National Board for the Blind

by Teri Banas

From the Editor: George Wurtzel, brother of NFB of Michigan President Fred Wurtzel, has always had a genius for working with his hands. Blindness has determined some of his methods, but his gifts and skill have always been apparent to him and to those around him. On June 15, 1998, the Lansing State Journal carried a story by Teri Banas about Mr. Wurtzel and his partners in a new business venture. People frequently assume that blindness prevents a person from working with power equipment or sharp tools of any kind. Those who are tempted to write off their own dreams of craftsmanship or those of their blind acquaintances had better take the time to meet George Wurtzel. Here he is:

With hands large and steady, craftsman George Wurtzel looks like an old-time lumberjack as he works to transform one of Old Town's most historic commercial buildings. An imposing man of six foot four inches, he measures wall studs with precision, saws boards, and drives nails, meanwhile creating new spaces from old. His mission is to put life in the former Estes furniture store and convert it into a custom kitchen and bath cabinetry shop.

Did we mention George Wurtzel is blind?

It really is an inspiration to see him at work," says partner Kathy Weldon, fifty-one, interior designer. "Once you see what he can do, no one has an excuse not to achieve a goal. He's remarkable."

With partner Mary Fauty, the business administrator, they plan to open their Kitchen Encounter shop in July.

"There's only two things we don't let him do," Weldon says repeating an oft-told joke among them. "We don't let him pick out colors, and we don't let him drive."

Wurtzel, forty-four, a Traverse City native who was educated at the Michigan School for the Blind, a short distance from Old Town, has spent his adult life plying trades that require handiwork artistry.

"I consider what I do to be a highly honed skill," Wurtzel says. "I'm not a very syrupy person. I don't consider it remarkable.

"The skills and abilities, the talents I have, I've acquired over a lifetime."

Weldon, who met Wurtzel only recently, said he's made a strong impression on her. "I went from shock to curiosity to admiration," she said. "These days I completely forget sometimes that he's blind. I'll hand over a wallpaper sample and say, `George, take a look at this.'"

As a youngster, Wurtzel says, he wasn't inspired by any particular role model. But his grandfather, who died when he was a young boy, was a cabinetmaker, and his mother was so handy she once built some children's stools from a magazine picture.

"I took every shop course available when I went to school," Wurtzel said. "I've always been a tinkering person, always wanted to know how things worked." As a kid he "played with lawn mowers and cars" and even worked as a Volkswagen mechanic.

Wurtzel's natural talents are aided by an innate sense of spacial reasoning and creativity, he said. His ability to picture in his mind's eye how he will build something is no different from any "engineer-type" thinking person, he says. Sometimes he builds scale models to test his plans.

What is different is one essential tool. An eighteen-inch ruler designed with a threaded rod and ball-bearing drop allows him to measure within 1/16th of an inch accuracy. He uses a Braille 'n Speak to store data and for word processing.

For nine years Wurtzel ran a woodworking shop in Traverse City, taking part in redevelopment projects including the Cherryland Mall. But when the ailing economy brought construction work to a near standstill in 1982, he went back to school. He eventually earned a degree in furniture production management and spent fifteen years working in North Carolina, the nation's furniture-making capital.

Wurtzel, who developed retinitis pigmentosa as a child, said, "I've never had any significant vision at all during my life." At ages ten to twelve he could still read newspaper headlines, but later his vision worsened so that he eventually boarded at the Michigan School for the Blind.

Recently he attended a seminar in Minnesota for creating specialty designs in solid surfaces in the myriad of Corian-style counter tops that make new-kitchen-lusting homeowners go gaga. Because Wurtzel is, well, casual about his blindness, he registered for the seminar without mentioning he can't see. He turned a few heads when he arrived with walking stick in hand.

Then last summer Wurtzel returned to Michigan and joined his brother Fred, who is also blind, and his family in Lansing. He spent the summer working at a camp for blind children in Greenville, Michigan, that has become the brothers' personal cause.

