Van Andel Left His Legacy To Mankind

December 10, 2004
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ADA — The death of Amway co-founder Jay Van Andel last week was met with mixed emotions — sorrow over the loss of a dynamic community leader, but joy in the memory of a life fully lived.

Van Andel and long-time friend Rich DeVos founded Amway Corp. in 1959 and grew it into one of the world's largest direct sales companies. Over the years, the successful team was dubbed with titles such as The Dynamic Dou, The Dutch Twins and The Phenomenon.

The company the two started in the basement of Van Andel's home now operates as a subsidiary of parent company Alticor Inc., which sells more than 450 nutrition, wellness, beauty and home care products, as well as commercial products and services, in more than 80 countries and territories around the world. Alticor posted worldwide sales of $6.2 billion for fiscal 2004.

With an estimated net worth of $2.3 billion, the conservative billionaire consistently ranked among Forbes magazine's "World's Richest People."

A civic leader and philanthropist extraordinaire, Van Andel gave back generously to the West Michigan community.

He was founding chairman of The Right Place Inc. in Grand Rapids and had served as chairman of the board for both the U.S. and Michigan chambers of commerce.

He was the major benefactor of the Van Andel Global Trade Center at GrandValleyStateUniversity, established in 1999. The Van Andel Foundation contributed $11.5 million to construction of the 12,000-plus-seat Van Andel Arena, which opened in 1998. Van Andel also contributed the initial $1 million grant that launched the new Grand RapidsPublicMuseum, which now also bears his name.

On top of his business acumen, Van Andel had deep, abiding faith and humility, and he daily demonstrated "how to build a life on a foundation of values and integrity," DeVos said.

"Jay Van Andel was the great friend of my lifetime," DeVos said Tuesday. "I will miss him dearly. Jay's life was graced with many blessings: a beautiful family, business success, great acts of philanthropy."

Though Van Andel left the legacy of a successful global business, perhaps his most far-reaching legacy will prove to be the Van Andel Institute (VAI), a biomedical research facility that he and wife Betty founded in 2000 for the purpose of finding a cure for cancer and other genetic diseases. That, at least, appears to be the general consensus.

At the time he dedicated the institute, Jay Van Andel said: "I can think of no better way to touch the lives of people than to support medical research that extends human life and reduces pain and suffering, God helping us."

In a recent address, one of the couple's sons, David Van Andel, VAI chairman and CEO, said his parents decided to locate the research facility in Grand Rapids because their family roots were firmly grounded in West Michigan and because they were already deeply invested in the region's arts, education, health care and business communities.

"They knew the people of West Michigan had both a strong work ethic and solid core values," David Van Andel said. "They believed that these same ethics, values and community investments would provide a strong foundation for an institution dedicated to improving lives."

Birgit Klohs, president of The Right Place, recalled that people tried to discourage Jay Van Andel from building the research institute in Grand Rapids because there wasn't a university research center here.

"He said, 'This is my hometown, so we will make it work,'" Klohs remembered.

She said the creation of the VAI has "changed the conversation" about the diversification of Michigan's business base.

"Until the Van Andel Institute was conceived, I never really thought we would have the conversation about life sciences in West Michigan. I don't think there would be any discussion about MichiganState's interest in this area as the potential home for its med school if it hadn't been for the institute. And we wouldn't be the western anchor of the Life Sciences Corridor.

"If you look down the road 10 to 20 years from now at how different this area will be and what jobs we'll have, it was that institute that changed the conversation."

Milt Rohwer, executive director of the Frey Foundation, described Van Andel as "a strong leader with a lot of vision and a deep sense of community." He met Van Andel in 1985, just after Van Andel accepted the chairmanship of The Right Place. Rohwer said there are lots of elements to Van Andel's legacy, but to him, the most important one was the founding of the VAI.

"I've had occasion to write Jay and express my appreciation for his leadership and especially for his investment in the Van Andel Institute, which I really believe will do more than any other single thing to assure the economic success of West Michigan for generations to come."

Congressman Vern Ehlers recalled Van Andel as "a community pillar" whose name has been synonymous with the renaissance of downtown Grand Rapids, beginning with Amway's purchase and renovation of the old Pantlind Hotel, now the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel.

"Jay Van Andel's most lasting legacy may ultimately be the Van Andel Research Institute, which I expect to become a world-class leader in medical and cancer research," Ehlers said.

Fellow philanthropist Peter Cook said he remembers Jay Van Andel "from way back," and remembers watching as Van Andel and DeVos developed a "a fantastic start-up" into a multi-billion-dollar global enterprise.

"He is a true loss to this community. So many people who become successful don't put it back into their community. Jay did. There are so many things he has contributed to, and not just the things that have his name on them," Cook said. "I think his ongoing greatest legacy will be the Van Andel Institute."

Former Mayor John Logie's experiences with Van Andel go back more than 30 years to the days when Van Andel was a trustee for DrosteFergusonHospital and Logie was the hospital's general counsel.

Van Andel's name on many of the town's signature buildings is a continual reminder of his public philanthropy, Logie said.

"But I want people to understand that the man had a deep and abiding concern for his hometown community," Logie said. "He wanted it to grow and prosper. Many times he worked very quietly to help that along."

Though the facilities that bear Van Andel's name are very visible public legacies, Logie, too, believes the VAI is the ultimate legacy the man left the community and, likely, all of humanity.

"With its focus on cancer and genetic research, some diseases are going to get cured on a worldwide basis right here in Grand Rapids," he predicted. "We're not only going to see research companies that are going to want to be nearby this big engine of research and education, but products and service companies that want to be nearby because this is going to be so big."

Logie believes the VAI  will become one of the major medical research and education facilities in the country, and that over the next several years the community will witness significant growth and expansion of the institute.

David Frey, chairman of the Frey Foundation, said Van Andel and DeVos have set a philanthropic bar "that the rest of the planet aspires to" and that their commitment and dedication to the region set a great example for everyone.

"Jay and Rich had a vision," Frey said. "They failed a couple of times in the early years, but obviously were not dismayed. They just picked themselves up, went back to work, and came back with a better mousetrap.

"Jay had very traditional values — family, faith and country — and he was an entrepreneur of the first order. He lived, nurtured and exemplified the American dream."

Frey referred to the gift of the VAI "as a legacy for all time and an international gift to mankind." The VAI has already demonstrated extraordinary potential, he said, and when it's fully endowed, fully built out and fully staffed, "it will carry the Van Andel name around the globe and, hopefully, become the premier research institution for cancer and other health issues."

Local businessman and former Ambassador to Italy Peter Secchia said Jay Van Andel was really tough, had great vision, and knew what would work.

"He always knew what would work and how to make it happen. He just had that unique talent," Secchia recalled. He said at times Van Andel was difficult to work with because he always "knew" the right way to do it, but in the long run he was usually right.

People see the Van Andel name on buildings but they don't know about all the little things he did, Sechhia said.

"No matter what the project, he was always there. If I called him to help with a hot water heater at the BaxterCenter or for help on a project for the schools, he would be there. His foundation was always there to help, too.

"I'm going to miss him. He's like an older brother. He could always cut right to the quick and give you good advice."    

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