Schmidt Likes Being Out Front

January 21, 2008
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Former Grand Rapids City Commissioner Roy Schmidt, who works for Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, will soon announce he will run for the seat now held by a term-limited Michigan House of Representatives Speaker Pro-Tem Michael Sak, D-Grand Rapids.

GRAND RAPIDS — He has a lot more free time on Tuesdays now. No more committee meetings. No more commission meetings. After 16 years as an accomplished and respected city commissioner, Roy Schmidt is a civilian citizen again — at least for a while.

And as a local elected official who represented the city’s 1st Ward, he has had his share of, shall we say, unusual requests. Like the time a west-sider called him to settle a dispute with a neighbor. The neighbor decided to keep the caller’s soccer ball that had gone into the neighbor’s yard, so the caller asked Schmidt to get his ball back.

“I said, ‘Are you serious?’ Then I said, ‘I’ll come over there if that’s what it’s going to take for you two to negotiate.’ I didn’t end up having to do it. But they actually asked me to go over to get the soccer ball and talk to the neighbor,” he said.

Then there was the time about 10 years ago when he was campaigning door-to-door and got run over by a greyhound — not the bus but the dog. The dog, about as big as a bus, burst through a screen door and pinned him on the porch. Thankfully, Schmidt wasn’t hurt. But one of his young sons, who witnessed the event from the safety of the sidewalk, has never shown a desire to run for public office since that day.

“I still see that big dog coming after me when I have a bad dream every now and then.”

Despite those incidents, Schmidt said what he enjoyed most about being a four-term city commissioner was meeting people. To his credit, though, he got an early start on learning how to deal with the public. When he was 10, he worked the front counter of Rudy’s Market, his dad’s grocery store.

“It started early on with my dad, Bernie, about the importance of the work ethic. My brothers were all butchers. They took the beef, but I couldn’t stand it. I’d lift that beef up and then fall down. So I started cutting bologna and working out front,” he said.

“I knew I liked being out front, where the people were, and I learned early from my mom and dad about customer service. And as for being a city commissioner, the people end of it was nice.”

Even though he just ended 16 years on the commission, Schmidt just began his ninth year as a territory manager for Wyeth Pharmaceuticals. He joined Wyeth after 15 years of sales with another firm and six years in the food service industry before that. But his career didn’t start in sales or even in business, for that matter. Still, on his first job, as with every career stop he has had, he was able to clean up.

After graduating from Aquinas College with a business degree, Schmidt went to work in the maintenance department at Grand Rapids Junior College, as it was known then. There he cleaned the floors that, oddly enough, were home to the business department. While pushing a broom at the school he met Leo Vicari, who Schmidt said changed his life.

“I didn’t get a college degree to do this, even though I enjoyed my job. A guy introduced me to Leo, who ran the Ole Taco franchise, and he told me to come and see him,” he said.

Shortly after meeting Vicari, Schmidt began working for him as an assistant manager. Six months later, he was managing a restaurant. Eighteen months after that, he was in charge of six Ole Tacos for Vicari.

“I went from being a janitor to food service to sales to a city commissioner. What he did was taught me, along with my parents, how to work with people, how to manage, and how to work in sales. We did it all because we were a small franchise,” he said.

“He was my tutor, my mentor, as far as being in the business community. He really helped me out and got me going.”

Roy has been married to Donna for 30 years and they have three sons: Eric, Ryan and Tyler. Schmidt, a Grand Rapids native who grew up on the city’s west side, met his future bride at a Knights of Columbus dance in 1975. After a few spins across the dance floor, he knew she was the one for him.

“It was one of those deals where I fell in love at first sight,” he said.

Donna isn’t his only passion; Schmidt also loves sports. He coached a lot of the early baseball teams his sons played on and followed them throughout their hockey seasons. He wrestled in high school and boxed as an amateur in the local Golden Gloves Tournament.

Those who grew up with him were likely to find him either at the YMCA, the Youth Commonwealth center, or swimming laps in the pool at Lincoln Park. Later, he served on the West YMCA and Youth Commonwealth boards.

“I always had this passion for boxing. My dad was a state champ in 1941. He always had us interested in boxing because the American Legion always supported the Golden Gloves. We always went to the Gloves. I have five brothers, and four of us all boxed in the Golden Gloves,” he said.

Boxing has remained important to Schmidt long after his days in the ring. About five years ago, he teamed up with some local sporting legends, such as Dave Packer and Herschel Turner, and a few business types such as Bill Lewis, the owner of Yesterdog restaurant, to start a neighborhood gym at 900 Fuller Ave. SE for kids on the southeast side.

“We found (the) Martin Luther King (building) available. So we got a 501(c) and formed the GR Youth Boxing Foundation, and the rest is history. We’re starting our fifth year now and we have a gym for the boys and girls. We pay their USA Boxing fees, if need be, and they get the opportunity to box and compete at basically no cost,” he said.

Despite having hung his gloves up decades ago, Schmidt is getting ready to enter the ring again. This time it’s a political ring, the kind without the ropes to fall back on, and he soon will let everyone know that he will run for the seat now held by term-limited Michigan House of Representatives Speaker Pro-Tem Michael Sak, D- Grand Rapids.

“I’m very satisfied with my job at Wyeth; it’s been a great job. But I’m going to pursue the state rep job in the 76th District. Since I’ve left the city we’ve started meeting once a week, and we’re putting together a really good team,” he said.

“I’ve met every goal I’ve set. Being a city commissioner, to me, was the biggest, and it was an honor. To me, everything else is cake.

“I’ve been able to work pretty successfully with everybody for 16 years to get things done and, hopefully, I can continue to do that.”

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