John Canepa remembered for commitment to GR

Fomer Old Kent Bank CEO and co-founder of Grand Action dies

John Canepa
A file photo of John Canepa courtesy Grand Valley State University.


GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — One of the men behind some of Grand Rapids’ biggest revitalization projects has died after being hit by a car.

In a Thursday release, the Grand Action Committee mourned the death of 87-year-old John Canepa of East Grand Rapids. The release did not provide any details about when he died.

Canepa was hospitalized after being hit by a car around 5:30 p.m. Monday while crossing Leonard Street NW near Hamilton Avenue. His funeral Mass will take place on Thursday, Feb. 1 at 2 p.m. at the Cathedral of Saint Andrew in Grand Rapids.

He was the former president and CEO of Old Kent Bank. As a founding member and co-chair of Grand Action, a nonprofit focusing on downtown revitalization, he was instrumental in the development of Van Andel Arena, DeVos Place and other projects.

Grand Action co-founder David Frey told 24 Hour News 8 that while Canepa was originally from Boston, he “adopted Grand Rapids.”

“He … threw his heart and soul into this city to make it what it is and we owe him a huge debt of gratitude,” Frey said.

Frey said he has been out of town and returned a couple of hours too late to see Canepa before his death.

“I just wanted to remind John what great friends he has and how much we appreciate what he’s done,” Frey said.

He remembered Canepa for his “great personality,” saying he was “fun to be with and a great people person.”

“He was the whole package. He was the real deal and committed to the city,” Frey said.

In a statement earlier Thursday, Frey and fellow Grand Action co-founder Dick DeVos “bid farewell to a true giant of the greater Grand Rapids community.”

“For 25 years his voluntary service to Grand Action not only changed our skyline, but fundamentally advanced a culture of collaboration which is now a hallmark of our community,” the statement read in part.

“It was like, zing, we got it,” Frey told 24 Hour News 8 of creating Grand Action. “We somehow found each other at the right time, the right place and we enjoyed each other’s company.”

The group’s first big project was the creation of Van Andel Arena.

“Much of what we see today is a result of the momentum that we created initially with the development and construction of Van Andel Arena,” Frey said.

He said the initially play was to build the arena and expand DeVos Place Convention Center at the same time, but it was Canepa’s idea to split the developments.

“We would not have been successful as we think we have been without John. It’s just that simple. He was a great resource and great judgement on a number of different issues,” Frey said.

He noted Canepa’s expertise with figures.

“John could make the numbers sing. He was marvelous. He was like an orchestra leader when it came to putting it all together and making it work,” Frey said.

The Grand Action statement concluded by saying Canepa’s “contributions to our culture of trust shall always live on in west Michigan” and offering sympathy to the Canepa family.

Canepa was also former member of the Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority, now managed by Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. Kayem Dunn, the board chair of DGRI, provided this statement Thursday evening:

“John Canepa was a man of good judgement and sound advice but more important, he was the most egalitarian person I have ever known. He didn’t talk about his belief in human equality. He simply lived it and that informed all of his work in the community.

“His contributions to this community are vast and I believe he engaged in so many, wide ranging efforts not for the glory but because he truly enjoyed playing a part in making good things happen. We will honor his memory by rededicating ourselves to continuing the city building work he loved so much.”

The Right Place, Inc. president and CEO Birgit Klohs issued the following statement on Friday about Canepa’s passing:

“It is with sadness that I say goodbye to a great community leader and champion of Grand Rapids, John Canepa. My heartfelt condolences go to Marie and the Canepa family.

There are only a few men in the past quarter century of Grand Rapids that can rival John’s impact on our region’s quality of life, economic well-being and civic philanthropy.

His love for this city was bigger than his grin. That passion is evidenced by his biggest contributions, most notably accomplished through his Grand Action leadership.

John was always an advocate for The Right Place, and economic prosperity in our community. As a longtime board member, he understood the fundamental importance of creating quality jobs for the region, and what it meant for an individual’s independence.

Even though he never lost his Boston accent, Grand Rapids had become his hometown.”