Women of “That Great Gretsch Sound.” Generation 3: Sylvia

Multi-talented First Lady to Bill Gretsch and mother of current president, Fred W. Gretsch.

Sylvia Gretsch was an independent, outgoing, multi-talented lady who helped her husband, Bill, during the “scaled-down production” war years at Gretsch during World War II. After the war Sylvia was caretaker to Bill during his serious illness until his untimely death in 1948.

Maxine Lois (“Sylvia”) Elsner was born on September 14, 1917 in Joplin, Missouri. As a child Sylvia was fascinated with radio (a relatively new invention), and at an early age began studying dramatics and training in theater and speech.

Sylvia and Bill, July 12, 1940

In 1939 Sylvia graduated from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois majoring in speech. While at Northwestern she crossed paths with Bill Gretsch, a 30-year-old bachelor who managed the operations of Gretsch’s Chicago Distribution Branch, and a special friendship was born.

After college the career-minded Sylvia accepted a job at a Missouri high school teaching English, drama, and supervising the traveling debate team. A year later in 1940, she moved to Wichita Falls, Texas and wrote copy for a radio station. In 1942 Sylvia was hired as the editor of “Western Hotel and Restaurant Reporter” magazine. Sylvia’s relationship with Bill also deepened during this time.

1942 was an important year in the Gretsch family for many reasons. Bill’s father, Fred Sr., retired and Bill’s older brother, Fred Jr., was named Gretsch Company president. Soon afterward he left to serve as a commander in the Navy during World War II. With his brother’s departure, Bill moved from Chicago to New York to assume the reins as company president. Bill, whose polio as a child prevented him from serving in World War II was, nonetheless, very involved in the war effort. Bill worked with the Red Cross to supply Entertainment Kits and musical instruments to thousands of soldiers around the world.

Shortly after relocating to New York, Bill proposed to Sylvia and they were married on December 14, 1942. During their marriage Sylvia helped with the layouts and development of Gretsch ads in music trade magazines. She and Bill had four children (Charlotte, Katie, Fred, and Gretchen). After having been married and Gretsch president for only five years, Bill developed cancer and was very ill for 18 months before losing his battle in 1948 at the young age of 41.

Upon her husband’s untimely death, Sylvia continued the Gretsch tradition of preparing the next generation to learn the family business and continue the Gretsch legacy through her only son, Fred. He began working in the business as a boy, preparing for the day when he would run his great-grandfather’s company. Fred’s grandfather and uncle were both great teachers and exposed Fred to many aspects of the music manufacturing business.

Sylvia never remarried and remained a loyal, loving mother dedicated to raising her and Bill’s four children. In early 1964 Sylvia became seriously ill and passed away on February 29, 1964. Like Charlotte Gretsch, Sylvia lost a brave battle to cancer and died in her mid-40’s, but during her life played an important role in the Gretsch legacy and helped prepare her son for future success. When his uncle sold Gretsch to the Baldwin Music Company in 1967, Fred wasn’t in a position to buy the company. Fortunately, in 1985, Fred’s dream of buying back the family business from Baldwin and reviving the Gretsch name back to prominence came true. Fred remains president of the Gretsch Company today.

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