By ED FINKELSTEIN
Fulfilling one of the last wishes of electrician, politician, labor leader, husband, father, friend and mentor Don Gralike to not mourn his death, a celebration of his life was held Jan. 16 with more than 500 joining in the celebration.
Gralike, 86, a 65-year member of Electrical Workers Local 1 respected throughout the Labor Movement for his courage, dedication to Local 1 and to all union families, and his tenacity to fight for what was right, died Dec. 6, 2015. He was a third generation electrical worker.
The celebration of his life, held appropriately at IBEW Local 1’s meeting hall, began a half hour late as friends and family wanted time to socialize with old and new friends and reminisce about their remembrances of Don.
Thanking everyone for attending, IBEW Local 1 Business Manager Frank Jacobs started the program, citing Don as a man of the workers who loved his union unconditionally.
“Don was a true champion for the causes of the working middle class as well as a fighter for the men and women that served our country. When a man of his tenure and stature passes away, it is as if a library burns down. We lost a great labor leader and a great man.”
The program included five speakers, a special 15-minute video of Brother Gralike’s life, and an eight-page pamphlet of photos of Gralike over the years appropriately titled “Simply an American who cared.”
‘MAN OF THE PEOPLE’
That “caring” theme ran throughout the personal comments of each speaker and in the conversations before and after the formal program as friends and family hugged, talked, cried and remembered.
Noting that while this was a celebration of Don’s life, it was a sad day when he passed, Local 1 President Tom George said, speaking with a great deal of emotion in his voice and stressing that Don was a “man for the people.
“He fought against racism, for equality for all, for women, for his members and for workers everywhere, every time.”
“If there was a battle like right-to-work that he fought so hard against, Don was there, no matter what,” George said.
“His energy and love of our industry is seen every day in our union’s apprenticeship program where we are teaching the workers and leaders of tomorrow.”
COMPASSIONATE PUBLIC SERVANT
Former Missouri representative and state senator Tim Green, a member of Local 1 and director of public affairs for IBEW Local 1/National Electrical Contractors Association acknowledged Don as a “knowledgeable labor leader, a compassionate public servant, a dear friend to many, an articulate speaker and, to me, a very motivational and instructor mentor.” Green highlighted Don’s political career fighting for workers’ rights even when such fights were not popular, and in whose footsteps he followed in the Missouri House and Senate.
“(That’s) probably why the Missouri Chamber of Commerce never recognized Senator Gralike or me with an award as Legislator of the Year,” Green said to cascading laughter from the crowd.
Even after Don left the Missouri legislature after a 16-year career there, he would have Green send him any bills impacting workers lives. “He would read them carefully and then send me notes and proposed amendments, including a list of arguments for the amendments,” Green added.
Paying the highest tribute possible, Green added:
“Our frequent visits and discussions on law, and a workers’ ability to earn a decent living, with health benefits and a dignified pension in retirement, made me a much better advocate for all workers.”
Concluding his comments, Green said:
“President Gralike: this local is better because of your leadership, and there are many individuals’ lives that are better because of the positive impact you had on their lives, both through your work as a labor leader and a public servant.”
FORCE OF NATURE
Dennis Gralike, director of Local 1’s nationally-recognized apprenticeship training school, called his dad a “force of nature, a man of honor where nothing went unnoticed” when it came to his union and all union families, his own family or his friends.
Noting that Don had “an incredible ability to deal with critical issues with both fairness and compassion,” he urged everyone to live their lives as his father did, “With honor, purpose, joy. And show those close to you your love.”
‘DON’S YOUNGEST SON’
Don’s youngest son, Local 1 member Dave Gralike, vice president of Guarantee Electrical Construction, highlighting the many successes of his father, offered the greatest compliment a son can give his dad:
“It’s common for sons of successful father to fight for their own identity. I would be perfectly happy if no one knew me as Dave and but simply referred to me as Don Gralike’s youngest son.”
Noting, “I always wanted to do what dad did,” he spoke of his desire to be a part of the electrical trade and industry, noting that the Gralike family has long been affiliated with Guarantee and its founding family. “My father and Fred Oertli Jr., former leader of Guarantee, ironically are (buried) approximately 50 feet apart in Jefferson Barracks,” he said with pride.
“My father was brilliant, a mechanic, hard-working, the best public speaker, honest and compassionate. There will never be another one like him…he taught me mechanical abilities yes, but as importantly how to work hard, how to be responsible and simply how to be a man.”
POLITICS A FAMILY WAY OF LIFE
Democratic politics is apparently a way of life in the Gralike extended family. Nephew Steve Pigeon of Buffalo N.Y. spoke of how Don’s influence impacted his life by encouraging his political involvement.
Working in local political campaigns here with Don when he was as a young boy, Pigeon said he saw how Don worked tirelessly to help his constituents and members. “It was the example he set for me as a youngster; I knew then that I wanted to serve.”
Pigeon, former chairman of the Erie County (Buffalo N.Y.) Democratic Committee, said that whether the issue was minimum wages, workers’ compensation, right-to-work – anything that impacted everyday workers’ lives – Don was their champion fighter.
“He was always on the job, no matter the time of day or night, if there was a problem he’d be on the phone trying to solve it.”
Throughout the presentations, there was one other constant: the references to the woman who kept the home together while Brother Gralike was away so often on union or political business: his wife of 61 years, Rita.
“He was indeed a very special man,” Mrs. Gralike told the Labor Tribune. “He was so much to so many.”
A reception hosted by Guarantee followed the ceremonies.
FAMILY’S UNION HISTORY
The history of the Gralike family is deep in the IBEW.
Local 1 is the original local union in the electrical industry – Electrical Wiremen and Linemen’s Union No. 5221 – launched in St. Louis in 1890. It ultimately became Local 1, the first to be chartered by the newly formed International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers when the fledgling union held its first convention in St. Louis in November 1891.
Don’s grandfather was International President from 1919 to 1929. Don served as Local 1’s president from 1972 to 1995.
In 1978, President Jimmy Carter appointed Don to the U.S. Labor Relations Task Force.
One of the most impactful highlights of Gralike’s political career was his challenge of a Missouri constitutional amendment that compelled candidates for office to declare unconditional support for term limits. The U.S. Supreme Court in Cook v. Gralike unanimously overturned it in 2001.
The Labor Tribune staff extends its deepest condolences to the entire Gralike Family. May Don’s soul Rest in Peace. No one deserves it more.