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Heeren Bros. chief dies at the age of 80

by Terry Sokol | December 06, 2009
John G. (Sonny) Heeren, president of Heeren Bros. Produce in Grand Rapids, MI, died Nov. 23 in hospice care at Spectrum Health-Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids. Mr. Heeren, who was 80, succumbed about a month after being diagnosed with cancer, according to his son James (Jim) Heeren.

Born in Grand Rapids on July 13, 1929, Mr. Heeren grew up and attended school in Grand Rapids, graduating from high school in 1948. He attended Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, MI, where he studied history and education, with the goal of becoming a teacher.

After graduating in 1952, he went into the U.S. Army, serving stateside during the Korean War. He was discharged in 1955 with the rank of corporal. That same year, he began working in the family business founded by his father, John R. Heeren, and uncle, Elmer (Al) Heeren in 1933 as a produce trucking concern.

"He would go to Benton Harbor with his uncle & and truck produce back to Grand Rapids and all over the Midwest," Jim Heeren said. "In 1962 he took as partner his cousin Robert and incorporated with his father and uncle" as Heeren Bros. Produce, taking on more responsibilities as the 1960s progressed.

"Between him and his cousin Bob, they grew the business substantially," Mr. Heeren continued. The company expanded from selling mostly fruit to selling a full line of produce by the 1980s. By the late 1990s, the business had grown to a staff of more than 80 employees. James Heeren and his three brothers are the third generation to work in the family business.

Mr. Heeren noted that his father retired semi-officially in 2005, spending winters in Florida and summers in Michigan. While in Michigan, he would still come into Heeren Bros. to offer his advice, his son said.

He enjoyed his leisure time as well. "He loved all sports and was a huge baseball and football fan, especially of the University of Michigan and Michigan State," Mr. Heeren said. "He was also a fan of the Detroit teams, and he loved to bowl and loved to golf.

"He lived a great life," his son said.

Mr. Heeren is survived by his wife of 33 years, Charlene Heeren; his children, James Heeren and his wife Janice; Stephen Heeren; Thomas Heeren and his wife Rebecca; Cheryl Flanders and her husband Wayne; Daniel Heeren and his wife Jill; his stepchildren, Jeffrey Gross and Todd Gross and his wife Elizabeth; his daughter-in-law, Denise Heeren; 14 grandchildren; three great grandchildren; his sisters, Madeline Thwaites and Elaine Millon; and many nieces and nephews.

Services were held Nov. 28 at Heritage Life Story Funeral Home-Alt & Shawmut Hills Chapel in Grand Rapids. Burial followed in Rosedale Cemetery in Grand Rapids. Contributions in his memory may be made to Van Andel Institute for Cancer Research in Grand Rapids at