January 30, 2012

Fred Meijer Remembered

Among his many gifts to his community and the world, Fred Meijer likely will be remembered for creating the Gardens and Sculpture Park bearing his name. Less well known, but equally important, by giving generously to what would become the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Foundation, he helped assure that the Gardens will continue enchanting untold generations.

For years before his death last Nov. 25 at age 91, Frederik Gerhard Hendrik Meijer supported the Foundation and encouraged others to do likewise.

“This was his growing philanthropic passion, to make sure the Gardens was sustained for the future,” Hank Meijer, one of his three sons, said.

He motioned out a window at the Meijer Inc. headquarters in Walker toward a garage, where his father once stored his growing sculpture collection.

“He always did it with the idea these would be for people to enjoy, but he never thought much beyond that,” Hank Meijer said – at least not until the early 1990s, when members of the West Michigan Horticultural Society asked Fred to support their plan to build a botanic garden. For him and his wife, Lena, the idea presented a rare opportunity.

“I think what started out as a happy joining of art and horticulture that satisfied my dad’s interest in sculpture and my mom’s love of gardens became more and more what he viewed as his legacy,” Hank Meijer said.

Fred Meijer threw himself into it with the same enthusiasm he put forth in building his business.

“With the Gardens, he came to envision a really lasting place of pleasure and distinction,” Hank Meijer said. “There was nothing in business that was comparable.”

His company, Meijer, Inc., donated the land on the East Beltline, where it originally had planned to build a store.

“I think Fred just waited for the sun to come up so he could enjoy another day,” said Earl Holton, the former Meijer Inc. president, who chaired the capital campaign to build the Gardens. “He really thought here’s a chance to create a place of beauty that everybody can enjoy. That led into the question, how are you going to sustain it? You don’t start something you can’t afford to keep going. Fred often said, ‘Companies come and companies go. The Gardens will be here forever.’”

In 1992, Holton retained Ray Loeschner, former chief administrative officer of the C.S. Mott Foundation, as a consultant for the Gardens’ capital campaign. It quickly became clear to Loeschner that a foundation needed to be created to build and maintain an endowment to support the future growth and maintenance of the Gardens. After Loeschner presented the idea, the members of the West Michigan Horticulture Society board voted unanimously to create the Foundation. Loeschner drafted the articles of incorporation, and on Jan. 1, 1993, what then was called the Michigan Botanic Garden Foundation was officially launched. From the start, Fred Meijer committed himself to raising funds for the Foundation, not only by giving his own money, but by encouraging others to support it.

“From the time the Foundation was chartered to his passing, Fred was a driving force in building the endowment,” Loeschner said. “From the start, Fred understood the need for an endowment if the Gardens was to be properly maintained and survive during economic fluctuations.”

Peter Wege, Fred’s friend and fellow philanthropist, became the Foundation’s first President. The Meijers pledged $500,000 to be matched by other donors. Countless people gave their money to the Foundation to guarantee the Gardens’ future, and that was a source of satisfaction for them. While he and his family made several donations to the Foundation, he knew his support alone was not enough, that it was essential for community members to give their time to the Gardens and their money to the Foundation.

To encourage others to support the Foundation, Fred and Lena Meijer in 2002 began offering a series of challenge grants, pledging $2 for every dollar contributed by others. To further strengthen the Gardens’ future, in 2010 Fred approved the merger of the Frederik Meijer Charitable Trust with the Frederick Meijer Gardens Foundation, increasing its assets. As a result of the merger, the Foundation’s name was changed to the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Foundation. Over the years, hundreds of individuals, families, businesses and foundations made countless contributions, large and small, to the Foundation.

“Having been involved with the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park from its beginning, it is clear to me that if it was not for Fred Meijer, we would not have a world-class Gardens and Sculpture Park, and it would not be endowed as it is today,” said Loeschner, who served as President of the Foundation for the past 15 years. “Fred gave generously to the endowment because he wanted to do everything he could do to make sure the Gardens would be secure for future generations to enjoy.”

