HARPERSFIELD TOWNSHIP — Ray Gruber Jr. is a true son of Harpersfield with the pedigree to prove it.
He was born in Geneva and raised in Harpersfield, the son of a vineyard owner. When he was old enough to lift a basket of grapes, he picked and carted them for his dad.
He eventually became a Harpersfield Township trustee from 1994 to 2006, then returned to the board in 2015.
Gruber retired from his job as Ashtabula AFL-CIO president in March and will also retire as president of the United Steel Workers in Painesville June 1. But he's not retiring from work — he's decided to go back to being a grape grower on top of a trustee.
"Being a grape farmer is like having two full-time jobs," he said. "But it's not very lucrative. We hire trimmers and pickers to work every harvest. The Concords are machine picked and the whites are hand picked, but basically the grapes just pay for the grapes."
The Gruber family grape farm is a legacy that goes back to his grandfather and grandmother Franz and Louise Gruber, Slovenian immigrants who started the 24-acre vineyard in 1920. The vineyard has sold Concord grapes to Welch's for juices and grape products for 96 years now. They also sell white Niagara grapes to Nick Ferrante's Ferrante Ristorante and Vineyards.
Gruber said he learned a lot of his work ethic and life principles from his father and his mother, Euphrosina "Fina" Gruber.
"My mom and dad were very important to me," he said. "They taught me a lot about life."
As he transitions back to grape growing, Gruber said he will miss being a union representative "because of the human and business relationships," he said. "I worked in the grievance process, representing people. For example, I helped negotiate a dispatcher's contract. I also did the six-year contract for Cristal Global."
He said he likes helping people.
"My dad was a Harpersfield Township trustee," he said. "I was a township trustee from 1994 to 2006. I was reappointed in April of 2015 when Ed Demshar passed away. I love being a trustee. Harpersfield is such a great community. I was on my fourth term when I first stepped down."
Harpersfield Township Trustee Jim Pristov said Gruber was appointed in 2015, but later elected and "won't miss a step."
"Ray is the perfect fit for us," he said. "I was originally from Cleveland, but he, like trustee Cliff Henry, was born and raised here. He took the trustee job while up and running. He knows Harpersfield's history and everything about it. Best of all, his heart is in Harpersfield."
Henry said is was "great" to have Gruber as a township trustee.
"He's like a history book when it comes to Harpersfield. He knows all there is to know about the township," he said.
Gruber said he is also on the Ashtabula County Port Authority Board and has been the president of the Geneva Senior Center Board of Trustees for 15 years.
"The Senior Center has a lot to offer seniors," he said. "They get companionship, fellowship, transportation, help with paying bills and all kinds of things. The Port Authority is great because its function is to help create middle class jobs and help keep the community going."
Gruber graduated from Geneva High School in 1969 before joining the Air Force. He began playing in rock bands and later performed folk Masses for various churches. After returning to Harpersfield he played folk Masses at Assumption Church for 30 years.
"When I was 19 years old I could hardly wait to get out of Harpersfield," Gruber said. "Now that I'm older, I realize there's no place I'd rather be. Whether its raising a family or starting a business, there's a little of everything in Harpersfield. It's a blend of agricultural, tourism and industrial. This is where I wanted to put down roots."
Gruber said his wife Fran, who own and operates the North Coast Driving School, was a tremendous influence on his life and supported him in everything he did. Theirs was a quick courtship.
"I asked her to marry me on our first date," he said. "She said no, but she said yes not long after."
Fran Gruber said, she didn't believe he wanted to get married so soon after meeting.
"But I eventually said yes, maybe on our third date," she said.
They got married May 6, 1972 and Friday celebrated their 44th anniversary. Fran Gruber said their relationship has passed the test of time because they work well together and respect each other.
"Ray loves working with people," she said. "He's knowledgeable and has a great personality. He's a people person."
Ray and Fran Gruber have three children, Eric, Ryan and Joshua Gruber, and three grandchildren, Gage, Deanna and Eric Jr.
Gruber has a huge extended family. They have been celebrating family reunions yearly since 1948.
"I have two brothers, Ric and Robert and a sister Pat," he said. "I had another sister, Priscilla, who passed away in 1971. We have had a memorial garden of all family members on the property since 1951. The extended family has nearly 500 members, now including the Garisek and Cvelbar families. It's nice to have the memories of your grandparents and the early Harpersfield community all around you."