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Remembering “The Best Gretsch Fan Ever”. . . Uncle Dick

Remembering “The Best Gretsch Fan Ever”. . . Uncle Dick

Dick Gretsch with Proclamation from Governor Ralle.

Richard “Dick” Gretsch Sr., or “Uncle Dick” as he was known to the family, passed away on Saturday, May 22, 2010—less than a month shy of his 102nd birthday. A unique and colorful individual, Dick Gretsch led a fascinating life full of noteworthy milestones.

Dick lived independently in his own Danbury, Connecticut apartment until the very last months of his life. The walls were covered with framed photos, newspaper articles, and certificates documenting Dick’s personal and professional accomplishments. This memorabilia included 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 George W. Bush, and a proclamation from Connecticut governor Jody Ralle officially designating June 14, 2008 as Richard Gretsch Sr. Day.

One room in the apartment served as Dick’s office. In it, his desk was often piled high with correspondence, stock market reports, and the latest copy of The Wall Street Journal. A printer would frequently spit out emails from friends and business associates.

Dick in his office at the Housatonic Industrial Development Corp.

Even past the age of one hundred, Dick regularly worked as chairman of the board of directors of the Housatonic Industrial Development Corporation. He was also a fixture on the Danbury social scene. He was an avid golfer and a lifelong member of the Ridgewood Country Club. As an expression of their esteem for Dick, the club commemorated his hundredth birthday in 2008 by installing “The Dick Gretsch Birthday Birdhouse” just outside the window adjacent to his favorite dining table.

A Life Well Lived

As the son of Fred Gretsch Sr. and the brother of Fred Gretsch Jr. and Bill Gretsch, Dick Gretsch was a member of the family that has made Gretsch instruments for more than 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 recalled in a 2008 interview with author Rick Van Horn. “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.”

Dick Gretsch Birthday Birdhouse at the Ridgewood Country Club in Danbury.

When Dick was ready to enter college, he attended the University of Michigan, where he studied engineering. When he returned to New York following his graduation, Dick didn’t go into the family business. “I had a father and two brothers who were already in that business,” he said in 2008. “There didn’t appear to be much room for me. So I started working for various utility companies, and my career went in that direction.”

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.

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.

One day, while at the Pentagon, Lt. Dick Gretsch met Lt. Barbara Jean Ininger. The two were married in 1943, and they had eight children. Jean later enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania medical school. She graduated in 1973 and went into private practice. She passed away in 1980.

When Dick and Jean left the military, they settled in Connecticut, and Dick went back into the utilities field. He held senior posts at several companies, and he also became active in the general business community, including the Danbury Industrial Corporation. He joined the DIC in 1949 and became chairman of the board in 1964, helping to bring industry into Connecticut. Later, he helped found the non-profit Housatonic Industrial Development. Dick was proud of the letters of appreciation he received from many successful businesspeople in Connecticut that he helped to get started.

Dick was also proud of his connection to the Gretsch family. The current president of the Gretsch Company, Fred W. Gretsch, is Dick’s nephew. Dick was very close to Fred, his wife Dinah, and their children. And even though he was generally not personally involved with the Gretsch musical instrument business, there was one occasion when he definitely was involved. The story comes from author and drum industry historian John Sheridan.

“Though I never met Dick Gretsch,” says John, “I remember a story that Frank Banko of Banko’s Music in Ansonia, Connecticut told me some twenty years ago. When Frank started his business in 1953, he had called in an order to the Gretsch Company. However, on his first day of business he had no power in his store—despite the fact that the utility company had said he would. When he called Gretsch to postpone the order, company president Fred Gretsch Jr. told Frank to call the utility company back and ask for Dick Gretsch. Frank did, and within an hour a man from the utility company showed up, the lights came on, and Banko’s Music was open for business. Frank was amazed at what one phone call to the right man could do!”

Fred and Dinah Gretsch with Uncle Dick.

Fred W. Gretsch describes his uncle as “the best Gretsch fan ever. A few years ago my wife Dinah and I traveled around the world with Uncle Dick. We visited more than fourteen countries together, and Uncle Dick was always on the lookout for a Gretsch drum or guitar along the way. He also had a life-long interest in music and musical instruments. He was keenly fascinated by the Beatles Rock Band video game, which features a simulated Gretsch Duo Jet guitar as a controller. And he loved all the publicity about the game that he observed, including a TV spot featuring George Harrison, as well as news coverage in The New York Times and Men’s Health magazine.”

Continuing his recollection of Dick Gretsch, Fred adds, “Although his health eventually failed him, his fun-loving nature never did. Dinah and I treasure a hand-written card he sent us just two years ago that contained lots of his trademark humor. He was and will remain the icon of the Gretsch family.”

(Story originally posted in 2010.)