Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

David G. Frey Celebration of Life

by Gleaves Whitney

Judy and family, I cannot think of a more fitting tribute to David than this “grand gathering” of Grand Rapidians. It reminds me of a story that David loved to tell about President Ford. The President’s military aide, Major Bob Barrett, came to President Ford after he retired and said: “Mr. President: I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is 500,000 people want to see you. The bad news is that it will be at your funeral!”

I’ve been asked to say a few words about David’s service to our great nation. As you know, he was a patriot’s patriot. The last time I met with him at the Ford Presidential Foundation where I work, I went outside on the plaza to greet him, and before we even exchanged hello’s, he looked up at our huge American flag at the Ford, wagged a disapproving finger, and said with all the sternness of a commanding officer, “It’s starting to fray. Get a new flag.”

“Aye, aye, Sir!” And, boy, did we hustle to have a new flag up within 24 hours! 

That little story shows the respect David had for our country and our flag, which he revered as a patriot who knew his duty and did it.

Speaking of which, let’s not overlook one of the most important things he and Judy did together for our country. It was to raise successful children who understood their heritage and embraced the awesome duties and opportunities of American citizenship. Our collective future is better because of that unheralded achievement.

Let’s also not overlook the work David, his father Ed, and grandfather Jack did at Union Bank and other institutions in terms of public service. As I listen to the stories about the bank, I can’t help but think of the classic movie, It’s a Wonderful Life. What’s that movie about but a banker, George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart), who intuitively understands that the sinews that hold America’s body politic together are our families and communities. It’s the bankers who loan the money to people on their way to bettering their lives and their communities. The Freys’ bank was an exemplar of a private institution contributing to the public good.

The more obvious public service David rendered to our nation were his years in the Navy. He followed in the footsteps of his father, Ed, who had served in the Pacific Theater in World War II. David would also serve in the Pacific Theater but in the Vietnam War. While with the Seventh Fleet, David rose to the rank of Lieutenant Junior Grade and served as an aide to the Fleet’s admiral. For his service he was awarded the Navy Commendation Medal. David always looked back on his years in the Navy as formative. It’s why there is a Navy flag standing from the Ford Presidential Museum behind me—and, yes, I checked to make sure it didn’t have any frays. Judy and the family told me that it was his years in the Navy that ingrained in David the sense of order and decorum that we experienced in David’s presence. He was always so meticulous, and the joke among his friends was that he wore pajamas with pinstripes.

Once out of the Navy, David eventually came back to Grand Rapids and served his community with energy and vision. If you look at his work at Grand Vision, Grand Action, and all the projects he led to renew a decaying downtown, they amount to much more than lines on a resume. They are tributes to his prodigious imagination. He saw the potential of Grand Rapids, located midway between Detroit and Chicago, to become a great midsized American city—a city with a cool, thriving downtown and vibrant arts scene. Each of us—every one of us in this room—has benefited from this public service that David and likeminded leaders rendered.

Speaking of pride in Grand Rapids brings me to Gerald Ford, whose friendship with David was forged by long family ties, life in their community, and love for their country. President Ford and David’s father Ed were fraternity brothers at the University of Michigan—fellow Dekes. David’s parents enjoyed a relaxed friendship with Jerry and Betty, who would stop by the house in East Grand Rapids for drinks.

A funny story David used to tell: One evening President and Mrs. Ford were visiting with the Freys and he was going on and on about the people he knew growing up. One name that came up was Mary Pew, and Jerry mentioned that they had dated. Then he ventured, “Gee, just think, I might have gotten married to Mary.” To which Betty said, “Yes Jerry, just think, if you had married Mary Pew, instead of being President of the United States, you could have been president of Steelcase!”

President Ford personally asked David to serve on his Presidential Foundation Board of Trustees, and it was work David threw himself into because it afforded him the opportunity to serve the man he admired, the community he loved, and the nation he defended. David spearheaded numerous initiatives and always brought a wealth of imagination and prudence to our conversations. When I was coming aboard the Presidential Foundation, David spent more time with me than any other trustee. We spent hours talking about the projects he was working on with the University of Michigan, for which he had a passion. David was also proud to be involved in the launch of the aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford, literally the largest ship on the seas. And he was humbled to be an honorary pall bearer at President Ford’s funeral. 

I’d be remiss not to mention the very last project David and Chairman Emeritus Marty Allen worked on together—they were bringing it to a conclusion just two weeks ago. It was framing the portraits of President and Mrs. Ford in the Ford Room here at Kent Country Club. I hope you pause on your way out and look at how beautiful they are. They are quintessential David.

Also, the next time you come to the Ford Presidential Museum, seek out the exhibit that David and Judy made possible. You won’t be surprised that it’s dedicated to the aircraft carrier that bears Ford’s name. In fact, it was David who, with dogged determination, went to the Norfolk Shipyard and got the model of the USS Gerald R. Ford for our Museum. 

The Navy would no doubt survey David’s voyage through life and hoist the signal flags Bravo and Zulu to communicate a job well done. So Bravo Zulu, David. We will all be together, not yet but once again, when we at last come to rest in our eternal harbor.


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