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Salesman for nearly 70 years, ‘Uncle Dunckel’ retires at 91

By Doug Livingston
Beacon Journal education writer

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George "Uncle Dunckel" Dunckel, 91, stands with library tables and chairs he sold to Willyard Elementary School in the Ravenna School system on Thursday, January 3, 2013 in Ravenna, Ohio. For a half century, he sold desks and other furniture to school systems. He is retiring from sales to take care of his wife of 71 years. (Paul Tople/Akron Beacon Journal)

George Dunckel started selling classroom furniture before Joe Louis lost a heavyweight title fight in 1950.

It’s a landmark in time that helps “Uncle Dunckel” remember the old days, when “schools appreciated having someone come around,” he said.

Back then, schools bolted solid wooden desks — with inkwells and cast-iron frames — to the floor. Tables had to be stacked instead of folded. And salesmen made personal visits instead of phone calls.

Over the years, more than furniture changed, but Dunckel, who made every sale with a nod and a handshake up until his retirement on New Year’s Eve, took pride in doing business the old-fashioned way.

“I’m like a car that has 350,000 miles on it,” Dunckel said of his 67 years in the retail business.

At 91 years old, Dunckel leans on a cane to shoulder the weight of his sales materials, which he lugged from his Mercury to his customers for decades. Time has taken a toll on his body, but with a pressed collar and a straight tie, his mind is as sharp as his wardrobe.

Dunckel, who sold furniture to the Ravenna school district for more than a half-century, figures he has seen about three or four generations of superintendents and school business managers come and go. But he remembers every one of them, as well as their hobbies and family.

“It’s all about developing relationships,” said Ray Nist, who retired in 2010 as business manager of North Canton schools.

Nist first worked with Dunckel in 1992 as business manager for Tallmadge schools. After 18 years of making deals with Dunckel, Nist said, he got more than a receipt with every transaction: He got “service.”

When an order arrived, Dunckel was there to make sure the customer was satisfied. It’s one of many courtesies that make a great salesman, Nist said.

“That still holds true today,” he said, “But George got to know people on a personal level.”

Dunckel did all the little things that made a difference.

To shield his customers from losses caused by damage in transit, he trained school custodians on unloading, assembling and inspecting shipments. When visiting a school, he would pick up a stray pencil on the hallway floor and drop it off in the office with a smile. He jotted down each customer’s birthday on a Rolodex card next to a land line or — some years later — a cellphone number.

“You don’t have that [service] anymore,” said Hank Dunckel, George’s son and owner of Dunckel Distributing Co. on Washington Avenue in Ravenna.

With generations of salesmen, furniture became a Dunckel family tradition.

Hank Dunckel remembers using one of his father’s samples, a scaled-down replica of a window shade, for a class demonstration in high school. Growing up, he recalls used furniture littering the house.

Hank Dunckel launched his business in his father’s footsteps in the same building George used in the early 1970s.

“I took over the phone bill and the rent,” Hank Dunckel said.

He took over his father’s customers, manufacturers and distributors, too.

“If I needed help with a certain contact, I could call Dad.”

George, whom customers cordially called Uncle Dunckel, married his wife of 71 years in 1941. He finally retired this year so that he could take care of her; otherwise, he said, he would have kept selling till the day he died.

Break in ’57

After returning from the war in Europe in 1945, he took a job with the F.W. Woolworth Co. as a manager-in-training. Then, he worked as a sales representative for Quaker Oats from 1950 to 1955. During that time, he sold furniture on the side to General Electric and made his first sale to a school district in Schenectady, N.Y., about two hours south of where he grew up near the Vermont border of upstate New York.

He got his break in 1957, when he took a job selling school furniture for Piqua-based Miller Co. He worked on commission, selling to districts from Steubenville to Cleveland, from Pennsylvania to Mansfield, and just about everywhere in between.

He would fly customers to a furniture manufacturer in Texas on a twin engine Bonanza airplane in a time before the Internet.

“When [school officials] are investing all that money, they want to be sure of the product and the people,” Dunckel said.

After cornering the Northeast Ohio market, he launched a company with a colleague in the late 1960s. He subsequently flipped the operation to his son and worked as the educational director for Beckley-Cardy, Inc., a furniture and equipment company in Ravenna. He retired — for the first time — in 1992.

After that, he split profits with his son for the next 20 years, maintaining age-old clients like Bill Wisniewski, director of business operations for Ravenna schools.

“Here’s a man of 91, and he kept up. Smart boards. Technology,” Wisniewski said. “He kept up with the industry, but he was so personable.”

Wisniewski, Nist and school administrators across Northeast Ohio still call him “Uncle Dunckel,” attaching phrases like “first-class gentleman” and “honest guy.”

Throughout his career, Dunckel said, he always employed common sense, a solid work ethic, knowledge of his product and — most importantly — a love of the trade.

“If you don’t like people, don’t get involved,” he said.

Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3302 or dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com.