And he looked up Fauty—an old friend who taught at the school when he was a teenager—because he needed a technical reader. By January they were good friends with Weldon, an independent design consultant, at a CAD (Computer Aided Design) kitchen class at Lansing Community College.

Weldon had run her own retail business, a frame shop in Mason, for eight years.

"I was ready to do something again," said Weldon. "We were all three coming to the same point, deciding what we were going to do next."

Fauty, a twenty-eight-year teacher at the school, followed along when it moved to Flint. But she was eager to retire from the commute to help her ailing mother, who lives in Lansing.

"We all just happened to come together at the right time. We were all looking for something to put our time and energies into," said Fauty. Besides running the office, she will help handle retail sales with Weldon.

Weldon said the three easily assumed clear roles in the partnership. "George is in charge of wood. Mary is in charge of paper. And I'm in charge of pretty. That's it."

All, coincidentally, have ties to the redeveloping Old Town. Weldon because she grew up nearby. Wurtzel because he attended the residential school for the blind as a teen and "ran all over town" in off hours. And Fauty, who still lives nearby.

"It's a wonderful, friendly community," Fauty says. "It's fun to be back in Old Town. The atmosphere here. . . . The people out on the street talk to each other. There's a feeling there's something special here."

The partners say their specialty business will serve as a destination store for the area and a business for the future. Industry trends suggest a robust market for kitchen renovations as interest rates remain low and as baby boomers spend their discretionary dollars on nesting pursuits.

Fauty adds that today's kitchens are getting larger and more lavish, reverting to an era when homeowners spent more time in them, entertaining and preparing meals. The bursting selection of materials in solid counter-top surfaces that are so nonporous they don't stain or burn makes this an exciting time.

The business will carry three distinct lines of kitchen cabinets from high-end-custom to a builder-quality selection. Brands include Shiloh, Crystal, and Welborn Forest.

"We're going to be very custom-oriented, very design-conscious," Wurtzel says.

Remodeling, Like Charity, Begins at Home

by Teri Banas

Over four months George Wurtzel, Kathy Weldon, and Mary Fauty have developed a love-hate relationship with the Old Town storefront that will house their Kitchen Creation shop.

When they walked into the early-1900's storefront at Washington and Grand River Avenues, they fell in love with the space—its hardwood floors, original Mission-style mezzanine banisters. They knew it had features they wanted for their retail showroom of kitchen and bath cabinetry.

So they dropped plans to move elsewhere and accepted the fact it was three times the size they wanted. "We've started to treat this building like another entity. We appreciate its style, attention to detail," said Weldon.

But it's been a lot of work, coupled with patience for a long-haul renovation. "We're trying to make improvements for a Year 2000 business in a 1915 building," Fauty said.

The partners are doing much of the interior work themselves, to the tune of $150,000. Building owner Tom Arnold is stripping and refinishing the original hardwood floors. The partners said doing the work themselves has contained costs that could have soared.

Craftsman Wurtzel has begun installing a handicap-access bathroom on the main floor and has built wall partitions and done repairs. Arnold is slowly replacing wornout windows. Wurtzel is converting a furniture clearance center out back for his workshop and for storage.

Already there are payoffs for the hard work. Pulling up carpeting, they discovered a mosaic ceramic tile entryway spelling out the names of the original occupant, the Jarvis-Estes Furniture Company. A solid wood Mission-style banister will remain in their showroom when the shop opens.

Fauty, an Old Town history buff, said the interior will house small alcoves with designer kitchens, though the partners will customize homeowners' particular wants. One of the hottest trends will be there—a mission-style kitchen. Prices will range from $5,000 for some complete remodels (appliances extra), to the tens of thousands.

Someday they would like to convert a room in the center into a test kitchen for education. That's a few years off, Fauty said. Kitchen Encounter will be the first new use for the building since it shut down three years ago as a furniture store just before Estes filed for bankruptcy.

"Here at the Mainstreet Project we're always thrilled that people can take the time and energy to renovate storefronts and interiors," said Lisa Carey, its director. "We're very excited to have them move into the corner spot there."