Hands of Steel, Heart of Gold: The Willie Gruenwald Story

On The Road

It just sort of seems to come with the territory that when you live in a small town in KELOLAND, you’re going to be asked to chip in now and then to help the community prosper and grow. So when the folks in Clark, South Dakota called on Willie Gruenwald and asked him for help, he stepped up—boy, did he step up!

We’re in Clark, South Dakota where we find a four-time state boxing champion who has taken these hands of steel, and now he’s got his hands involved in so many different ways making a positive difference for the community that he loves.

Wilfred “Willie” Gruenwald started boxing at the age of 12 in Zell, South Dakota. “Well, my dad bought me a speed bag hung in the wash house and I’d work that.  And I had weighted gloves that I’d work the speed bag.  And when I was a freshman, Mom had started, she was one of the ones that started the Catholic Daughters in Zell. And they hired a Mrs. Daruschee (sic) from Aberdeen to teach us tap dancing lessons.  And I took dancing with the group and learned to tap dance. And I’d be tap dancing while I was running the speed bag. It really helped my dexterity, and you know. It helped a lot,” Willie Guenwald said. “So, the boxing secret of Willie Gruenwald was the tap-dancing lessons?” Mike Huether asked. “That helped out.  (laughs),” Willie Gruenwald said.

Willie fought 80 matches across South Dakota and the Midwest, losing only 9 fights as a welter weight and middle weight. “It was probably the late 50s when I started really doing a lot of it. But I did some… our coach Jim, you know, he took us to a lot of fights, you know, in Faulkton, and Highmore and Sioux Falls, and…Oh, different places, you know, that had some bouts, you know, in the winter time,” Willie Gruewald said. “And that is where I got my start with my name.  I was signing up for the AAU, you know, as an amateur boxer and he said, ‘What’s your name?’  And I said, ‘Wilfred Gruenwald.’  And he looked at me and he said, ‘Goll, we got to do better than that.  How about Willie? W-I-L-L-I-E.  So, I was 13-years old then. And from then on, I was ‘Willie,” Willie Gruewald said.

The four-time South Dakota boxing champion didn’t stop there. Willie unloaded coal cars, installed church pews, dug graves, became an electrician, ambulance administrator and even the county coroner. Yes, I said county coroner. Clark County Sheriff Rob McGraw has witnessed firsthand all the ways Willie has made an impact. “If you need something in town, around the county, whatever, you call Willie,” McGraw said. 

Gayle Wookey, a long-time resident and owner of the assisted living center in Clark couldn’t agree more. “So not only is he a man with strong hands.  He is a man with a strong heart,” Mike Huether said. “Right, exactly. Yep, always willing if we need anything at the Center, Willie is here to help us,” said Gayle Wookey.. 

Willie had all kinds of stories when we met, but there was one I was not prepared for. “Our daughter Carol, who was our firstborn, and she was killed in a car wreck along with her son, west of Watertown about five miles and that was on our 40th wedding anniversary,” Willie Gruenwald said.

“Wait, wait, wait, what? Your anniversary?” asked Mike Huether. “Yes, on our 40th wedding anniversary, she was killed,” Willie Gruenwald answered. “Losing your oldest daughter and a grandson would make some people pretty bitter.  Why not you?” asked Huether. “Well, you know, that that’s life,” WIllie Guenwald said.

Right when I thought he couldn’t provide stronger perspective on life’s journey, he did just that.
“She always kidded a lot, too, and that is where I picked that up from,” Willie Gruenwald said. “Or you taught that to her?” Mike Huether asked. “Anyway, that is what happened and it was sad. It was sad and still is, you know, but she had a good life,” Willie Gruenwald said. “I think life is good. And every day is a blessing,” WIllie Gruenwald said. 

“Why isn’t he negative?” asked Mike Huether. “What drives him to be an inspirational person?” “That is just the way Willie is.  He is just so positive in everything and always finds the good in everything,” said Gayle Wookey. 

Willie is now 80-years old and he told me his memory isn’t as good as it once was.  

However, I don’t see anything slowing him down.  Neither does Sheriff McGraw.  “What will he do for fun you think when he retires?” asked Mike Huether. “I think this is what he does for fun,” said Sheriff McGraw. “Helping people,” said Huether. “Yeah, helping people. He keeps busy.  That is what keeps him going. You wouldn’t know he is pushing 80.  He runs like a 60-year-old.  I couldn’t keep up with him,” said McGraw. 

Time for one more story from Willie: “The lights went off one night and I had five calls from people in town here telling me their lights were off.  They wanted me to fix it and I had been away from it for 13 years.  How many years you know, 13 years that I was an electrician before that, ans then another…geez, well, anyway,” said Willie Gruenwald. 

“What if they asked you to be the County Coroner again?  Would you do it?” asked Huether. “Well yeah, but they got, I had a deputy the last year so I have been away from it,” Willie Gruenwald said. “But would you do it?” asked Huether. “Well, I’d help them out, yeah. And I might be on the list yet as a deputy,” Willie Gruenwald said. “All right, so you may still be the deputy coroner for this area?” asked Huether. “Yes, I might be,” Willie Gruenwald replied. “Oh, I love it.  (Laughs),” Huether responded. “Yes, I might be, you never know” Willie Gruenwald replied.

Willie hasn’t just been the town electrician, ambulance operator and county coroner over the years. You can add Knights of Columbus, Rotary, Boy Scout master, Jaycees, boxing coach and religious education teacher to Willie’s long resume. Not bad for a farm boy who grew up with 14 brothers and sisters. His life’s motto? Work hard. Do your share. And make life count. Willie, you certainly have.

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