George: Subaru decided to hire me to do a car ad. And that was just out of the blue. I have nothing to do with the acting industry, I don’t have an agent, I didn’t know anybody in the movie business, but they put out a casting call that said they were looking for a blind person between the ages of 55 and 75, somewhat rustic, and a little bit curmudgeonly, and five people gave them my name and they called me.
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Liz: And I’m Liz Bottner.
Chris: We are blind people learning, from each other, how to be successful in our personal, professional, and financial lives.
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Chris: This is part 1 of a two-part interview with George Wurtzel. You may recognize George because he was in a 2018 Subaru outback commercial that was quite popular for some time, that sounds a little bit like this.
A Woman: Does this map show the Peninsula trail?
Audio Description Narrator: The shopkeeper shakes his head.
George: Peninsula trail. You won’t find that on a map.
Narrator: Says an old man in the back.
George: I’ll take you there.
Narrator: Walking with a white cane.
Chris: George is also an avid wood worker and has been woodworking and manufacturing furniture and architectural mill work, and other things for most of his fifty-year career. And we are going to learn from George about how he got started, what some of his struggles were finding work as a blind person, and how he turned his passion and talent for woodworking and engineering into a thriving set of businesses over the course of his long career. We hope you enjoy it. Let’s get started.
Chris: George, thanks for being here.
George: Thanks for inviting me.
Chris: Tell us about yourself and your blindness.
George: I’ve been, essentially, a blind person all my life so far. I have retinitis pigmentosa, but being an overachiever, I came right out of the womb using my retinitis pigmentosa to its best advantage, and had very, very little vision, and by the time I was ten, twelve years old, had basically light perception, by the time I was early twenties, I had no vision whatsoever.
Liz: Tell us about how you learned woodworking.
George: Well, grew up on a farm, when I was a very small child, so, growing up on a farm, you learn that farmers do everything. When my mother wanted new shelves for her canned good items, my mother went and got the saw and the hammer and the nails, and my mother built her own shelves. So, I was exposed to those kinds of things at a very young age. And then, I went to the Michigan school for the blind, and at the time that I was a resident of the Michigan School for the Blind, I thought it was pretty close to a concentration camp. But over time, I have come to deeply appreciate the quality of the education that was given at that point in time, you know, when I was attending. We had an amazing wood shop. We had an amazing metal working shop. We had automobile mechanics, small engines mechanic shops, and all of those things, and I took every single one of those classes. So, the beginnings of my woodworking knowledge, experiences, and everything came from the high school experience. I entered some things in high school into the local, city wide competitions, woodworking competitions, and got a red ribbon on one of my pieces when I was a junior in high school, which was pretty exhilarating. I was pretty proud of the fact that here’s a blind guy who enters into the city wide competition of all the kids in the city, and I win a ribbon. It’s one of those things where it is the best kind of shows that I like is the fact that the people who do the judging have no idea who the participants are. They go through and they put a number on all the pieces, and the judges go through, and they don’t even know the name of the person that produced the piece. They just judge the pieces. And that means you’re being judged by the quality of your craftsmanship without any other extenuating circumstances coming into play. Like, “Isn’t he amazing? He can drive a nail.”
Chris: Do you remember what that piece was by chance?
George: I still own it. It’s a small bookcase.
Chris: Oh, that’s pretty cool. Henry is someone who says he knows you. He wrote in with a question. He wanted to know your opinions of whether you think it’s better to go through a school for the blind, or a mainstream, like public school education based on your experiences?
George: I did both. And I have very strong opinions about it. I truly believe in the power of schools for the blind as it relates to influencing what you may think of yourself. When you go to a school for the blind, and you are with three hundred other blind people, and you have no trouble whatsoever driving a nail, and you see other people having major problems driving a nail, or you see blind people who have great difficulty learning how to spell, and do well in English class, and you see blind people who do really, really well in math, and then you see blind people who absolutely struggle with math, you get to assess all of that and figure out that it is not my blindness that makes me being able to drive a nail good. It is not my blindness that gives me really, really good math skills. It’s not my blindness that causes me to get very, very bad grades in English. It’s because that is the kind of person that I am. Period. When you go to a regular, emersion program into a regular high school, when you are mainstreamed, you may or may not come in contact with any blind people in your life. You know, in your younger years. It’s possible that, you know, you only may meet some distant aunt, uncle, or something like that who has gone blind later in life, who just sits in a chair and does nothing. So your point of reference for what blind people can or can’t do is quite limited. You get some information from books, but you get this feedback from your peers, and from your teachers, that say, “Because you can get from where your English class is all the way to the other end of the building where your math class is without getting lost, and can even find your way back and forth to the bathroom on your way, you are amazing.” And it is … hard for people to start processing those kinds of inputs into their lives as it relates to, “What are my true skills, talents and abilities, and what are the things that people have hyped to me about me that are not true?
