GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD/AP) — The king and queen of the Netherlands visited Grand Rapids on Tuesday, touring area institutions with Dutch-American roots and talking about the relationship between their nation and the U.S.
His Majesty King Willem-Alexander and her Majesty Queen Maxima landed at the Gerald R. Ford International Airport around 10:20 a.m. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and his wife hosted the royal couple.
The visit aimed to celebrate the bonds between the Netherlands and Michigan. Communities such as Holland, Michigan, are known for their Dutch heritage. Officials say Michigan has 481,000 people of Dutch ancestry out of 4.5 million nationwide.
The king and queen said it was touching to see so many West Michigan residents with Dutch roots carry on traditions from the Netherlands.
“Even if they are a quarter or an eighth or one sixteenth Dutch, the pride of their background comes out of these people so much, and that was great to see,” the king said.
‘THE BEATING HEART OF THE DUTCH-AMERICAN COMMUNITY’
The king and queen’s first stop was Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park.
There, as they helped fill in the earth around a sugar maple tree they donated to honor volunteerism, they weren’t above a little spousal competition. The ceremonial effort soon appeared to turn into a contest to see who could get the job done first. The crowd cheered as the two raced to fill the hole.
After shoveling earth, the king was down to earth with locals. The king surprised the students and parents from Lake Odessa’s West Elementary, who displayed a flag honoring the Netherlands, when he stopped to chat.
“He was asking us about the flag, and I told him about us having a foreign exchange student. Then he asked us who’s going to win the next World Cup,” said Lynn MacKenzie, a West Elementary parent.
“This is the beating heart of the Dutch-American community of the United States,” King Willem-Alexander said as he addressed a luncheon gathering at Meijer Gardens earlier.
He talked about the history of the Dutch in West Michigan, including the early settlers’ resourcefulness and their work ethic — even their outspokenness.
“Some took the attitudes, ‘If it ain’t Dutch, it ain’t much,’ the king said, drawing laughter from the crowd.
He also spoke of the hard work and innovation that continues today.
“Together with many others, Dutch heritage families like the Van Andels, the DeVoses and the Meijers have helped give a major boost to the city,” the king said.
Royal watchers said it was a day they won’t soon forget.
“This will be a lifetime memory forever,” Lynn MacKenzie said.
The king and queen also visited the Van Andel Institute and Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, where they spoke with patients.
Spectrum Health told 24 Hour News 8 it was an honor to host the royal couple.
“This is a very special place,” said Steve Heacock, the senior vice president of public affairs and research of Spectrum Health System. “When you think about what Spectrum Health is — a world class center for research in a community of this size — they kind of scratch their heads and say what ‘Makes this so special? We want to go look at it and see what’s there.’ And see in fact if there’s anything they can take back to The Netherlands for their own lessons.”
‘GREAT COMBINATION OF DUTCH-AMERICAN ENTREPRENEURSHIP’
It’s rare for King Willem-Alexander to take questions from foreign media. Tuesday, he took only two from local reporters — one of which was from 24 Hour News 8’s Tom Hillen, who asked what the visit will do for Dutch-American relations moving forward.
“I think it strengthens a relationship that has been there for more than 400 years and shows the roots that are here, the Dutch roots that live in Michigan, among others, but they are strong and resilient. Sometimes they need maintenance,” the king said. “I think that for a whole generation, the next generation will be proud to be Dutch, to have the resilience. I think there is a great combination of Dutch-American entrepreneurship to see here in Michigan.”
After saying goodbye to Gov. and Mrs. Snyder, the royal couple gave a last wave and then boarded their plane. They departed Ford Airport around 4 p.m.
The Grand Rapids stop was part of a three-day royal visit to the U.S. The king and queen were headed to Chicago next. The tour to the U.S. was King Willem-Alexander’s first since he took the throne in 2013 after his mother, Queen Beatrix, abdicated.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.