11/26/2011 01:26 EST | Updated 01/25/2012 05:12 EST

Frederik Meijer, billionaire founder of Meijer Inc. retail chain and arts patron, dead at 91

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. - Frederik Meijer, who built the regional retail powerhouse Meijer Inc. while nurturing his lifelong love of the arts, died late Friday at a hospital in western Michigan. He was 91.

The billionaire passed away at the Spectrum Health System in Grand Rapids after suffering a stroke in his home early Friday morning, according to a statement issued by the company.

Meijer was credited with starting the supercenter store format in the 1960s that made Meijer a successful Midwest retailer. By 2009, Meijer had 180 of the giant stores throughout Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan and Ohio with annual sales of $15 billion.

He and his wife also gave millions of dollars to causes in the Grand Rapids area, and arts projects were major benefactors.

"The Meijer family thanks everyone for their thoughts and prayers and requests their privacy be respected at this difficult time," the company's statement said.

Meijer was 14 when his Dutch immigrant father, Hendrik, opened his first grocery store in Greenville in 1934 with $338.76 worth of merchandise purchased on credit. The younger Meijer worked 40 hours a week at the store throughout high school.

"We were hard up, and you know what? I didn't even feel deprived," he said in a 2002 interview. "I had a good time in the store, I was a decent student in school — I had a B-plus average."

Meijer and his father expanded their grocery operation in 1962 to include general merchandise, creating their first Thrifty Acres supercenter.

"I really enjoyed working with my dad till he died (in 1964, at age 80)," Meijer said. "We had a marvelous relationship."

The stores were renamed Meijer in 1984, and the company became one of the largest family-owned retail businesses in the U.S. Frederik Meijer was 82 before he took the title of chairman emeritus and began devoting less time to the company.

Meijer was born Dec. 7, 1919, in Greenville and in 1946 married Lena Rader after meeting her at the first Meijer store in Greenville, where she was a clerk. They spent their honeymoon visiting new stores.

The Meijers donated generously to programs in the Grand Rapids area through the foundation he established in 1990.

The Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, a 125-acre (50-hectare) botanical garden outside Grand Rapids, opened in 1995. A 30-acre (12-hectare) sculpture park featuring two dozen works by important modern sculptors was added seven years later.

His interest in the arts stemmed from his youth. Even in the hardest of times, his parents made sure their children learned about culture.

"When I was young, I had piano lessons, clarinet lessons and violin lessons," he said. "My sister had piano, violin and viola (lessons). I was encouraged to sing in choirs. ...

"The point is, no matter how hard up we were in the Depression, certain things like that — music lessons — came as a part of life, rather than saying we couldn't afford it."

Meijer carried that belief to the community. Declaring that city dwellers needed to get outdoors to preserve "mental stability," he donated seed money to develop a network of hiking and cycling trails in western Michigan.

Meijer is survived by his wife, Lena, and sons Hank, Doug and Mark. Funeral arrangements are pending.

The death was first reported by The Grand Rapids Press.