Chris: We’ll hear the conclusion of this interview in a moment, but first, a brief word from our sponsor.
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Liz: After you graduated high school, what was your journey like into the working world, and what then led you to your wood working business?
George: So, my senior year in high school, I left the school for the blind and I went to Traverse City High school, to a regular high school, and graduated from there. Because I was somewhat astute about the way that things work in the world, and I know if you’re gonna send someone information about yourself and they ask for a high school transcript or something like that, if it says “Michigan School for the Blind” on it, you are going to be treated totally different than if it just says “Traver City Public High School.” So, it really influenced my absolutely wanting to graduate from a regular, “standard” kind of high school. Our high school, though, was a really kind of cool school. It was right at the very, very beginning of the process where you could take college classes at the community college at the same time you were in high school. So, the first part of the high school year, all my classes were in the regular high school setting. Then the second half of the high school year, starting in January, I started taking college classes at the local community college, and thought possibly, you know, because I was told by people that you know, one should go on to college and get a college degree, bladi bladi bladi, and so
I believed that line of information that people gave me, and so I started doing that, and then I transferred to a regular four year college, and flunked out. Possibly ’cause I just didn’t care, or maybe ’cause I drank too much beer and smoked too much pot. There was all kinds of contributing factors. You know. (Laugh.) So, was no longer in the college situation, so what do you have to do? What are you gonna do with your life? And I’d already been working all through, starting in tenth grade in high school, I worked at a Volkswagon dealership. I started in as an intern, ’cause our school for the blind had a program where you could learn to be a Volkswagon mechanic. So I took that program. And then part of that, you got placed at a Volkswagon dealership in town, and you worked. So I started working a couple nights a week, and weekends, at the Volkswagon dealership. So I was very familiar with the world of work, and I was working at the Volkswagon dealership, and one day, in the winter time, I lived in Northern Michigan. It was snowy and cold and icky, and when people would bring their cars in to have them worked on, they’d be all covered with snow and crud and everything. So, we’d bring them in the shop and let them sit for a couple hours if we could, so everything would drip off them, and they’d warm up, and you could actually work on them. And so the service manager brings in this car, and he says to me, “You have to do work on this car right now. It’s a friend of the owner’s.” And I said “I’m not working on it right now.” And he goes “No, no. It has to be done right now. They’re gonna wait for it until it’s done.” And so, put it up on the rack, and the cold, icky stuff is running down your arms, and inside your clothes all the way into the tops of your boots, I may be exaggerating just a little bit, but it was just miserable. So I got done working, that was the last thing of the day, I walked over to the service counter, I put down the ticket on the car and said “I’m done.” He goes, “Oh, I know, I feel really bad about it.” I said “No, you don’t understand. I’m done.” He goes, “Well, we’ve got a lot of work lined up tomorrow.” And I said, “I’m done!” (Chuckle.) He goes, “What?” After I said it about five times. I said, “I’m done. I’m not working anymore. I quit.” He said “You can’t quit!” I said “I just did. I’m done. I’m picking up my tools tonight and I’m going home.” So, what do I do then? A friend of mine is a boat builder, a wooden boat builder. I go over and see Chip, I said “Hey, do you need a little help?” And he said “Yeah, I need a little help.” So I started helping Chip with some stuff. And then I had this crazy idea, my brother and I, to build some wooden lawn furniture that someone had the design, it was kind of a cool design. So, we started building some of this furniture, mostly me, and putting it out in the front yard for sale, and sold one piece here, one piece there, if you’re doing good, you know you sold three pieces during the week. You know? And a guy comes by one day and buys two pieces of my lawn furniture, and then he comes back two weeks later and he buys a hundred pieces of lawn furniture, and I was in the wood working business.
