“It’s not how much we give but how much love we put into giving.”
― Mother Teresa
West Michigan is blessed with more than its share of philanthropists who give back to their community. None was more loved than Frederik Meijer. Fred, as everyone in town referred to him, was the son of Henderik Meijer, a barber turned grocer from Greenville, Michigan. Fred started out working at his dad’s store at age 14, bagging groceries. Eventually, he took a liking to one of the cashiers, Lena Rader, and they were married. Fred took over the company from his dad, and he pioneered the one-stop shopping big box concept in 1962…long before Walmart used the model. He grew Meijer into a huge regional player, with over 200 supercenters in 5 states. Along the way, he became the 60th richest man in America. But the chain itself was not the true measure of this man. It was his deep commitment to his employees and his community. He considered his workers to be his family, and he was truly concerned about their well-being. It was not unusual for a worker to head into the break room to find Fred there in a flannel shirt and jeans, asking how they were doing. This would happen day and night, as Meijer is open 24 hours. He would pop into hospital rooms to visit, or call and follow up if he couldn’t personally be there. He would show up at funerals, sharing hugs and tears. His focus was always on what he could do to improve the employee’s lives, not what the employee could do to improve the bottom line.
One of Mr. Meijer’s greatest gifts to his community was the Frederik Meijer Botanical Gardens and Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
This world class facility has become the top tourist attraction in West Michigan. There are many facets to this amazing place, and it continues to grow each year.
A visit to Meijer Gardens begins with the greenhouse. There are several temperate zones represented, with the largest zone dedicated to the tropics. This is a great place to go on a cold winter day.
If a visitor is wearing a winter coat, it usually comes off, as it is that hot and humid.
The real magic begins when you step out the back door. That is where the outdoor portion of Meijer Gardens begins. The current footprint of the park is 132 acres, and promises to grow as additional land is purchased.
One of the first things encountered is the Amphitheater. This venue hosts a summer concert series…members to Meijer Gardens get first dibs at tickets.
With this type of lineup, it is a nice perk. It is a great way to spend a summer evening. We have seen Harry Connick, Jr., Mary Chapin Carpenter, Steve Martin and Lyle Lovett there. People bring wine, cheese and all sorts of gourmet delights.
Another membership perk worth mentioning is the reciprocal agreement with over 200 other museums and gardens throughout the country. Our membership gets us into all of them.
Following along the path behind the amphitheater, The American Horse appears.
This is a 24 foot tall colossus sculpture based on Leonardo DaVinci’s lost work. Efforts to recreate his masterpiece in the making began in the latter half of the 20th century, and were finally funded by Frederik Meijer. Two identical castings were made; one for Milan, Italy and one for Grand Rapids.
The sheer size of it is remarkable. The grace it exhibits as it stands on two of its four hooves is a thing of beauty.
Beyond the horse, paths wind through several different types of zones; woodlands, prairies, wetlands and such. Throughout each zone, sculptures are interspersed into the flora.
Lena Meijer has always admired formal gardens. Fred and Lena also had a love of Japanese gardens, and Fred wanted to give Lena one for their park. He enlisted the help of Helen and Richard DeVos (of Amway fame), and a new addition to the sculpture park is being built.
This is no small undertaking. The garden spans 8 acres, encompassing a 2.5 acre pond. The workers were brought in from Japan, so this feature to Meijer Gardens promises to be the real deal. It is slated to open in June, 2015.
Beyond the Japanese garden is a Michigan farm. The house is a 3/4 scale reproduction of Lena’s childhood home.
Barnyard animals are actually bronze sculptures, and the garden behind the farmhouse is tended to as any other garden would be.
It is here that you will find the final resting place of Frederik Meijer. Lena will join him here someday. A humble stone for a humble man.
Fred Meijer truly loved everything about his life. His success was rooted in his love of his fellow man, and his legacy stands firm in West Michigan.