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GOP political giant Peter Secchia dies at 83 after contracting COVID-19

Peter Secchia — a West Michigan businessman, Michigan State University donor and longtime figure in Republican politics — died Wednesday at the age of 83, his wife, Joan Secchia, confirmed in a statement.

"Throughout his life, Peter was firmly committed to his family, his business, his community and his country," Joan Secchia said. "His presence in all will be deeply missed."

Peter Secchia, a West Michigan businessman, Michigan State University donor and longtime figure in Republican politics, died Wednesday at the age of 83

Secchia was diagnosed with COVID-19 shortly before his death, said Amy LeFebre, a Secchia family spokeswoman. 

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

Secchia's family will hold a private remembrance service because of pandemic restrictions on gatherings.

A native of Demarest, New Jersey, Secchia was part of the U.S. Marines from 1956-59, serving with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the 2nd Battalion in Beirut, according to his biography

He studied economics at MSU, where he met his future wife, Joan Peterson. He took a sales job with Universal Forest Products in 1962 covering mobile home manufacturers and industrial accounts in Pennsylvania.

He served as the company's former chairman, chief executive and president, helping to push the company from about $1 million in sales in 1962 to nearly $386 million in 1989, when he left to serve as an ambassador to Italy, according Universal Forest Products. When he returned in 1993, he became chairman until 2002, when he started to serve as a non-employee chairman of the board.

Universal Forest Products is now a multibillion-dollar holding company known as UFP Industries that serves retail, industrial and construction markets, according to its website. Its 2019 sales were $4.5 billion. 

Secchia was the "architect" of the company's early expansion, UFP said in a statement, ushering in just-in time inventory systems for the construction industry. He also delved into athletic clothing, retail and restaurants, including Pietro's in Grand Rapids. 

"He was known as much for his irascible ways as for his generosity, humor and disdain for political correctness," the company said. "No detail was too small for his attention. He was impatient. Smart. Demanding.

"He required a lot of employees but no more than he required for himself. No one could outwork him."

State Rep. Lynn Afendoulis, R-Grand Rapids, did contract work for Secchia and UFP through the 1990s and worked full-time for the company from 2003 through 2019. 

Much of what he did was very visible, but there were still so many other philanthropic efforts he did quietly without seeking credit, Afendoulis said. He demanded much from his employees, but also opened doors that wouldn't have been available otherwise, she said. 

"If you earned his respect and you were loyal and worked hard for him ,he gave all that back in spades," Afendoulis said. "He expected a lot and gave a lot.”

Invested in GOP, MSU

Secchia got involved in politics after his "good friend" Gerald Ford became president and ran for reelection in 1976. Secchia was elected Kent County Republican chairman and later a Republican National Committee member. 

After his ambassadorship, Secchia returned home to Michigan in 1993 to chair Universal Forest Products and reengage in GOP politics, including the presidential campaigns of Bob Dole, George W. Bush and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush as well as the state gubernatorial campaigns of Dick Posthumus, Dick DeVos, Rick Snyder and Bill Schuette. 

Secchia was involved in Republican fundraising and philanthropy for decades and was the ambassador to Italy and San Marino under former President George H.W. Bush from 1989 to 1992. 

His last name is featured on the Michigan Republican Party's Lansing headquarters, the Secchia-Weiser Republican Center. 

In 2010, MSU's new softball facility was named Secchia Stadium after a $1 million donation to his alma mater — the largest cash gift to MSU at that time.

But he was likely best known at MSU for convincing the university to move its medical school to Grand Rapids and raising $40 million for it to happen. The Michigan State University College of Human Medicine headquarters is called the Secchia Center.

Several Michigan State University athletics leaders mourned Secchia's loss, including men's basketball coach Tom Izzo, who considered Secchia and his wife "incredible friends." He helped MSU athletics to grow into a "national power."

"What I will miss most about Peter is the loyal support he gave me," Izzo said. "He was someone I turned to over the years when I was making important life decisions, both personal and professional."

Secchia was also part of a Michigan advisory committee to the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, a bipartisan group of more than 80 Michigan leaders that aimed to “highlight the importance of American engagement overseas."

Secchia stirred controversy in 2018 amid the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal when he suggested MSU parents could send their kids elsewhere if they felt uncomfortable. 

"I would say to them that if you don't feel comfortable with your children at Michigan State, take them somewhere else, because we've got a long list of people that want to go to Michigan State, and there are some wonderful people left," Secchia told WZZM-TV, an ABC affiliate in Grand Rapids. 

Secchia made the comments following the resignation of MSU President Lou Anna Simon amid backlash over the university's handling of widespread sexual abuse by Nassar, one of its former sports doctors now in prison for his crimes.

Secchia acknowledged it was difficult for the school to catch Nassar, who was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison, because he was a rock star and people ignored complaints about him.

He also wondered why others weren't being blamed for not stopping Nassar earlier, including Olympic officials and USA Gymnastics, for whom he was a longtime volunteer team doctor.

"We all wonder why the National Gymnastics people aren't being dragged in, the Olympics aren't being dragged in, why some of the parents remained quiet. Were they driven to have a gold medal or driven to have a child who is a star?" Secchia said.

State leaders remember Secchia

Republican former Gov. John Engler mourned Secchia's loss. 

"Peter was one of a kind: an inspiring visionary, forceful leader, diplomat, confidant to presidents, proud Italian, devoted Republican, passionate Spartan and a man with an enormous heart," Engler said in a statement.

"He believed nothing was impossible from building Universal Forest Products or rising from a Marine private to a decorated U.S. ambassador to Italy," he said. 

Engler also recognized Secchia's contribution to Grand Rapids' resurgence, the Gerald R. Ford Museum and the MSU College of Medicine. 

"His legacy of service will be remembered, cherished and enjoyed by future generations," Engler said. "There will never be another Peter Finley Secchia."

Secchia had been a "powerful supporter" of the Michigan GOP for decades, Chairwoman Laura Cox said. 

"It is so appropriate that his name is on our building because he epitomizes the kind of strength and fight that everyone in our party should have for the causes they believe in," Cox said.

Secchia and Republican former President Gerald Ford met in 1964 while Ford was campaigning for reelection to his Grand Rapids area seat in Congress, "and it seems he's been part of our family ever since," the Ford family said in a statement that was joined by the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation. 

He was "bigger than life" with a "playful sense of humor, good counsel, and abiding friendship," the family said in a statement. 

"Everything he did, he did with gusto," according to the family. "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."

The DeVos family praised Secchia's contributions to Grand Rapids through education, arts, parks and investment.

"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 in a statement.

Rich Studley, president and CEO of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, said "in a political campaign or legislative battle, you could have no better ally or worthy opponent than Peter Secchia."

"Over the years I came to truly admire his determination to make a difference & always do the right thing. Rest In Peace Peter," Studley said on Twitter. 

Staff Writer Tony Paul contributed.

eleblanc@detroitnews.com