Peter Secchia, Confidant of Ford and Bush, Dies at 83

This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

Peter Secchia rarely boasted about his success, but he often marveled at it.

At 25, he went to work as a salesman for a lumber company that grossed $1 million annually. He ultimately worked his way up to chief executive and transformed it into a global conglomerate, with annual sales of $1.6 billion by the time he retired in 2002.

Buoyed by his financial success, he emerged as a major donor to his alma mater, Michigan State University, and a civic leader and philanthropist in Grand Rapids, his adopted hometown, and adjacent Western Michigan.

As a prominent Republican contributor and fund-raiser, Mr. Secchia (pronounced SUCK-ee-uh) also became a confidant of two presidents.

Under Gerald R. Ford, he delivered homespun Midwestern advice as a self-described “chubby, chunky lumber salesman from Grand Rapids wearing jeans and a flannel shirt at the White House.” Under George H.W. Bush, he served as ambassador to Italy and San Marino from 1989 to 1993.

When he returned to the United States, he became chairman of his company, Universal Forest Products. In 2002, he took the title of chairman of the board of trustees of what is now known as UFP Industries.

He had been dealing with several health issues and was receiving nursing care at home when he contracted Covid-19. He died on Oct. 21 at his home in Grand Rapids, a family spokeswoman said. He was 83.

His wife was subsequently hospitalized with the disease, but was said to be recovering.

Mr. Secchia was only in his 20s when he met Mr. Ford, who was campaigning for re-election to his Grand Rapids congressional seat. Mr. Secchia was elected chairman of the Kent County Republican Committee and became a major fund-raiser for state and local candidates and for the presidential campaigns of Bob Dole, George W. Bush and Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida.

In an interview with the Gerald R. Ford Foundation in 2008, Mr. Secchia recalled Mr. Ford’s prescience during a candid conversation in the White House shortly after he had pardoned former President Richard M. Nixon.

“I had to do it, and it will cost me the ’76 election, but I had to do it,” Mr. Secchia quoted Mr. Ford as saying.

Peter Finley Secchia was born on April 15, 1937, in Englewood, N.J., the son of Cesare Secchia, a bookkeeper for a car dealership who was known as Charlie, and Valerie (Smith) Secchia. He was raised in nearby Demarest.

After graduating from Tenafly High School, he enrolled at Michigan State University. But he dropped out when working part time didn’t cover his expenses and enlisted in the Marines. He served in Beirut, then returned to the university and graduated in 1963 with a degree in economics. (He and his wife would donate millions of dollars to establish the headquarters of the College of Human Medicine in Grand Rapids.)

In 1962 he joined Universal Forest Products as a salesman. He bought control of the company in 1971 and served as chief executive until 1989.

Mr. Secchia, who also invested in retail outlets and restaurants, was “known as much for his irascible ways as for his generosity, humor and disdain for political correctness,” the company said in a statement after his death.

In addition to his wife, Joan (Peterson) Secchia, whom he married in 1964, he is survived by two daughters, Stephanie Oehler and Sandy Aslanian; two sons, Charlie and Mark; 11 grandchildren; and a sister, Gail Secchia.

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