Chris: Wow. So, you’ve been doing that then for a real long time now, so what’s that been like? How’s it been to grow that business and make it flourish?
George: I started into doing what was called architectural mill work, built the lawn furniture out, and when I was doing that, trying to figure out what I was gonna do from there. My friend Chip the boat builder, I’m there one day to shop, helping him do some stuff, and a guy comes in and says, “I need some showcases for my store.” And Chip says, “I don’t have time to do it.” He says “but George will build them for you.” And after the guy leaves, I said to Chip, I said, you know, “Chip, I don’t know how to build a showcase.” And he goes, “It’s just a wooden box with glass on two sides.” He says “There’s nothing to it.” And, like many things in life, if you break them down into their small components, things aren’t nearly as difficult, or as hard as one would think they are to do. It truly comes back to, you know, how do you eat an elephant? It is just one bite at a time. And if you go into it with that kind of thought, that, “I only have to do this little bit of it right now. And then I’ll do the next little bit.” And before long, you have a cabinet with glass on two sides. Probably my biggest blessing in life, or skill in life, is that I happen to be a really, really, really good engineer. I didn’t train to be quote unquote “an official engineer,” but I understand how things work. I understand how things go together. I can look at a piece of furniture, ’cause fernature’s my thing, I can look at a piece of furniture and tell you how that thing was built. What holds it together. What manufacturing technique did they use to do it? Part of that is, over time, I’ve just absorbed huge amounts of that, but the other part is I just have this really innate sense of how things work. It has to do with spatial relationship. What relates to what? I can walk into an office building, and walk in on the first floor and wander around, go up the elevator, and come out on the second floor, and wander through the second floor, and I can tell you where I am in relationship to the things on the first floor, that I walked around and through, when I’m on the second floor. I have no idea how my brain keeps track of those kind of things, but it does. There are computer programs today that you take and you draw a piece of furniture, and then you can take your mouse, and you can take and rotate the mouse, and you can rotate that piece of furniture and look at it from all different angles through the magic of computers. And I’ve always been able to do that in my own head. You can show me the outside of a chest of drawers, and for the most part, I can, in my head, I can see inside there. I see how the drawers work. I see how they have to work in relationship with each other. I didn’t graduate from college because I flunked out of English two times, but I got a four point in Physics, Geometry, and Triginometry. I mean go figure.
Liz: How specifically did you grow your business of wood working?
George: Lots, and lots, of hard, hard work and hundred hour weeks. When I started off, I did not quit my day job. I had a job where I worked as a bicycle mechanic at a bike shop from 10 o’clock in the morning till 4 o’clock in the afternoon every day. I did that for two years. And at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, I left the bicycle shop, stopped at a sandwich shop somewhere, grabbed myself a sandwich, and went to the place where my first cabinet shop was, which was in the basement of a commercial office building. I was poor. I didn’t have any extra money to do anything. But I worked out a gig with the guy that owned the office building, who was a friend of my mother’s, that the basement of his building was not quote unquote “usable” space that turned into more office space for his office building. There was some head clearances, there was, you know, some water seepage issues, I mean there was, it had lots of issues. Lots of big pipes in the basement that were exposed, and it didn’t lend itself to turning it into office space. But it was perfectly fine space for someone to run a shop out of or something. But the problem was that on the second floor of the building, and directly above the main part of it, of where the space was in the basement, was the IRS office. So you don’t want to make the people at the IRS office mad. So, my agreement with the man who owned the building was that I would make no noise in the basement, no saws, no machine would be running, before 5 o’clock in the afternoon. So I would leave my job at the bicycleshop, grab something to eat, and then in order to pay my rent for the space I was getting in the basement of this building, I was the janitor for the building. So, the very first thing I did when I got there was get out the vacuum cleaner, vacuum all the halls, clean all the bathrooms, in the winter time, shovel all the snow, and then, I would start working. And I would work until about quarter after 1 in the morning pretty consistently. My goal was to make last call at the Saw Mill Bar, and that was at 1:30 in the morning. So, leave my shop, walk to the Saw Mill Bar, walk in, have a beer, ’cause that’s all you were gonna get ’cause it’s last call. So you weren’t gonna spend your money, and, (Chuckle.) And you weren’t gonna get drunk. Drink my beer, you know, talk to my friends, shoot the breeze with, you know, whoever, go home, and go to bed, and get up in the morning and do the next thing. On weekends at my shop, I would start anywhere between 6:30 and 7 o’clock in the morning, and I’d work until 10 or 11 o’clock at night on Saturday and Sunday, all day Saturday and Sunday, and did that for two years.
