By DAVID A. COOK
This week is bittersweet for Local 655, because it marks the final week of work for our Secretary-Treasurer Garry Torpea.
I say it is bittersweet because, on the one hand, I am thrilled that my friend and colleague will finally be able to enjoy the retirement he so richly deserves. On the other hand, I am sad to see him go when I know just how much he has contributed to the success of this organization and how much I and the union have relied on him.
STARTED IN THE STORES AS A TEENAGER
Where to even begin? Garry became a member of Local 655 as a teenager working at Schnucks. During his time in the stores he worked in several roles including Frozen Food Manager all while raising his three boys Jeremy, Michael and Ryan, with his wife Karen.
JOINED LOCAL 655 STAFF IN 1998
Garry began his time on staff with Local 655 when he was brought on as a S.P.U.R. (Special Project Union Representative) in October of 1998 to help organize the nurses at St. Johns Mercy Medical Center.
In July 1999 Garry helped to win the first contract to unionize nurses in St. Louis by an overwhelming 697 ‘yes’ to 585 ‘no’ vote. However, he was assisting Local 655 for decades before that, volunteering to walk picket and working to defeat the phony “right-to-work (for less)” the first time around in 1978.
Garry was brought on staff as a full-time union rep. in January 2001 in the Organizing Department, and immediately brought his unique brand of charm and wit, with his sly grin and his endless reserve of jokes.
A RISING STAR
Soon, Garry’s talents made him a rising star at Local 655. He would go on to work as a union rep — one who was immensely popular with our partners for his hard work and approachable attitude. I then asked him to turn his attention to bargaining and overseeing the Servicing Representatives.
Garry would eventually become our Director of Collective Bargaining and Assistant to the President. In both roles he brought enormous value to the partners.
A skilled negotiator with a sharp eye for the details, Garry played a crucial role in bargaining many contracts that directly resulted in better pay, benefits, and working conditions for our partners.
AN INVALUABLE ASSET
Soon he became the go-to expert on contract language, an invaluable asset for any Local. He would field complex questions about contract interpretation without missing a beat, and regularly went above and beyond to resolve a particular issue for a partner.
Eventually, I had the honor of nominating Garry to serve as our Secretary-Treasurer, and he was unanimously approved by the Local 655 Executive Board. In that role Garry wore too many hats to count.
PROTECTED PARTNERS’ MONEY
First and foremost he became the overseer of Local 655 expenses, a role in which he would become famous around the hall for his trademark penny-pinching.
“It’s our partner’s money” he would often say “and we have to make sure we’re not wasting it.”
Garry has an almost supernatural knack for finding a discount or a deal and getting a vendor to knock some money off their price. He would tell our staff to always ask if there was a way to get a discount on anything we spent dues money on, endlessly saying “the answer is always ‘no’ until you ask.”
‘TALK TO GARRY FIRST’
He became a catch-all for issues in the union hall. Question from the Membership Department? Talk to Garry. Contract interpretation question? Talk to Garry. Question about servicing? Run it past Garry. Want to talk to President Cook? Talk to Garry first.
While serving as Secretary-Treasurer he continued his role also as a bargainer, a servicing director, overseeing our Membership Department, as well as handling any and all problems that might arise around the hall, whether it was fixing the flagpole or getting the air ducts clean: Garry was the man behind it all.
Among all these roles, the one I will miss the most is that of trusted advisor.
As your president, I’m tasked with making critical decisions that affect thousands of my partners and their families. In times like that there is a value that cannot be measured in having a trusted sounding-board and ally, someone with decades of experience in this organization who can offer a different perspective or provide context.
Garry and I are different in many ways, but that difference is what made us such an effective team. Where I can sometimes be impatient and try to move as quickly as possible, Garry was always there to bring his trademark attention to detail and appropriate caution and nuance. We struck an excellent balance, and I cannot imagine the past few years without him.
I know how much the entire Local 655 staff will miss him, both as a colleague and as a friend. They’ll miss his openness and honesty, his habit of inviting you to discuss any problem, personal or professional, with a smart and kind man who would always offer his most sincere advice.
ALWAYS PUT OUR PARTNERS FIRST
There are many partners who have come and gone in this Local that have directly benefited from Garry’s time here that will never know his name. That’s just fine by him: he’s never had an interest in personal glory, but anyone who knows him knows that he always put our partners first.
That’s the quality that you see across his entire career, the one common theme of his professional life: Garry Torpea cares deeply about Local 655 and our partners, and he sincerely worked hard every single day to improve their lives.
OUR SINCEREST THANKS
Hard-working but never overwhelmed, deeply kind but never weak, Garry Torpea has been a gift to Local 655, and we should all extend him our sincerest thanks.
Garry and Karen love fishing. I always gave Garry trouble about not catching fish — although he did catch plenty of fish. He would always laugh and tell me “Dave, they don’t call it ‘catching’ they call it ‘fishing’.”
Garry you were a catch for our partners. Now go enjoy your retirement and your time fishing and catching with Karen. You’ve earned it.