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Businessman and philanthropist Peter Secchia dies at 83 after contracting COVID-19

Secchia came from humble beginnings only to become one of West Michigan's most influential businessmen.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Grand Rapids businessman and philanthropist Peter Secchia has died at the age of 83.

A statement from his wife, Joan, says he passed away Wednesday morning at his home:

"My family joins me in sharing the difficult news that Peter F. Secchia, our beloved husband, father and grandfather, passed away this morning at the age of 83. 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 spokesperson for the family said Secchia experienced health issues for several months and was receiving nursing care from home. He recently contracted COVID-19, which the spokesperson said was a contributing factor to his death.

Due to the current restrictions on gatherings, the family is planning a private funeral service, the statement explained.

Secchia came from humble beginnings, going on to become one of West Michigan's most influential businessmen. His contributions touch many of our lives, every day.

Peter Secchia is a well-known a businessman, philanthropist and ambassador.

But he did not grow up a rich man. Born in New Jersey in 1937, his parents were working class. His dad had a newspaper route and his mom worked at a local high school.

After spending his childhood in New Jersey, Secchia moved to Michigan to attend Michigan State University. He was kicked out in 1956. Secchia said that he stopped going to class because his part-time job was more fun "for beer and pizza and girls to go out and party."

After getting kicked out of MSU for bad grades, Secchia joined the Marines. He served with NATO and the Second Battalion 6th Marines in Beirut.

When he was done he returned to East Lansing — more mature and ready to get down to business. He convinced MSU to give him a second chance.

This time he graduated with a degree in economics and took a job with Universal Forest Products, a company he would eventually own.

He was hired to assess operations at a lumber yard in Prince George, British Columbia.

Secchia signed a monthly contract, got an advance and went shopping. The next month, all suited up in his new clothes, he left for Canada.

When he arrived, he was greeted by the manager of the mill. In the front seat of his truck there was a very big, hairy, drooling dog.

After several months Secchia returned to West Michigan, stayed with Universal Forest Products and married his wife Joan in 1964.

As his family and the company grew, so did his interest in politics. Secchia reached out to then Congressman Gerald R. Ford and attended the GOP convention in Miami in 1968 and 1972.

When Ford assumed the presidency, the two had become close friends.

In the years that followed, Secchia would work on projects for President Ford.

He often traveled to Washington but kept his home in Grand Rapids, building his business and raising his family: two daughters and two sons.

"I liked it here...like everyone who lives here. I liked it here," said Secchia.

After Ford left office, their friendship remained strong.

Secchia helped rebuild downtown Grand Rapids. He worked closely with Rich Devos, Jay Van Andel and other influential leaders to redevelop the riverfront.

Years later in 1989, he was called upon by another President --George H.W. Bush -- to become the ambassador to Italy.

When Bill Clinton defeated H.W. Bush, Secchia returned to West Michigan and continued his focus on the community.

He was the driving force behind changing the name of Kent County Airport to Gerald R. Ford International among other projects.

Secchia was a lifelong Spartan, and his passion for MSU was no secret. He was often seen on the sidelines at games.

The businessman was also known for sharing a good story and telling jokes.

Peter Secchia treasured his friendship with Gerald R. Ford and was honored when the time came to bring the former president home for the last time.

As for Secchia's own legacy, "I don't want to have a clip on TV saying I named my legacy. Other people name that I don't know what my legacy is going to be," he said. "If you have to walk through a tough obstacle course to get somewhere, occasionally you fall down, you stub your toe. Gotta get up and keep going."

Memorial contributions may be directed to the 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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