“Between ten of us, we had keys to everywhere on that ship.  We made wine on that ship, and they never found the distillery.”

Marion Graff reminded me of an 18 year old in a 92 year old’s body.  He was very cavalier with me during my entire visit, immediately making me feel a part of his life.  “Come on in, sit down,” he instructed immediately as I entered his home.

Marion was born on August 19, 1922 in Ironwood, Michigan – along the border of the Upper Peninsula Michigan and Wisconsin.  His family moved to the Grand Rapids Area when he was three years old.  In 1942, he chose to put college on hiatus and enlisted in the United States Navy.  He was assigned as Pharmacists Mate Second Class on the USS battleship West Virginia.

I could tell Marion was proud to have been on the West Virginia.  He led by telling me that the ship had just been serviced and updated before deployment, making it the most advanced in the fleet.  Its battle stations could hit any coordinates given within range with only one test shot for calibration.  The ship was so valuable and kept at sea so long it once ran out of fuel and had to be re-loaded while still at sea.

During the course of 1943 – 1945, Marion traveled 71,615 miles on the USS West Virginia, which spent 223 days in combat, sank one Japanese Battleship, and shot down 23 Kamikaze / Japanese planes.  The ship spent a total of 3,000+ 16″ projectiles, approximately 30,000 shells, and over 200,000 rounds of small caliber shot.  That totaled 5,500 tons of ammunition.  Losses included four killed due to a Kamikaze attack, four in observation planes, and four others.  31 men were wounded during its mission, with two men MIA.

Though it was a serious tour, he admitted it was what you made of it.  In his words:

When Marion returned to Grand Rapids, he re-enrolled at Aquinas College, finishing out a Business and Finance degree.  He went on to work, first for John Hancock Insurance, then started his own venture as a General Agent selling insurance.  He sold his business to Steenland Insurance Agency after retirement and disinterest in running the business (though not disregard) from his five children.

When asked about the youth today and the upbringing of his grandchildren, he responded, “It’s a whole different world.”  He worry’s about their ability to make their way in the world, especially due to the affects of the credit card.  “They should have never invented it,” he said.  He’s shocked at how many spend far beyond their ability, compared to his upbringing at a time when one spent only what he had.

He also is concerned with the culture of the College Degree.  “It’s coming to the point where if you don’t have that piece of paper that says ‘Degree’ on it, you’re lost.  You’re going to work for an $8.50 or $10 job.”  What to do about it, well that’s a whole other conversation.


He is pictured by the antique 1928 sewing machine that has been a cornerstone of the business since it opened.

Gus is a mainstay of Eastown Grand Rapids.  He owns one of the oldest shops in the area, started by his father after emigrating to the United States from Greece after World War Two.  He loves to talk, and gets to know each of his customers well.

Gus was born a first generation Greek-American on July 13, 1947.  His mother and father met in Greece during World War II, when the Nazi’s asked his father (George) to take a census.  His mother was single, but George knew that if she was listed as such she’d become a bar maid for the Nazis.  So George listed her as his fiancée.  Here’s the story in full:

Gus’ mother came the United States while pregnant with him as a part of a Truman program to emigrate women out of the war zone.  Gus said she threw up the entire voyage; Gus jokes it was he that was sea sick.  His father emigrated some time after, for he had been captured by the Nazis as a POW (over a mistaken car ownership).

Gus was drafted to the US Army during the Vietnam era.  He said he was proud to go – that it made his parents proud.  He was listed for combat, and his father worried Gus would be killed, so he declared his son as the last of his name, or Sole Surviving Son.  That should have removed Gus from direct combat, but Gus declined.

He trained in Louisiana for a Vietnam mission, but that’s not where he ended up.  Right before they were shipped, North Korea shot down a U2 plane and threatened to declare war.  Gus’ regiment was instead directed to the DMZ (demilitarized zone) between North and South Korea from 1969 to 1970.  Unfortunately, Gus was stationed directly when and where Agent Orange was dispensed.  As with many soldiers from that era, the chemical has had a lasting affect.

Gus returned to Grand Rapids and transitioned into the National Guard.  In the late 1980’s, Gus began helping his father at his shoe repair shop, located in Eastown Grand Rapids.  Here he speaks about being conned into helping his dad and learning the trade.

Today Gus is known as a mainstay of Eastown, running one its oldest businesses.  He is planning to retire soon, due to the cancer that resulted from exposure to Agent Orange.  Still, his spirits are high.  Neighbors can expect to see him cruising around in one of his two Mustangs for some time to come.