A Life: George Grigel, 1924 — 2013; ‘He Truly Was a “Greatest Generation” Guy’
George Grigel, of White River Junction, in uniform. Grigel joined the wart effort in 1943, and enlisted in the 10th Mountain Division, the first cold-weather infantry division. (Family photograph)
George Grigel skis in Berlin, N.H., in an undated photograph. Growing up, Grigel hunted to help put food on the table for his family. (Family photograph)
White River Junction — He fixed automatic rifles on the front lines of battle and helped liberate Italy during World War II.
But for much of his 88 years, George Grigel was at the forefront of his Taft Flat neighborhood in White River Junction.
The son of Czechoslovakian immigrants, Grigel was born in Berlin, N.H., in 1924, and spent most of his childhood in the woods fishing, skiing or swimming.
Jim Grigel, one of George’s three sons, said his father was a talented marksmen who felt comfortable in the wilderness.
“I don’t think he ever got lost in the woods,” Jim Grigel said. “He would look up and know exactly where he was. He was very good at directions.”
But his father’s upbringing was characterized by poverty. Fishing and hunting weren’t just for sport; sometimes it was the only way to put dinner on the table.
Living with little taught Grigel, who died on June 15, how to be handy and resourceful, and he would make the most of any meager situation for the rest of his life.
“We didn’t live big,” Jim Grigel said of his family’s life in White River Junction. “But dad always provided for us.”
When George Grigel graduated from high school in 1943, he enlisted in the Army, and his skills as a skier and woodsman made him the perfect candidate for the 10th Mountain Division.
The division was trained for combat in the woods and used the skiers’ ability to maneuver through snowy mountaintops to launch offensives from higher ground.
After the war, George returned to Berlin and began work with Swift & Co. Premium Meats. He married Doris Derosier, who was also from Berlin, and transferred to the White River Junction branch in 1953, settling into a small house on a hill on Demers Avenue.
Meriden resident Stephen Taylor, New Hampshire’s former commissioner of agriculture, started working at Swift at 17, and quickly became acquainted with George.
The man had “merry blue eyes,” Taylor said, and loved a cigar at lunchtime.
“He was a very interesting guy,” Taylor said. “He’d always talk about his boyhood and had great war stories.”
One of Taylor’s best memories about Grigel came from an ordinary work shift. Most of the work involved hauling slices of meat onto loaders, he said, and everybody would chit-chat during the process.
“I always think there’s going to be war,” Taylor said one day.
“Well, we fought World War II so that we wouldn’t have to fight anymore,” Grigel had replied.
“He really believed in that strongly,” Taylor said. “He truly was a ‘greatest generation’ guy.”
Grigel was a tough supervisor who had high expectations and little tolerance for mistakes, but Taylor also remembered a man who mimicked people and set aside time for practical jokes.
“My look back is one more of laughter,” Taylor said.
Doris and George Grigel saw both joy and tragedy as parents. In 1960, their 9-year-old son John died after he was struck by a driver on Route 5.
“It changed life at our house,” said Glen Grigel, one of their three sons. “It’s the worst thing for a parent to go through.”
Friends at work saw how Grigel was suffered from the loss, but also witnessed him soldier on.
He is survived by his other three children: Jim, who lives in Thetford; Glen, a music repairman living in New York; and his only daughter, Gail Tulloch.
Tulloch said she remembers her father as a man who went out of his way to help others.
“He really worked hard to make fun without spending a lot of money on things,” she said.
During winters, George borrowed a hose from the Hartford fire department and flooded a rink near the house so that kids could ice skate and he fashioned homemade saucers so that they could sled down hills, she said.
Tulloch said her father even built steps into the snow bank so that children could walk back up the hills instead falling back down or climbing through the icy slog.
“You just don’t see that attention to detail anymore,” she said.
Grigel gained a reputation as guardian of their neighborhood said George Laurin, another Swift & Co. worker and friend who will turn 80 next month.
Boys used to line up on the family’s front porch for Grigel’s free buzz cuts. Children who lived on the street would bring their broken bikes to him for repair. Grigel loved to do yard work and garden, and his tomatoes gained acclaim through the neighborhood. Anyone who stopped by was handed a free sack.
Grigel was a benefactor to all, said Doris Grigel, his wife of 64 years. For the holidays, he would sew yarn Santa’s half the size of a tennis ball. He would tie on a tag that read: “Squeeze my cheeks and I’ll give you a kiss.” And inside would be a Hershey’s Kiss.
“He would give them out to friends, family, neighbors,” Doris Grigel said.
Tulloch said her dad, who was a giver to all, also made time for his children.
He taught them how to ski in Hanover, she said, and took them fishing in a reservoir near West Lebanon.
Tulloch said she wasn’t the best angler. Whenever she got a bite, she would yank the line up instead of reeling it in, and the fish would often times fly out of the water and “land in a bush somewhere.” She remembered her father grumbling but always getting up to search for the fish.
“But I really enjoyed it,” she said. “I go fishing with my kids now. I think dad left behind a lot.”
Tulloch said her father, for all his kindness, was also stubborn.
“He liked to have his projects done a certain way,” Tulloch said. “And when he got older, and it became harder for him to get around, I know it was tough for him to sit back and watch people do the work instead.”
Jim Grigel said that despite numerous health problems, his father kept a good attitude.
“Sure, he was down sometimes, but he didn’t stay down,” Jim Grigel said. “In stressful times, he was always pretty funny.”
He likes to recall one story in particular. His father was in Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, which he started to visit more frequently last fall. He suffered from diabetes. He had lost most of the feeling in his right hand after surgery to remove a blood clot. His back hurt. He had trouble breathing.
But one day, while lying in bed, Grigel called him close. “Come here,” his father said.
“I thought he was going to share a big lesson,” Jim Grigel said. “You know, something philosophical.”
Instead, George Grigel said, “Make sure you change the oil on the Ford.”
That’s who his father was, he said. Big and stern, but also a man who knew how to laugh.
“He was an anchor,” Jim Grigel said. “We’re missing an anchor.”
Zack Peterson can be reached at 603-727-3211 or email@example.com.