Former US Ambassador Peter Secchia dies at 83

Michigan News

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Peter Secchia, a former U.S. ambassador, West Michigan businessman and philanthropist, has died. He was 83.

Secchia died at home Wednesday morning, surrounded by his family, a spokesperson for the family said. The spokesperson said that while he had been dealing with health problems for several months, he recently contracted COVID-19. He was receiving treatment at his home.

He is survived by his wife of 56 years, Joan Secchia.

“Throughout his life, Peter was firmly committed to his family, his business, his community and his country. His presence in all will be deeply missed,” a statement from his wife read.

His story reads like an American Dream: building a small business into a multimillion-dollar company, serving his country during an event that would change the course of history and giving back to his community not only by writing checks, but also promoting a spirit of giving.

Secchia was born in New Jersey on April 15, 1937. After serving in the U.S. Marine Corps in the late 1950s, he came to Michigan.

He earned a bachelor’s degree at Michigan State University, an institution that decades later would benefit from Secchia’s love of the green and white in ways no one could have imagined.

He and Joan Secchia donated millions to move MSU’s School of Human Medicine to Grand Rapids as part of the Medical Mile. Its headquarters is called the Secchia Center. $10 million alone went toward the college’s research center.

An undated courtesy photo shows the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine Secchia Center in Grand Rapids. (MSU)

“Focusing on the most important problems that people face like Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, autism and cancer,” MSU College of Human Medicine Dean Dr. Norman J. Beauchamp Jr. listed the center’s priorities during an October 2019 interview with News 8. “We wouldn’t be on the west side of the state without the Secchia family.”

MSU’s College of Human Medicine is just one example of Secchia’s impact on his community and his country.

After graduating from MSU, Secchia and his wife Joan moved west to metro Grand Rapids, where he went to work as a salesman for Universal Forest Products Inc. in 1962. At the time, it was a small lumber and construction company that had about $1 million in annual sales.

By 1971, Secchia was running the place. In 1993, he took the company public. Annual sales had climbed to $1.6 billion by the time he retired in 2002.

As his business grew, Secchia jumped into politics.

When Gerald R. Ford was president, Secchia served as vice chair of the Republican National Committee and became friends with George H.W. Bush.

“I loved the guy. I really did,” Secchia told News 8 on Dec. 2, 2018, the day the 41st president died. “I marveled at his stature, the way he handled himself.”

The friendship would lead to a front-row seat to history. In 1989, President Bush appointed Secchia ambassador to Italy, the birthplace of Secchia’s grandfather and a key European ally to the U.S. during the fall of the Soviet Union. Secchia held the post until January 1993.

Secchia always remained close with Bush, who along with his wife Barbara Bush would visit Secchia at home in Grand Rapids and at Lake Michigan.

“He did things for the right reason and he did them with class,” Secchia said of Bush during the 2018 interview.

Secchia remained active in politics on his return to Grand Rapids, serving on a number of state and local commissions, including leading two that looked at public pension reform and making government more user-friendly.

“He was a driving force in rebuilding the party,” former Lt. Gov. Dick Posthumus told News 8. “The party was pretty much in shambles after the 1960s and ’70s and Peter was part of a, really led the rebuilding of the Republican Party based on a philosophy helping working class people. He was a working class guy and he believed the party needed to stand for working class values and he played a big role in that.”

Meanwhile, his impact on the community continued to grow. Secchia became involved in Grand Action, the group that led the effort to revitalize downtown with Van Andel Arena, DeVos Place and the Downtown Market. He provided seed money for the West Michigan Sports Commission, which now runs the Meijer State Games of Michigan, supports events like the Meijer LPGA Classic and built the Art Van Sports Complex in Rockford.

Secchia helped create opportunities at Grand Rapids Community College. GRCC’s culinary program was renamed after Secchia and his wife in 2007. He also helped launch Fountain Hill Brewery, the college’s craft brewing program, and Peter’s Pub, which is part of Fountain Hill Brewery.

The program’s director, Chef Werner Absenger, said Secchia’s generosity and support helped transform the institute into a world-class program.

“He brought an enthusiasm for excellence,” Absenger said. “His main driving point was to really make sure that our students have all the resources they need that they can be successful in their chosen career.”

Secchia was among those who, in the year 2000, had a vision for a 1,400-acre site on the Grand Rapids-Walker border that was then gravel pits sitting on top of gypsum mines. In July 2000, Secchia hosted a tour of the area to sell his vision of Millennium Park. By the end of the day, Secchia told News 8 he was confident the vision would be realized.

Secchia Meadows in Millennium Park. (Oct. 21, 2020)

“Probably before we even start the fund drive, we’re probably going to be very close to our goal for the first phase,” Secchia said.

“He had a dream. And I think the best part of a vision is that he was able to start it, but everybody else was able to dive in and shape it,” Amway co-chair Doug DeVos said during a July 2019 unveiling of a statue honoring Secchia’s work in Millennium Park.

Peter Secchia
Peter Secchia stands next to a statue of himself at Millennium Park after it was unveiled on July 23, 2019. (File)

“He had more influence on me than anything I’ve ever done. I was learning my business, I was trying to get forward. He taught me. He taught me the principles of giving. He taught me the value of sharing,” Secchia told News 8 during a September 2018 interview following the death of Rich DeVos.

The statue was a gift from Secchia’s late friend Rich DeVos, the co-founder of Amway and a man Secchia called his mentor.

On the day of the statue dedication, during a private ceremony, there were stories about Secchia’s success, from business to politics to philanthropy. There were also stories about friendships, like the local news articles and joke of the day Secchia faxed to Rich DeVos’ London hotel room every day for six months while DeVos awaited his 1997 heart transplant.

“I just share that insight because when people say, ‘Well, he’s a little brash. He’s a little outspoken. He’s a little this. He’s a little that,’ I also say, ‘He’s a little tender inside, too,'” Dick DeVos said during the statue dedication.

On that day, the man they came to honor imparted some wisdom to the next generation.

“To my grandchildren, I hope you understand the value of something this dear,” Secchia said. “When your own peers, people my age come together and do something like this for someone else, something that will honor me for a long time.”

The statement from Joan Secchia said that because of the coronavirus pandemic, funeral services for her husband will be private. She asked that any memorial contributions be directed to Kent County Parks Foundation – Millennium Park, the Michigan State University Grand Rapids Research Center or the Peter F. Secchia Endowed Scholarship at the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine.

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