GENEVA – Harry Gramling may have worked on engines during his many decades in the tire and auto repair business, but he also had an in-house engine that propelled him to success at a time when few Blacks owned their own business.
This energy and enthusiasm served him well in his other job: saving souls.
Harry Gramling died on June 8 at the Geneva General Hospital after a short illness. He was 83 years old.
He showed a vitality not often seen in an octogenarian, said his son, Harry Jr., whom friends and family call Junior.
“I don’t see people of that age in that health,” he said of his father, a man of relentless energy all his life.
That ability to work hard has served him well, his family agreed.
Consider when he returned to the auto repair and tire business in 1985 while still working for American Can Co. in Fairport. He worked nights at the factory and, after finishing his shift, returned to Geneva and slept in his car in front of the store for a bit before opening the tire store.
His energy and ability to fix just about anything led him to start his own tire business in 1971 after working for the late Jimmy Richmond at the former Firestone store on Exchange Street in Geneva. He opened Gramling’s General Tire Store on Lyons Road (Route 14) while starting a family with his wife Marcell, whom he married the same year. They eventually had seven children.
Gramling’s background as a Firestone manager and outside salesperson served him well in his fledgling business, she said, noting that she helped him with the company’s books.
But the business was suddenly shut down by what was then called Lincoln Rochester Bank.
“They never really gave a valid reason,” Marcell said. “We have never been late in our payments to the bank. The only thing Harry could understand was that Lewis General Tire was threatened by him because he was growing so fast in the area.
Undeterred, Harry continued to undertake repair work from his home.
“One day I said to him, ‘You need a real job,’ because I was tired of cleaning up the grease that was seeping in,” Marcell said.
Even with a well-paying job at American Can, Gramling worked on the side, opening a towing business that took advantage of his vast mechanical talents during a corporate layoff.
Seeing the end approaching for American Can in Fairport, Harry prepared to open a new tire business on Border City Road. There he and his wife, with the help of his children, operated a successful business, The Tire Store And Car Wash, until 2003 when the couple retired and Harry moved into pastoral care at full-time.
“He always had that entrepreneurial spirit and he was his own man,” Marcell said.
In a 1987 story in the Finger Lakes Weather, Harry spoke of the challenge of running a business as a black man at a time when so few did.
“I think it’s more difficult for a minority to open a business in Geneva because of mistrust and prejudice,” he said. “Someone will call and everything seems fine. Then they come in and notice I’m black, and they ask for the owner or manager. When I tell them I’m the owner or manager, they have this wondering look at their face. Will the car be done right? They get a little skeptical. … We have to do a good job of overcoming that mistrust.
Junior and Mark, a former Geneva city councilor, said their father instilled a strong work ethic from an early age.
“All of us kids had to sweep the store,” Mark said. “Junior took over the mechanics and became his lead mechanic.”
If you wanted a nice pair of sneakers or a video game, expect to roll up your sleeves, the brothers said.
“We had to move tires from place to place on the property,” Mark recalls of one particular chore. “It was tough. He made sure you worked for everything we were going to get.
Harry, a 1958 Geneva high school graduate, born in Florida, was raised by his grandparents and never knew his own father.
“He talked about it, not knowing his dad,” Mark said.
“It was one of his biggest drivers to be a good dad,” Junior added.
Marcell spoke of the loving man her husband was.
“I was just thrilled to be his wife,” she said, noting that he would borrow the words from an old song he knew to express how he felt about her: “Thank you for be my wife.”
His enthusiasm for business served him well in his other job: serving the Lord.
After accepting his Savior in 1971, Harry became an evangelist, first from house to house and later with the establishment of a church in 1980 called First Love COGIC, which started at his home, soon after moved to a place of rue Lewis in Geneva, and then to Genesee Park. In 1998 he became bishop of God’s Revealed Truth Inc., headquartered in the former Border City School on Border City Road; this is where the Gramling children went to school.
Mark said the people skills his father possessed were important to his business and his spiritual work.
“His ability to relate to people has served him well in life,” he said, “and also helped people.”
“He’s become a big man, not just for his kids,” Junior said. “He has become a father figure to many.”
While work was important, Harry also liked to get away – not to the bright lights, but to the starry skies.
“He wasn’t going to town,” Mark said. “He was going into the woods. He loved nature.
Facing the end of his life in hospital, Harry said some last words of love for his beloved family during a conference call:
“One faith; a God; a belief; no other.”
To his wife: “Baby, I don’t want to leave you, but I have to go home.”
Junior, Mark and his sister Brenda Strongs said Harry led a fulfilling life of service to others, his wife and his family.
“He did his job three times,” Junior said. “He lived his life for the people. He truly loved the Lord and the people of God. And he really loved his children.
In turn, his children loved and admired their father.
“Dad was a wonderful man,” Brenda said. “I miss him.”
Marcell said she is “still grieving” at losing her husband of 51 years, but is comforted by the belief that she and Harry will be together again in the next life.
A funeral service for Harry Gramling was held June 17 at the First Love Church of God’s Revealed Truth on Border City Road. Harry was buried in Glenwood Cemetery in Geneva.