Saturday, May 28 was a red-letter day for Fred W. Gretsch. The fourth-generation leader of the Gretsch family business was presented with an honorary Doctor of Music degree from suburban Chicago’s Elmhurst College at the school’s Spring Commencement ceremony. Bedecked in classic doctoral robes, Fred—who is himself an alumnus of Elmhurst—joined more than 600 Elmhurst graduates in celebrating their memorable life passage.
A Bit Of Backstory
As most Gretsch fans know, the Gretsch Company was founded by Fred Gretsch’s great-grandfather in 1883, when he set up shop in Brooklyn and started making drums, tambourines, and banjos. By the early 1920s the company had grown into the largest instrument manufacturer in America. Fred Gretsch began working in the family business in the 1960s, and as a young man he looked forward to eventually taking his place as its leader. But in 1967, amid widespread change in the industry, the Baldwin Piano Company bought the Gretsch operation. Fred continued working for the company, moving his family from Brooklyn to suburban Chicago. While there he began studying business administration part-time at Elmhurst College. After graduating in 1971 he founded his own company: Fred Gretsch Enterprises. But he vowed that he would one day make Gretsch a family business again. He made good on his vow, when he and his wife Dinah bought the business back from Baldwin in 1985. Today the company makes guitars and drums for musicians who appreciate “That Great Gretsch Sound,” top-quality craftsmanship, and classic style.
The Elmhurst Degree
Elmhurst College confers honorary degrees on individuals whose commitments and achievements embody the College’s mission, vision, and core values. Fred Gretsch was recognized for his ongoing contributions to the music industry, as well as to his and his family’s stated mission, which is “to enrich people’s lives through participation in music.”
In keeping with this mission, Fred and Dinah, their family company, and the Gretsch Foundation have been generous supporters of Elmhurst College and its Department of Music. That support has funded scholarships for students of music and music business, as well as for the state-of-the-art Sylvia and William Gretsch Recording Studio (established in 1987 to honor Fred’s parents). In 1993 the Gretsch Electric Guitar Ensemble became a regular element of the music program, and in 2015 arrangements were made for the music department’s ensembles to perform exclusively on Gretsch drum kits. Gretsch has also been a major supporter of the annual Elmhurst College High School Invitational Jazz Festival, which is a regular part of the nationally recognized Elmhurst Jazz Festival.
The Commencement events started with a breakfast reception held in the President’s Dining Room at Elmhurst. There Fred and Dinah Gretsch met with members of the Elmhurst faculty, including interim president Larry Braskamp, board of trustees chair Barbara Lucks, and music department chair Peter Griffin. Also from Elmhurst came Dr. Larry Carroll, who is a professor of business administration, the executive director of Elmhurst’s Center For Professional Excellence, and a board member of the Sylvia And William Gretsch Memorial Foundation.
A number of friends and business associates came especially to congratulate Fred on his well-deserved honor. These included Bill Breslin and his wife Mary. Bill worked at Sears & Roebuck in Chicago when Fred was working there in the late 1960s. The two became business friends and have remained so ever since. Also present was Jeff Cary and his wife Mary. Jeff heads up the Gretsch Guitars operation for manufacturing partner Fender Musical Instrument Corporation, and was on hand to offer FMIC’s best wishes to Fred.
All the way from Statesboro, Georgia came Curtis Ricker, who is Dean of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences at Georgia Southern University. Just as the Gretsch Foundation supports the music department at Elmhurst College, so do they support similar programs at GSU. Also on hand, representing the Foundation, was trustee Rick DeMayo.
After the breakfast reception it was time for a little “Pomp And Circumstance,” as the call was given to have the graduating seniors march to their seats on the central lawn of Elmhurst’s beautiful campus. This was accomplished amid the cheers and waves of hundreds of family members on the surrounding grounds. Then the faculty members and the honorary doctoral candidate—namely Fred Gretsch—passed through the rows of students and up to the dais.
After an invocation from Reverend Lance Lackore and remarks from president Braskamp and trustees chair Barbara Lucks, it was time for Fred Gretsch’s big moment. He was called to the podium by music department chair Peter Griffin, who proceeded to cite Fred’s accomplishments as an industry figure and a philanthropic supporter of Elmhurst’s music programs. Then, with a fanfare from the college orchestra, president Braskamp officially conferred on Fred the honorary degree of Doctor of Music, “with all the rights appertaining thereto.” This was met by unanimous acclaim from the faculty and student body alike, all of whom appreciated Fred’s contributions to their school.
