by CLIFF AND NANCY HILL
Last Tuesday afternoon found us at Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park to attend a visitation and pay our respects to a man we had personally come to know as one without equal – Fred Meijer.
We were not there as reporters to cover Fred’s passing but rather as two of thousands, that afternoon and evening, who felt compelled to gather and reminisce with one another and Meijer family members about the life and times of Fred and the role he played in all of our lives.
The “six degrees of separation” theory refers to the idea that everyone is on average approximately six steps away, by way of introduction, from any other person on Earth. That theory did not apply to Fred Meijer. In Fred’s case, it was more like one degree of separation.
Is there a person in West Michigan that does not have a Fred story to tell? Certainly everyone present last Tuesday could attest to that. So much for computer-age social networks, Fred accomplished much the same with countless thousands of peoples in good old-fashioned face-to-face conversation.
Fred was a man of the people who had an insatiable thirst for knowledge. If you crossed paths with him, he was always graciously approachable. In conversation, you became his new friend. He learned your name, what you did for a living, and how you felt about things in general. Both parties were enriched by the encounter and parted ways having learned something new and possibly, at the same time, enjoying a good laugh, oftentimes at Fred’s expense. Is there another billionaire anywhere who has freely made himself available to his fellow man more than Fred Meijer? We think not.
Your reporters, the Hills, had the good fortune to meet Fred numerous times in covering events where he was present. Sometimes, also, it was just happenstance. It could have been at Meijer Gardens itself, where we are members, or it could have been at one of the local Meijer stores while we were shopping.
Two occasions that stand out in our minds occurred while we were covering local events for the Squire where Fred was the focal point. On one in 2008, Fred was the guest of honor at a dedication and ribbon cutting ceremony for a paved extension of the Fred Meijer White Pine Trail (FMWPT) from Rockford to Sand Lake. Fred loved the trail systems of West Michigan and was a major financial benefactor in their continued growth. Indeed, he had provided much of the monies for engineering and paving of major portions of the FMWPT. He loved the out-of-doors and wanted the linear trail experience to be available to families and especially children.
We took great delight that afternoon when Fred, grinning from ear to ear, agreed to pose with his arm around Nancy in a photo-op. We forwarded that same photo to Fred and sometime later he replied in a letter, “You know, that is a great picture of you (Nancy) and I! We do look like grinning kids with just a few years on us!”
On another occasion, we were present November 18, 2009, when Fred was on hand for a Rockford Area Historical Society sponsored book-signing event (Fred Meijer – Stories of His Life) at North Rockford Middle School. The few hundred people that showed up that evening were not disappointed when Fred personally autographed their books while swapping stories with each and every one.
In addition to signing our book we asked Fred to also autograph the picture, of the above-mentioned trail event, that we’d also brought that evening. Here, much to our delight, is how he signed it: “Happy Trails to you Nancy and Cliff, Fred Meijer.”
Now we don’t know exactly how that inscription popped into his head. It may have been because the picture depicted a trail event or it could have been that Fred had often been seen and heard singing that very same song. Or maybe simply, Fred was thinking of the almost 600 penny pony rides that are available in the 200 mid-western Meijer stores. From his book we learned that Fred realized many years ago that a penny doesn’t begin to cover the cost of electricity and maintenance for each pony ride. The ponies, always named Sandy, were there for the children (and an occasional adult) and were the last thing the child remembered on the way home.
Fred Meijer was laid to rest last Wednesday morning under a beautifully sunny and cloudless blue sky on the grounds of Meijer Gardens. Fittingly, the modest black wrought iron fenced site, is adjacent to the Gardens replicated farmhouse of his beloved wife Lena’s childhood home in Amble.
Happy trails to you Fred, as you journey on.