That was typical of him – “Fred” to those who knew him well or even casually – always planning ahead and thinking beyond his own self-interest.

“The first thing you’ve got to know about Fred is if you didn’t know him and you met him on the street, you never forgot him,” said Richard Morton, a former member of the Gardens’ board who now serves on the Foundation’s board. “He was one of a kind, I can tell you that. Of all the people I’ve ever met, Fred was the most down-to-earth.”

Despite his success, he never lost the common touch and retained much of the farm boy from Greenville.

“And, yet, look at what he did,” Morton said. “He knew how to motivate people. Look at how he motivated all of us. He did something no one else had done. He helped create something from nothing.”

He did it by applying the same business sense that had made Meijer, Inc. a success, Morton said. “Fred made it perfectly plain he wanted the Foundation protected,” he said. “His primary motivation was to make sure that the Gardens would be around forever. That was his big thing.”

During his frequent visits to the Gardens, it often took Fred a half hour to get from the parking lot into the conservatory, because he would stop and chat with visitors, recalled Larry ten Harmsel, historian for the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park and co-author of a biography of Fred.

“He loved it,” ten Harmsel said “He was easy to know and hard to forget.”

For Fred Meijer, making money for himself held little allure. Giving it to enrich his community did. He gave a lot for hospitals, colleges, hiking trails and countless other causes, but the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Foundation held a special place in his heart, because it guaranteed that his legacy, the Gardens, would live forever.

“Fred always thought the purpose of money was to make the world better, not to make his life more luxurious,” ten Harmsel said. “He knew he was setting in motion a lot of things that were going to last for a long, long time.”

Dozens of restricted funds were created within the Foundation, allowing donors to direct their support to any of the numerous projects and areas of the Gardens. Some funds are designated to acquire sculptures; some to maintain specific gardens, such as the Lena Meijer Children’s Garden; one is to support the poet and lecture series; another to support the amphitheater; some are to preserve the Gardens’ wetlands; others are to maintain the DeVos Visitor Center and the Brooks Conference Center. The list goes on. As new projects are undertaken in the Gardens, each is supported by its own endowment fund in the Foundation.

David Hooker, the Gardens’ president and chief executive officer, recalled a chance meeting with Fred a couple of years ago, well after the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park had become one of the leading tourist attractions in Michigan.

“He said, ‘David, I think we should have a Japanese garden. Lena’s always wanted one, and I want to give it to her,’” Hooker recalled.

Two and a half months after Fred died, Hooker announced plans to build what he called “the finest Japanese garden in North America.” It will be named in honor of Richard and Helen DeVos, who made a substantial donation. Fred and Lena Meijer also gave generously for the 8 ½-acre garden, which is expected to open in late 2014 or early 2015.

It is a fitting testament to Fred Meijer’s generosity that the Richard & Helen DeVos Japanese Garden will be a gift not only to Lena, but to all who visit Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park. As with other features in the Gardens, its future will be assured by a separate endowment fund within the Foundation.

John Nowak, who chaired the Gardens’ board when it was being built, marveled at Fred Meijer’s optimism and persistence. “This thing would not have gotten done at all without Fred. There were times we’d look at drawings and say, ‘This is too expensive,’” he recalled. “Fred would say, ‘Come on, we can do this.’ Not that fundraising is ever easy, but, by his example, Fred made it easier.

“A lot of projects in America get built, and then they can’t afford to operate,” Nowak said. “With the community’s continuing support through the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Foundation, that will not be a problem for the Gardens,” he said.

“Fred was a big proponent of that,” he said. “He was always concerned that the community was in support of this, that it was a community project. Fred set it in motion, and the community got behind it.

“This will be a great place for people to come for generations,” Nowak said. “In my view, it has surpassed by a long way all of our hopes and dreams.

“Job well done, Fred. Our job now is to carry it on.”