July 22, 2010

You never know what you'll find at the Habitat ReStore

 Frank Hay, Habitat ReStore's newest -- and oldest -- volunteer

You never know what you'll find at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore.

This week I found a 92-year-old antique there -- in great condition -- with a backstory that could have come straight out of Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath. In fact, it turns out that Frank Hay, the store's newest volunteer, actually covered the same ground as the Joads and millions of other Okies, emigrating from the Midwest to California during the Great Depression in search of work.

How he got there, and back to Racine, is one hell of a story...

Hay was born in Racine in 1918, but before he reached his teens his father took him and his three brothers to Long Beach, CA, looking for work. An uncle there said he had work in the oilfield for Frank's dad, who was a construction engineer. And at first there was work, erecting oil well towers. "But then the union reared its ugly head, saying 'Hey! You're non-residents,' " and the company was forced to let him go, Hay said.

They became migrant fruit workers. "Apricots, peaches, cherries; up to Oregon for raspberries; the Yakima Valley for apples.  Us kids went to schools wherever we were. We always had to fight for the pecking order -- but I had older brothers, so that helped."   

Eventually, Frank's father "hocked my stepmother's diamond ring to raise enough money to get back to Illinois, where an uncle was a foreman in a glass factory, and got jobs for my dad and brother. Until 'non-residency' caught up with us again."

The family moved back to Wisconsin when Frank was 13, and he attended McKinley Middle School and graduated from Park High School. In all, he had attended 11 different schools.

It was now the worst of the Depression years, but Frank got a job as an apprentice tool and die maker. "I had always been handy, always fixing stuff," he says. He went to night school, took correspondence courses in geometry, trigonometry and mechanical drawing -- "The stuff I shied away from in high school."

He spent four years as a Navy reservist, working at the Great Lakes Naval Air Station as a crew mechanic and "lineboy" fueling airplanes. "I could jump on the North Shore in Racine and get off at the gates. At the end of the day -- the tracks went by my house -- I could jump off and be home." But after three years the air station moved to DuPage, IL. "I had no car and couldn't get there, so I quit.

Eventually, he went to college in Ft. Collins, CO, wanting to be a forester. He switched to mechanical engineering after  a year, but soon returned to Racine and worked for seven years as a mechanical engineer at Sterling Tool and Die. That was a "preferred industry" for a time, and so he was exempt from the draft. But in 1945 the draft board ended the exemption, and Frank was drafted.

"I told them I'd been in the Navy, but they said, 'You're in the Army now.' " The Army sent him to the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland, where he learned instrument repair and was never sent overseas.  "I always liked working with my hands; as a kid I built lots of model airplanes."

After the Army Hay joined his older brother, who had worked at Young Radiator's tool shop, and they started their own company -- Hay Manufacturing. He was there for 13 years, before selling out in the early '60s and leasing the Air City Airport in Sturtevant, where he was the fixed base operator, performing aviation mechanics, engine and air frame repair. He had learned to fly, had a company airplane and "a pretty good business."

But when the landowner donated a portion of the land to the school district for Schulte School, he had to give up the airport, so Hay bought a place in Minnesota, where he had a hanger and home,  remaining in the aviation business and teaching vocational school aviation mechanics. In the '70s, he bought a helicopter and went barnstorming at county fairs, family picnics. "The helicopter was a novelty; I gave rides, did photography and forestry work." He became a qualified Hughes helicopter mechanic, bought and sold them. "I had five at one time." Hay was in Minnesota for about 30 years, retiring in 1995 well into his 70s. He bought a 50-acre farm, and stayed there until his wife died.

In 1997, with two daughters living in Racine, he returned "home."

Still, he was hardly your typical retiree. He bought a 3 1/2 acre place on the Root River.  Hay also likes to go dancing, and joined a "singles" club that held dances every week. "I started out there as a 'single' but then I met Mary" -- she's 27 years his junior, same age as one of his daughters -- and they were married four years ago. "She tries to keep up with me," he says.

Brave talk. Later he admits that he and Mary exercise together. "I can't keep up with her.  She runs; I take my bicycle."

They also take dance lessons at the John Bryant Community Center twice a week, and go ballroom dancing every Sunday at Hiawatha, where Frank especially likes the wood floors.

So how did Frank Hay end up at the Habitat ReStore, I hear you impatiently asking. Like this: "When hot weather arrived, my wife wouldn't let me work outside. I'd go crazy just sitting in the house ... Well, I was always interested in woodworking. I drove a lot of nails helping my father," he remembers.

So he went to the Habitat ReStore looking for a jointer/planer. "They had a couple of jointers. I'm torn between the desire for this or a planer."

While there, he says, "I looked at the Habitat operation and said, 'I think I'll volunteer here.' " He told Lois Solberg, the store's founding director, "You have a mess in the wood area; everybody just leaves it wherever."

That was three weeks ago. "I found a home," Hay says. "I enjoy it. And my wife is happy to have me out of the house." And the millwork at Habitat is now neatly sorted. Frank works three hours a day, from 10-1, on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. He expects he'll continue to volunteer all summer.

Mary is happy for another reason, too. "My wife has her eyes on this couch; made me measure it," Frank says, pointing to a colorful '50s-ish design. Price $150.

Habitat has about 40 volunteers. Now in its third year of operation -- one of 12 such stores in the state -- the store has grown from its initial 5,800-sq. ft. to 13,800 sq. ft. There's always a little of everything: appliances, wood, tools, furniture. "We're serving the community," Solberg says. "I want to be a little place that is always able to pick up things when people offer donations."

In the front showroom this week when I met Frank, there was a lovely baby grand piano -- small and beautiful. Solberg says Habitat has sold 15 pianos since the store opened, and this is their fourth baby grand. Price: Just $400. But hurry... good stuff has a habit of going fast. (The two jointers that lured Frank in the door are still there, priced at $150. I'm tempted.)

The Habitat ReStore is located in the Kranz building at 2302 DeKoven Ave. It's open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays; 9 to 4 on Saturdays.

UPDATE, July 27: Well, that didn't take long! The grand piano sold this morning, and is on its way to Michigan...