Life Story / Obituary
Character is defined as the set of qualities that make somebody or something distinctive. Arnold “Arnie” Sonneveldt was a man of great character who lived by the fundamental conviction that as a Christian, his life should not be focused on himself, but rather on others. Arnie was a savvy business man but at the end of the day, it was the relationships he fostered with his beloved family that mattered to him the most. The Christian faith was not only something that Arnie possessed, but it was the point of reference from which he framed his every thought, his every word, and his every deed each and every day of his life.
The year 1917 was very much dominated by our country’s involvement in WWI, which began in 1914. Mr. and Mrs. Arnold Sonneveldt Sr., of Grand Rapids, Michigan, were able to shift their focus to an exciting time within their family, however, as they were eagerly anticipating the birth of their baby at any time. They were blessed on April 8th of that same year with the birth of their son, Arnold Nicholas. As one of eight children in his family, Arnie was blessed to be cared for by his mother who stayed home. Arnie fondly remembered that his mother was never too busy for any of her children and she even made Arnie’s unique sandwiches that consisted only of bread, lettuce, and six slices of cheese. His father was the founder of Buttercup Bakery and had learned his trade as an apprentice in the Netherlands before immigrating to the United States in 1903.
Though he was a bright and motivated student, Arnie Jr. gave up participating in sports, which he loved, and a college education in order to help his father with the bakery that supported the large Sonneveldt family. By the time he was in high school at Union High, Arnie was working on bakery production both before and after school, carrying in several barrels of coal and tending the fire until it was ready to produce fresh bread and pastries. He went on to graduate from Union in 1935.
Faith was established as a cornerstone early in Arnie’s life and he was also a member of Trinity Reformed Church along with his family. This church was not only where Arnie received nourishment for his soul, but also where he met a young woman who would forever change the course of his life. Her name was Esther Ostehaven and one day, Arnie’s father nudged him and encouraged him to ask her out, and that he did. Arnie and Esther attended the Tulip Time festival for their first date and it didn’t take long before they had fallen deeply in love. They were married on October 4, 1938, beginning a new chapter in a love story which would span more than 70 years. The newlyweds were later blessed with four children: Nancy, Robert, Susan, and Cindy whom they eventually raised on Leonard St. NW where there were many precious memories made. This home boasted of five acres of land on which they had horses, raised two cows, and was also the scene of the “Great Chicken Disaster.” Many good times and laughter happened with their own children and when grandchildren arrived too. One such time occurred while painting the barn and the bucket of paint fell on grandson Shane’s head!
Arnie was an attentive father who always had a way of making sure that his children knew they were unconditionally loved in their own unique way. He was supportive, nurturing, and the perfect example of humility, imparting valuable character traits that shaped his children into the adults they would one day become. Although Arnie’s work schedule didn’t allow much time for vacations, their family did enjoy camping together in Cadillac where one occasion, in an attempt to get a fish off a hook, Arnie knocked the fish out with a pair of pliers to allow for a painless extrication. Christmas was always a special time when the family all gathered at the Old Mill Restaurant which was closed for the celebration. The kids made “swamp water specials,” mixing their own soda concoctions in the machine. Santa was always there for each child to sit on his lap and the adults often exchanged gag gifts.
Buttercup was a true family business and the Sonneveldt clan’s “rite of passage” as there was numerous children, grandchildren, cousins, siblings, and spouses who worked in various positions when they were teen-agers looking to earn spending money or save for college. The work ethic deeply ingrained in Arnie by his family so many years before was still evident by the six day work weeks and 10 to 12 hour days he worked until retirement. Arnie and his brother Bob became co-owners of Buttercup with the death of their father. The restaurants were eventually added to the family enterprise in the 70s, and the name was changed from Buttercup to Arnie’s in the 80s.
At the time of his retirement, Arnie had become the owner of four restaurants and a local bakery chain that consisted of more than 20 stores in the Grand Rapids area. In fact, the name “Arnie’s” still stands in Western Michigan for quality baked goods and tasty meals at reasonable prices.
Although Arnie was well known for his successful business empire, what he will be most remembered for was his tender heart and compassionate spirit. He was a longtime member of Trinity Reformed Church where he served in a variety of positions and he was also a primary founding member of Trinity’s daughter church, Remembrance Reformed. Arnie was a man of great humility, selflessness, and generosity which resulted in the establishment of caring and meaningful relationships with people too numerous to mention. Together Arnie and Esther have been a constant reflection of the statement, “We do not do great things. We only do small things with great joy.” After WWII, they prepared boxes of clothing and household goods at their kitchen table for people in occupied countries.
After his own children left home, Arnie and Esther opened their hearts and home to several young women and men who came to Grand Rapids for church work. They served as sponsors for Vietnamese refugees, one of which contracted AIDS leaving Arnie and Esther to surround him with love and support as his health deteriorated. More recently, Arnie and Esther prepared boxes of clothing, books, toys, and diapers for students who returned to Nigeria after completing their seminary degree; boxes of sweet treats for friends and family around the country; or the 150 deluxe caramel apples that have been mailed or delivered to many friends and family members each November for the past 10 years.
Arnie was truly one-of-a-kind and he had an insatiable zest for life and he knew how to have fun as well. Family members recall the time that Arnie took a grandchild’s sombrero, dropped it on the ground and nimbly danced around it. He was particular when it came to meal times as he always had to have pickles and olives at every meal. Arnie will always be remembered for winding up his alarm clock, his sore feet, and beginning and ending evening meals with prayer.
Arnie was a fun-loving and generous man who viewed each day as a gift tailor made just for him. To Arnie, life was not about the acquisition of material wealth or praise from his peers, but it was about loving others and serving his Lord and Savior. Arnie was a pillar at his church and was truly the hands and feet of Jesus with his tender heart and compassionate spirit. It was no secret that Arnie treasured his family which had grown to include children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, leaving behind a legacy of faith and love that will surely withstand the test of time. He will be dearly missed.
Arnold Nicholas Sonneveldt, Jr. died on Monday, May 4, 2009. Arnie’s family includes his wife, Esther; his children, Nancy (Philip) Miller of Holland, Robert Sonneveldt, Susan (Bruce) Neckers, Cindy (Bob) Fedewa – all of Grand Rapids; 9 grandchildren: Shane (Brenda) Sonneveldt of Washington, D.C., Matthew (Erin) Neckers of Eden, Vermont, Christopher (Amanda) Miller of Oak Park, Illinois, Shalom (Bill) Jaconette of DeWitt, Michigan, Derek Miller and Sunmee Jo of Washington, DC, Melissa (Scott) VanderLeek of Grand Rapids, Mindy Miller and Chris Cochran of Holland, Allison Neckers of Denver, Amanda Powers of New York City and by 10 great-grandchildren: Ariana, Claire and Charlie Jaconette, Owen Neckers, Philip Miller, Elizabeth and Benjamin VanderLeek, Gwyneth and Emma Sonneveldt, and Anna Miller; his two surviving sisters, Ruth Lindhout and Jean Carlen and a great many nieces and nephews. Siblings who preceded Arnie in death were: Janet VanWingen, Christine Brouwer, Josephine Moll, Robert Sonneveldt, and June Barents. Visit with Arnie's family and friends at the Heritage Life Story Funeral Home-Lake Michigan Drive on Friday, May 8 from 2-4 PM and 6-8 p.m. A memorial service will be held on Saturday, May 9 at 2 p.m. at Trinity Reformed Church, 1220 Davis, NW, 49504 in Grand Rapids. Please visit www.lifestorynet.com, where you can leave a favorite memory or make a memorial contribution to Trinity Reformed Church.