Chris: So, when I think of building anything, something that immediately comes to mind is that there’s a lot of visual stuff to it. Especially if you’re getting handed a design from somebody that they want you to build, it’s often a picture. How do you go from something that is a pretty visual field, or a visual way of communicating, to a finished piece of furniture, or even a finished piece of mill work?
George: In the very beginning, I nurtured a really good relationship with a friend of mine who became my interpreter. And he happened to have some drafting and architectural knowledge. He worked as a realter, but he was my main interpreter for me for blueprints and drawings. And then, as I expanded, the very first thing that I did when I hired a person was make sure I hired a person who had blueprint reading skills and talents. So, at the end of the two years of working in the basement of this building, I had accumulated enough money I bought my own building. And started working out of my own facility so I could work normal, every-day business hours. And it was boom time. This was in the 1970’s in Traverse City Michigan. The town was growing in leaps and bounds. If you had just a teeny bit of hustle, there was no shortage of work for you. Which was a blessing. But 1982, 83 came along, and the economy came to a crashing halt. I had just built on to my shop. I had just built on a brand-new finishing room, 1500 square feet finishing room on the end of my building, and I went broke and lost everything I’d worked for for the last ten years. I mean I was really broke. I moved from Traver City Michigan to Hickory North Carolina on a Greyhound bus and took everything I owned with me on the bus ride. I was down to pretty much nothing. I went to Hickory North Carolina, went to college there to get a degree in furniture production management. I decided I wanted to know a lot more about how to build furniture faster. And better. And I figured the best way to do it was in college. No one was gonna hire me to work for them at that point in time, because nobody had any work, so it was a good time to go to college.
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Chris: So that’s in the 80’s. Could you kind of catch us up, the next 40 years or so?
Chris: Until now?
George: Yeah. I’ll give you the whirlwind tour here. Finished up at Grand Valley college in the furniture production program. Immediately got hired by some people to build a kitchen cabinet manufacturing plant for them. Eur style kitchens. And it was the hot new rage on the way to build furniture at that point. Everything that Ikea does is built on Euro Style kitchen formulas. If you’ve ever put together an Ikea piece, that’s the style that it is. So I built a factory for them, I hired them, I spent a million dollars of their money, I bought all the tools and equipment to set up the whole plant, got it up and running. I told them I’d do it in 18 months, it took me 19 months. That’s because one of my pieces of equipment got hung up in customs for two months. They wouldn’t release it for some dumb reason. I guess they thought it was full of drugs or something. And they finally released it, got it up and got it running. I went into the people, I said “I’ve done everything I said I was gonna do, we’re putting production out the door, I want a raise.” And the principal says, “Nope. Won’t give you a raise.” You know, “Not for another,” you know, “six months.” I said “I want a raise now. I’ve done everything I said I was gonna do.” And they said “Nope.” I said “Okay, I’m done.” So I walked out the door. Quit. cause George is pretty pigheaded. Started a little company of my own called Sell America. Didn’t know exactly what I was gonna do. But I came up with the idea, thanks to Mom, ’cause moms are the best things in the whole wide world. She stopped at my house one day and my father’s veteran’s internment flag was laying on my coffee table, and she says, “I’m really ashamed of you. You’ve been in the wood working business all your life, and you’ve never built a nice box to put your father’s flag in.” She says “That’s just horrible.” So the very next morning, I get up, I go out in my garage, I build a nice box, put the flag in for my mom, bring it in and show it to her, and she says “Oh I love you, you’re the best child in the whole wide world.” And she went on her way to Florida. And so, the next day, one of my neighbors stops, and the guy walks in, and he’s looking at this box on my coffee table in the living room. He says, “Is that a box for a flag?” And I said “Yes.” He goes, “My brother-in-law owns a funeral home and he just asked me yesterday if he knew somebody that could build him some triangular shaped wooden boxes for veteran’s internment flags. There are three local guys coming back from Vietnam who were killed, and they’re having a special ceremony for them, and they want boxes to present the flags in. Can