Community pays tribute to Peter Secchia

Longtime businessman, philanthropist and leader left an indelible mark on West Michigan.
Peter Secchia in the early 2000s championed Michigan State University College of Human Medicine’s presence in Grand Rapids, putting the city on the map as a health care destination. Johnny Quirin

Kind words and tributes poured in from the community after the death of prominent donor, former U.S. ambassador and longtime businessman Peter Secchia on Oct. 21 at the age of 83.

Secchia was born in Englewood, New Jersey; graduated from Tenafly High School in Tenafly, New Jersey; served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1956-59; graduated from Michigan State University in 1963 with a degree in economics; and called Grand Rapids home for 58 years.

He was a close confidante and friend of President Gerald R. Ford and longtime Republican donor; former U.S. Ambassador to Italy under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush (1989-93); former majority shareholder, president and CEO, and chair emeritus of Universal Forest Products Inc., which he turned into a $3 billion company during his tenure; and a philanthropist whose generosity made possible projects such as Millennium Park, the Secchia Institute for Culinary Education at Grand Rapids Community College, moving MSU College of Human Medicine’s headquarters to Grand Rapids in 2010 through a $90 million, public-private partnership that resulted in the Secchia Center and spurred the creation of the Medical Mile, and many more accomplishments.

Secchia’s civic activities included involvement and leadership roles in a variety of local and statewide charities, particularly for urban schools and young people, as well as many community events.

He chaired numerous organizations, such as The Economic Club of Grand Rapids and the Boys and Girls Clubs of Grand Rapids Youth Commonwealth, and he received awards and recognition for his involvement in state government and his work as an ambassador.

According to family spokesperson Amy LeFebre, Secchia had experienced health issues for several months and was receiving nursing care at home. He had recently contracted COVID-19, which was a contributing factor in his death. LeFebre said he was not hospitalized and died peacefully at home.

He is survived by his wife, Joan Secchia, their four children — Stephanie, Sandy, Charles and Mark — and many grandchildren.

After the news of his death, organizations and influential individuals across the region began sharing memories and tributes in Secchia’s honor.

MSU called him a champion, visionary partner and outstanding leader whose impact on the MSU College of Human Medicine and the Spartan community was “nothing short of astonishing.”

“In the early 2000s, Secchia envisioned and diligently championed Michigan State University College of Human Medicine’s presence in Grand Rapids. His vision was for MSU to be the final piece of the puzzle that could enable Grand Rapids to become a health care destination by bringing academic medicine, which would draw world-class researchers and faculty,” MSU said.

The university noted Secchia shared that vision with the DeVos and Van Andel families, and they worked together “tirelessly” to bring it to fruition, forging partnerships with Spectrum Health, Mercy Health Saint Mary’s, Grand Valley State University, Grand Action and The Right Place, to draw investment downtown and create what is now Medical Mile.

“He was masterful in maximizing impact through partnership,” MSU said.

In 2016, the Secchia and DeVos families announced a joint gift of $15 million to launch the capital campaign for the construction of the MSU Grand Rapids Research Center, which opened in 2017. Peter Secchia and Joan Secchia made an additional $5 million gift in 2019 to complete the $30 million fundraising effort for the center. The six-story, 162,800-square-foot facility houses biomedical research teams focused on transforming health through innovation and groundbreaking research in the areas of cancer, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, women’s health and more.

Birgit Klohs, president and CEO of The Right Place, called Secchia an “icon” in Grand Rapids whom she was grateful to know.

“More than a business leader, community leader and philanthropist, Peter was a giant in our community,” Klohs said. “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.”

The DeVos family described Secchia as a “committed public servant.”

“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,” the family said. “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 added West Michigan “owes much of its rich culture” to Secchia, “whose generous heart and hands helped transform our area into a dynamic stronghold for health care, 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,” they said.

The children of President Gerald R. Ford said their father and Secchia met in 1964 during one of Ford’s Congressional campaigns, and Secchia quickly became part of the family.

“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,” they said. “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.”

Grand Rapids Community College thanked Secchia for his “staunch” support of culinary education at GRCC. Known for his great love of food, Secchia’s generosity led GRCC to rename its culinary program the Secchia Institute for Culinary Education in 2007.

“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 Pietro and Regina Amphitheater, which he requested be named after his grandparents, was added in 2012. The 54-seat facility is used for teaching, cooking demonstrations and special events.

Peter’s Pub, named for 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.

“This is a tremendous loss for West Michigan.,” said Chef Werner Absenger, director of the Secchia Institute. “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.”

The Grand Rapids Public Schools Foundation, Grand Rapids Public Schools and the Grand Rapids Board of Education sent a joint statement expressing thanks to Peter and Joan Secchia for their longtime financial support of public education.

“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,” they said. “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.”

GRPS said one of Secchia’s final gifts to the district was the naming of the Great Hall of the new GRPS Museum School after former GRPS Superintendent Teresa Weatherall-Neal, whom Secchia “admired and worked closely with over the years.”

“We will continue to honor Peter’s work to provide a fair and equitable education to the students of the Grand Rapids Public Schools,” they said.

Secchia also financially supported the Diocese of Grand Rapids. David Walkowiak, bishop of Grand Rapids, said the church was “blessed” to have him as a supporter.

“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,” Walkowiak said. “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.”

Due to COVID restrictions on gatherings, the Secchia family held a private funeral service.

Memorial contributions may be directed to the Kent County Parks Foundation – Millennium Park, the MSU Grand Rapids Research Center or the Peter F. Secchia Endowed Scholarship at the MSU College of Human Medicine.

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