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An East Haven resident since 1944, Henry Grehl celebrated his 104th birthday on April 17. (Photo by Nathan Hughart/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
Henry Grehl celebrated his 104th birthday on April 17. He raised his sons Richard (left) and Bill (right) in East Haven. (Photo by Nathan Hughart/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
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Henry Grehl has found the secret to a long life.
“Do everything,” Henry says.
Henry celebrated his 104th birthday on April 17, and according to his sons Richard and Bill Grehl, he has lived up to that motto.
Henry spent much of his career working with sheet metal. He manufactured, among other things, billboards that would later be covered with advertising.
“This was the day they had pieces of paper printed out and the guys would go around and glue the stuff on,” Richard says. “He was working with making the billboard itself, all the steel.”
He also worked with companies building everything from cabinets to heavy electronics.
“He always liked working with his hands,” Richard says. “That was his main thing. He kept us all busy doing whatever.”
One of the ways Henry kept them busy was by occasionally bringing his work home with him, ultimately influencing both sons to find work in technical fields. Richard, who still lives in East Haven, spent most of his career as a New Haven fireman and spent some time as a draftsman for Pratt & Whitney. Bill found a career designing firearms, earning several patents. Some of his designs are still in production.
Bill and Richard say that their father always loved his work, though working in a factory for much of his career caused him to lose his hearing.
“He woke up with a smile and went to bed with a smile every day,” Richard says, noting that his mom, Paulene, “was a good cook. That’s what kept him going.”
Some memories stand out. Henry built his sons a two-seater pedal car that they could ride around the neighborhood.
“It was like a station wagon. The back of it was all wood. It took like four kids to push it,” Richard says. “If you went down the hill, it was tough getting it back up.”
Henry and his family came to the United States when he was 13 years old in 1928. During the early years of his life here, he lived in New York City where his father was a building supervisor.
“His father came here by himself two years before that and saved up money to bring the rest of the family over,” Richard says.
Henry grew up in a village of Moers, Germany called Meerbeck, an important coal mining region.
“The whole area, during the war, was bombed. We have pictures,” says Richard. “His house is the only house on the street that was original.”
When family members returned to Germany in 2003 to visit, they took pictures and collected dirt for keepsakes.
“It brought back a lot of memories for him,” Richard says.
Having arrived just before the start of the Great Depression, Henry would go on to many different careers before he made it to East Haven with Paulene.
“He delivered ice, that was his first job,” Richard says. “All the apartments in New York City, he delivered ice to all different floors.”
At times, Henry was also a boat captain and an employee of his father, which turned out to be the most significant of his careers for an unanticipated reason.
“One day he asked Henry to run an elevator for him because he needed somebody and that’s where he met Paulene. He met his wife in the elevator that day,” Richard says.
Paulene happened to be moving out that day and asked Henry to bring her mail to her new place if she received any. As it happened, she did receive mail, and Henry brought it to her. The two ended up getting together and moving to East Haven in 1944 to raise their family in what, at the time, was a fresh development on the shore.
When they moved in, the ground hadn’t even been landscaped yet. The facility where Henry lives now, Whispering Pines, was initially the area elementary school.
“In 1915 when he was born, there were no hospitals. He was born right in the house where his family were living. There was no water in the house. The only heat in the house was the kitchen stove,” Richard says. “From one extreme to today. The life he lived.”
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