A Tribute To A Remarkable Couple
By Fred W. Gretsch
September is an especially significant month in my family’s history. September 10 is the date on which my father, William “Bill” Gretsch passed away in 1948. And September 14th is the anniversary of my mother Sylvia’s birth in 1917. Both of these remarkable individuals played a major role not only in my life, but also in the legacy of the Gretsch Company.
Gretsch has always been a family business. My great-grandfather, Friedrich Gretsch, founded the company in 1883. Upon his sudden passing in 1885 his son, Fred Gretsch Sr., took over–at the age of fifteen along with his mother, Rosa. Fred Sr. brought his sons Fred Jr. and William into the business when they each turned ten years of age—around 1915 and 1916, respectively. (A third brother, Dick Gretsch, did not join the business and lived until the age of 102 and influenced the business as the best Gretsch cheerleader of all time.) Fred Jr. and Bill started at the bottom, of course, packing phonograph needles in boxes on the weekends, 100 years ago now.
By 1933 my father was a young man looking to make his mark in the music business that his grandfather had started and his father was now running. Thinking that that the company’s office in Chicago offered more room for his younger son’s energies than did the staid headquarters in Brooklyn, Fred Sr. transferred Bill to Chicago. Two years later, he met Maxine Lois Elsner.
My mother was a bright and ambitious person in her own right. In 1935 she filled out a questionnaire upon entering Northwestern University, outlining her plans for the future: “When ten years old, I started taking lessons in dramatics. From then until now I have studied speech with the idea of making it my career. I chose Northwestern University because of its superior speech division and its radio courses. When I finish college I plan to do both writing and speaking for radio.”
Perhaps it was Maxine’s insistence about pursuing her career that attracted Bill. When they first met he was not himself interested in getting married. So the couple dated for two years—largely by telegram correspondence, since Maxine was at Northwestern and Bill was in Chicago. During this period Bill gave Maxine the pet name of “Sylvia”—a name by which she became known to friends and family thereafter.
My mother graduated from Northwestern University on June 10, 1939, with a Bachelor of Science degree in speech. After a brief tenure as a high school speech teacher in Webb City, Missouri, in June of 1941 she became a copy writer at radio station KWFT in Wichita Falls, Texas. By October of that year she had taken a job as editor of Western Hotel and Restaurant Reporter, the west’s oldest hotel magazine.
But by this time my father had had enough of job-related separation from Sylvia. So around the time of his birthday in 1942 he called her on the phone, telling her, “You know what I want for my birthday? I want you.” The two were married in California, Missouri, on December 14, 1942—the day after my father’s birthday.
In that same year my grandfather, Fred Gretsch Sr., retired from the Gretsch Musical Instrument Company. My uncle, Fred Jr., became president in New York, while my father ran the company’s office in Chicago. But America had just entered World War II, and shortly thereafter my uncle left to serve in the navy. So my father moved his family to New York, where he took over as president of Gretsch.
My father brought the Gretsch Company into the war effort with enthusiasm. Under his supervision Gretsch made thousands of “entertainment kits” for the Red Cross to ship to servicemen overseas. Those kits included harmonicas, ukuleles, and ocarinas. The factory also manufactured non-musical war-related products, including wooden parts for gas masks.
According to Duke Kramer, who served as a Gretsch executive for almost seventy years, “Bill was a man with a subtle talent for inspiring people to do their best . . . and [he had] a genius for constructive counsel. His sense of humor was irresistible. When he passed away in 1948, a legion of individuals felt they had lost their best friend.”
Of course, when my father passed away my mother lost more than her best friend. She lost her husband and the father of her four small children (my sisters—Katherine, Charlotte, and Gretchen—and me). In February of 1950 my mother started working for the Gretsch Company on various projects. The first was an editorial for a music publication, which she wrote on behalf of Fred Gretsch Jr. She also worked on a guitar booklet and a manual for retailers.
With the support of the extended Gretsch family—including my grandfather, my uncle, and their respective families—this extraordinary woman provided a loving and nurturing environment that allowed my sisters and me to pursue our dreams through childhood and into our adult years.
One of my personal dreams was to bring the Gretsch Company back into family ownership after it was sold to the Baldwin Company in 1967. In 1984 I was able to realize that dream—largely through the inspiration I received from the examples of my father and my mother. That, in turn, led me to consider how I might best honor their memories.
Throughout the decades in which my father worked at Gretsch—the 1920s, 30s, and 40s—jazz and big band music were the popular styles of the day. But there were also marching bands, concert bands, and other musical organizations, many of which were connected to schools and other educational institutions. My father was a strong believer in the value of music education. In 1946 he personally established a scholarship for a talented clarinet player at the University of Michigan. (In the mid-1950s a complete set of marching drums, finished in the school’s colors, was donated to the Michigan band by the Gretsch Company in honor of my father.)
Since a focus on music education was a large part of my father’s business philosophy, it seemed to me only fitting to memorialize him and my mother in a way that would support that philosophy. With that in mind, several years ago my wife Dinah and I established the Sylvia and William Gretsch Memorial Foundation. Its mission is to provide financial support for projects that promote music education in a variety of ways.
One of those projects was the construction of the Sylvia and William Gretsch memorial recording studio at Elmhurst College (my own alma mater) near Chicago. This studio is a central element of the extensive music-education program offered at Elmhurst.
More recently, the foundation provided a grant for a five-year program at Georgia Southern University, partnering with the Boys & Girls Club of Bullock County (Georgia). In this program, GSU students studying to become music teachers actually serve as teachers for children who might not otherwise have the opportunity to receive music lessons.
I think of my father and mother every day. Their lives revolved around music, as does mine. It’s simply a Gretsch family tradition, and it’s one that I’m proud to be a part of.
Thanks, Mom and Dad.