When it came his turn to address the crowd, Fred started simply but sincerely, saying, “I’m grateful for the honor that you’ve given me. Thank you.” Then he went on to offer two gifts to each of the graduates in attendance.
“The first gift,” said Fred, “is an invitation to come to lunch with me at the Gretsch studio. Send me an email or give me a call. We’ll set a date, and I’ll look forward to getting to know you better then.
“The second gift is the most important thing I’ve learned from over fifty years in the musical instrument business. And that is to tell you that relationships count. Family…friends…Elmhurst College…business associates. You’ve heard about my wife Dinah, who’s here with me today. Dinah is the love of my life, and has stood by my side in the music business for more than thirty-eight years now. You have your own family here, and your friends. And you have your relationship with Elmhurst College. Mine started in 1969 and remains strong today. Then there are business and industry relationships. Build them, value them. They’re a most important part of success for me, and they will be for you as well.”
At the conclusion of the commencement ceremony the dais party marched out first to form a “receiving line” through which all of the graduates passed. Alongside music business department director Tim Hays and music department chair Peter Griffin, Fred Gretsch made a point to shake hands and personally congratulate students from the music curriculum as they passed by. Many of those students expressed their personal gratitude to Fred for the Gretsch instruments, recording studio, and scholarships that had helped them and their fellow music students to succeed at Elmhurst.
The Celebration Continues
The day concluded with a luncheon for the faculty and guests. On his way in, Fred Gretsch met graduating senior Jane Gooby, who had worked closely with Larry Carroll in the administration of Gretsch scholarships at Elmhurst. Though she shyly admitted that she was not a music major, she had decorated her graduation cap with the Gretsch logo, accompanied by a guitar and the words “Rock Your Role.”
At the luncheon itself Larry Carroll presented a framed certificate congratulating Fred Gretsch on behalf of the board of the Sylvia and William Gretsch Memorial Foundation. Shortly after, Fred presented his own gift, this time to Elmhurst College. It was a copy of The Gretsch Drum Book, inscribed to the faculty and staff of the school and honoring them for their teamwork and accomplishments.
Comments From The College
A number of Elmhurst faculty members expressed personal sentiments regarding Fred Gretsch’s contributions to the college, and his reception of an honorary doctorate. The first comes from Vice President for Development and Alumni Relations Joseph Emmick, who comments, “We’re pleased to recognize and honor Fred Gretsch. Who better to receive an honorary degree than someone who has distinguished himself in his generosity and service to his alma mater, his industry, and the music community? Fred and Dinah together form one of the music industry’s most formidable teams, and their international success enhances Elmhurst College’s reputation across the globe.”
Music Business Department Director Tim Hays says, “Fred Gretsch’s support has helped us develop one of the top music business programs in the country, from the Gretsch Music Business Student Scholarship fund to his many other gifts. The College, the Music Department, and generations of students have benefited from his vision and generosity. “
Elmhurst Sound Recording instructor John Towner comments, “Over the years, Fred Gretsch has taken a real interest in funding college facilities and equipment. For example, ever since its implementation in 1987, the Sylvia and William Gretsch Recording Studio has been a real treasure for our music students. In addition to allowing those interested in the recording field to hone their craft, the studio has also been the site of countless recordings made by students in a myriad of styles. We are profoundly grateful to Mr. Gretsch for this.”
Director of Jazz Studies (and the Elmhurst College Jazz Band) Doug Beach adds, “Fred Gretsch’s impact on the Music Department at Elmhurst College has been immense. Over the years, he has provided primary funding for the High School Invitational Jazz Festival, an event that has become an integral part of the larger Elmhurst College Jazz Festival. He is certainly one of the most loyal alums that the Music Department has.”
Music Department Chair Peter Griffin concludes, saying, “We’re proud of our longstanding relationship with the Gretsch Family, the Gretsch Foundation, and the Gretsch Company. Their generosity provides our students with opportunities they might not otherwise enjoy. We look forward to a continuing partnership in providing those students with the best possible educational experiences.”
Final Words From Fred
Fred Gretsch himself summed up his feelings at the conclusion of the Commencement ceremony, saying, “When it comes to enriching people’s lives through participation in music around the country and around the world, I recognize that Elmhurst is a great place to start. I look forward to working with the college to create more music-makers in the generations ahead.”