you make me some?” I said “Oh yeah, I can make you some.” So, long story short, over the course of about three years and three days, I built my company up to have 2500 accounts coast to coast. Someone … I was looking for an investor because I had landed two very large contracts, I had no money to produce the contracts, so I was looking for an investor. A guy came to me, he said, “I want to invest,” and then got right got on the last negotiation day and he says “No, I decided I don’t want to invest, but I’ll buy your company.” So I sold him my flag case company, and since then, they’ve sold over a million units of my design. I took that money, and became an official bum for several years. Raised Arabian horses, played around, my girlfriend at the time owned a bakery business, built her a couple bakeries, goofed off, squandered a little money here and there, ’cause there’s no money in raising horses, but I sure had a lot of fun. Decided to go back to work, moved back to Lansing Michigan, started a kitchen cabinet installation and design business, and counter top business, ran that for about 10 years, and in 2004/5, the economy started crashing in Michigan again, and I said “Ope, time to get out of this.” So I … I just bailed. I had money still, I didn’t owe anybody any money, I bailed, I went to work for Camp Puskmaheda, running a camp for blind kids in Michigan. Did that from 04 through 09 when there absolutely was no money left in the state of Michigan to do anything. I left the camp business there, went to Minneapolis, went to work for Blind Incorporated, was their industrial arts teacher for about, not quite 2 and a half years before they fired me. Because George is pigheaded, and doesn’t … My brother says I should put on my resume “doesn’t get along well with others right at the very top.” (Laugh.) And just leave it at that. And Enchanted Hills for the Blind, which is owned by San Francisco lighthouse for the Blind, it’s in Napa California, they recruited me, they wanted me to come out to California and build them an art center at their camp in Napa. So I went out there, took their 1920’s old grape crushing barn that was just about ready to fall down, and reworked the whole building, turned it into a woodworking shop on the top floor, an art gallery on the main floor, and was just ready to start putting together a pottery studio and a leather operation when the big forest fire came along four years ago, and burned down twenty buildings on the property. So my nice, wonderful job changed dramatically. And them and I, um, you know, didn’t agree anymore, so George, uh, quit. (Chuckle.) And, so what does George do at 68 years old? You know, what are you gonna do? So I said “Well, what I wanted to do when I was 19 years old, I wanted to own my own building where I could have an art gallery, a woodworking shop/studio, and a place to live. So I started looking around for a spot to do that, and I happened to have a big pocket full of cash. Because, Subaru decided to hire me to do a car ad. And that was just out of the blue. I have nothing to do with the acting industry, I don’t have an agent, I didn’t know anybody in the movie business, but they put out a casting call that said they were looking for a blind person between the ages of 55 and 75, somewhat rustic, and a little bit curmudgeonly, and five people gave them my name and they called me. So that’s how I got into the Subaru ad. It was just pure dumb luck. And I’m pretty rustic looking. I’m, you know, shoulder length hair and a big long beard, and I always wear, not always, but 80 percent of the time, my garb is bib overalls and a flannel shirt. And in the summer time, bib overalls and a short sleeve shirt. And that was the look they were looking for, and that got me the job.
Chris: We had so much to talk about with George, that we couldn’t fit it all into one episode. So tune in again on Tuesday March eighth, for Part 2 of our interview with George Wurtzel. Until then, thanks for listening.
Liz: Is there something you’d like to talk about? We’d love to hear from you. Visit pennyforward.com/podcast
to learn how to contact us or to leave us a voicemail that we may share on air. And while you’re there, please make a small donation to support our work to develop accessible and affordable financial education programs for people who are blind.
Chris: The Penny Forward podcast is produced by Liz Bottner and Chris Peterson, Audio editing and post production is provided by Byron Lee, and transcription is provided by Ann Verduin. Music was composed and performed by Andre Louis and Web hosting is provided by Taylor’s Accessible Branding Solutions.
Liz: Penny Forward is a community of blind people building bright futures one penny at a time. Visit
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Chris: For all of us in the Penny Forward community, I’m Chris Peterson, …
Liz: And I’m Liz Bottner.
Chris: Have a great week.