as well.
Art changes us as much as extended opportunities in other areas.
Fred has inspired so many people here and abroad. He was a man who was not shy about being an atheist, but never once pushed his belief or acted in a hedonistic fashion. He cared for his family, his community and, I have to think in the few times that we met, he even cared about me.
All of us have a Fred Meijer story. I am just happy mine has many wonderful chapters that I will carry into my world as it blooms before me.
Meijer is survived by his loving wife, Lena, and sons Hank, Doug and Mark.
The Future Needs All of Us (To Leave A Meaningful Legacy)
Tommy Allen, Lifestyle Editor
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