Danbury, Connecticut — As he celebrated his one hundredth birthday on June 14, Richard “Dick” Gretsch Sr. had a lot to look back on. He’s led a fascinating life full of noteworthy milestones. But misty-eyed reminiscing isn’t really Dick’s style. He’s too busy.
A long-time Connecticut resident, Dick currently makes his home at the Glen Crest retirement center in Danbury. He lives independently in his own apartment, the walls of which are covered with framed photos, newspaper articles, and certificates that document his personal and professional accomplishments. A small patio is brightened by several flowering plants and a bird feeder that attracts jays and robins.
The apartment might seem the quintessential home for the quiet retiree-were it not for the room that serves as Dick’s office. There, a printer busily spits out emails from friends and business associates. A desk is piled high with correspondence, stock market reports, and the latest copy of The Wall Street Journal. A savvy player in the market, Dick’s diverse portfolio includes shares of Coca-Cola purchased at $1 per share and now worth $58.
Dick Gretsch has been actively involved in the business of business for all of his adult life. And he sees no reason why turning a hundred years old should change that. Accordingly, he spends every weekday morning at yet another desk. This one is in the Danbury headquarters of the Housatonic Industrial Development Corporation, where Dick is chairman of the board of directors.
Dick is also a fixture within the Danbury social scene. An avid golfer for most of his life, he lunches every day but Monday at the Ridgewood Country Club, where he’s been a member for almost sixty years. (Mondays find him at Jim Barbary’s restaurant.) The club holds Dick in such high regard that they’ve commemorated his hundredth birthday by installing “The Dick Gretsch Birthday Birdhouse” just outside the window adjacent to his favorite dining table.
A Life Well Lived
Readers with a musical background might recognize “Gretsch” as a famous brand of drums and guitars. And Dick is, in fact, a member of the family that has made those instruments for 125 years. He grew up in the family home in Forest Hills, New York, and as a young boy he worked in the Gretsch factory at 60 Broadway in Brooklyn. “I filled orders on Saturdays for twenty-five cents an hour,” Dick recalls. “Gretsch was manufacturing drums and guitars in those days. And what we didn’t manufacture we imported for wholesale distribution. One of my jobs was to pack phonograph needles-which we’d buy by the barrel-into little boxes for retail sale. I made a dollar and a quarter each Saturday.”
As Dick grew older and it was time to enter college, he planned to follow his older brother Fred into Cornell. But a friend at the University Of Michigan suggested that Dick come there instead, since he could start six months earlier. So the late 1920s found Dick at Michigan, where he studied engineering, managed the track team, and saved money by sending his laundry home by train to have it washed, folded, and returned by the family housekeepers.
After graduating from Michigan, Dick returned to New York-where he didn’t go into the family business. When asked why, Dick says, “Well, I had a father and two brothers who were already in that business, and there didn’t appear to be much room for me. So after I graduated, I started working for various utility companies, and my career went in that direction.” (The current owner of the Gretsch drum and guitar business, Fred W. Gretsch, is the son of Dick’s older brother Bill. Dick is very close to Fred, his wife Dinah, and their children.)
Dick’s career began with a job at the Brooklyn Edison company. At the same time, he earned a law degree, studying at St. Johns University at night. Later, a job with the Kleigl company took Dick to Hollywood, where he got involved with lighting for motion pictures. Says Dick, “Kleiglights, as they were called, were what made sound movies possible. The arc lights that had been used for silent movies were very noisy; Kleiglights were totally silent themselves.”
When it came time for Dick to return to New York from California, he made a fortuitous discovery. “I found out that it was cheaper to come back to New York by boat going west across the ocean than it was to come back by train going east across the country. So I took a trip around the world. I think it cost me about $135!”
When America entered World War II, Dick joined the army. His experience with movie lighting landed him a job supervising the setup of lighting systems for The Army War Show, a production that traveled the country to give the folks at home an idea of what their war bonds were being used for. “I was in good company,” says Dick. “I was working alongside the director of Radio City Music Hall and the head of the Yale School Of Drama.”
The company got even better when Lt. Dick Gretsch met Lt. Barbara Jean Ininger one day at the Pentagon. The two were married in 1943. “She married me to get the money to go to medical school,” Dick says, laughing. “But that didn’t happen until thirty years and eight children later.” (Jean graduated from the University of Pennsylvania medical school in 1973 and went into private practice. She passed away in 1980.)
When Dick and Jean left the military, Dick went back into the utilities field. After a brief stay in Wisconsin, the couple relocated to Redding, Connecticut in 1946. They moved to New Fairfield, on Candlewood Lake, in 1947. In 1954 they moved to Newtown, on 136 acres overlooking the town. (When the family sold the property in the late ’80s, they didn’t want to see it developed. So they sold it to the Catholic diocese of Bridgeport.)
Over the years Dick worked as a senior officer for several Connecticut utilities, including Danbury & Bethel Gas & Electric, Derby Gas & Electric, Housatonic Public Service, and Connecticut Light & Power. He also became active in the general business community, including the Danbury Industrial Corporation. One of the oldest business-development corporations in the country, DIC was established in 1918. “I joined DIC in 1949, and I became chairman of the board in 1964,” says Dick. “We brought a lot of industry into Connecticut. Later, in order to get loans from some federal programs, we had to become a non-profit organization. So in 1973 we formed Housatonic Industrial Development, of which I’m still chairman. I’ve got a number of nice letters of appreciation from many successful businesspeople in Connecticut that we helped get started.”
Back To Today
Dick is still active with Housatonic Industrial Development on a daily basis. He approves loans, signs checks, and offers input into additions to the board of directors. He’s also a voracious reader, perusing the Hartford Business Journal, the Fairfield County Business Journal, the New England Business Journal, the New England Real Estate Journal, and, of course, the Wall Street Journal. He also corresponds with fellow alums from the University Of Michigan.
Returning to Dick’s apartment, a quick look at the memorabilia on the wall reveals a Developer Of The Year award from the state of Connecticut, a letter of congratulations on the occasion of his ninety-ninth birthday from president Bush, and a proclamation from Connecticut governor Jody Ralle officially designating June 14, 2008 as Richard Gretsch Sr. Day. It’s characteristic of Dick’s independent nature, however, that the first two items he points out are a photo of the 1935 University Of Michigan track team that he managed, and a certificate celebrating his 1940-41 handball championship at the New York Downtown Athletic Club.
Stepping into his home office, Dick opens a drawer in his desk, displaying hundreds of carefully sorted state quarters and presidential dollar coins, which he avidly collects. Then he pulls out an impressive-looking badge that reads, “Richard Gretsch, special deputy sheriff, Fairfield County, Connecticut.”
“Back in the mid-’80s,” says Dick, “I used to play golf three times a week with the mayor of Danbury and the head of the state police. Being friendly with those guys got me this badge.
“So behave yourself,” he adds with a laugh.