George: Being successful is really hard. If I don’t produce product in my shop every day and put stuff in my gallery, my cash register in my gallery doesn’t go “kaching, kaching.” So, it takes a lot more personal dedication to make your own gig go. But the reward is really good too.
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Chris: This is the Penny Forward podcast, a show about blind people building bright futures one penny at a time. I’m Chris Peterson.
Liz: And I’m Liz Bottner.
Chris: And We are blind people learning, from each other, what it takes to be successful in our personal, professional, and financial lives.
Liz: Before we start, we’d like to thank Ron and Lisa Brookes, at Accessible Avenue, for sponsoring the Penny Forward podcast. I’m sure many of us have experienced frustration and uncertainty when trying to use public transportation or paratransit services that are either inaccessible, or just poorly designed for meeting our needs. Accessible Avenue works with transit agencies and other mobility providers to make transportation services accessible for everyone, including those of us who are blind or visually impaired. Accessible Avenue also works with individuals and organizations who need training or assistance with public transportation problems. You can learn more at
Chris: We’d also like to thank Kane Brolin of Brolin Wealth Management for sponsoring the podcast. Investing doesn’t have to be complicated, and it’s never too late to take action. But depending on how far away your goals are, the decisions you need to make will be very different. Kane Brolin is a blind certified financial planner, and chartered special needs consultant, who may be able to help you, no matter how much you have, or what stage of life you are in. Learn more by visiting
brolinwealth.com or by calling 574-254-7180.
Chris: This is part 2 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.
Woman: Does this map show the Peninsula trail?
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.
Liz: What was your experience like doing the Subaru commercial?
George: I had never done anything like that before in my whole life, so it was all new to me, and it was really cool. I was quote “the talent,” unquote. ‘cause when they hire somebody who is the principle part of something, you become what’s called quote “the talent.” So, the first funny thing that happened was, you go to Wardrobe, somebody, who’s designed this ad, decides what they want the look of the people in the ad to be. So, there’s huge places in L.A. that have just warehouses and warehouses and warehouses full of anything that you could imagine. Clothing, furniture, whatever you need. And so they go to the place that does ward robing, and they say, “These are the people that are gonna be in our ad, these are their sizes, this is the style of clothing, slacks, you know, whatever we’re looking for.” So, I go to the ward robing thing, which is on the first day of the shoot, and everything, and I probably try on 20 different pieces of clothing. All kinds of different pants, and shirts, and Western stuff, and blue jeans, and Torne up stuff, and just all kinds of stuff, and finally, the guy who’s the director, who’s in charge of who’s gonna wear what, he comes back out and he goes, “You know what?” He says, “The clothes that you had on when you walked in here this morning,” he says, “We don’t have anything that looks any better with you on you than that, and that’s exactly the look we’re looking for.” So, I, I, (Laugh.) I wore my own clothes in the ad, which is really crazy. I mean that never happens. But they do pay you 29 dollars and eighty cents a day to wear your own clothes. I don’t know what they pay you to take them off, but I will tell you, they pay you 29 dollars, eighty cents a day to wear your own clothes. so, (Chuckle.) That was, that was pretty funny. I got a huge kick out of that.
Chris: And, what else? Keep going. (Laugh.)
George: Well, um, … it was … it was just a cool experience. You know, you … You say the same things, you know, you know ten thousand times, over and over and over, you, you, you do the same scene, you know, 25 times, the very beginning of the, of the ad is the young couple walks into the little general store, , and the girl walks over to the rack and picks up a map and says, you know, “Is the peninsula trail on this map?” And the, the grumpy old, really curmudgeonly guy behind the counter doesn’t say a word, he just shakes his head “no,” and I’m sitting over in the corner, in a chair by the wood stove, and I say “You won’t find that on a map, I’ll take you there.” And I get up out of my chair, pick up my cane, and walk out the door, and we go get in the Subaru and drive off. We probably did that scene thirty times. I mean I . … (Chuckle.) Maybe even more. You know, you just do it and do it and do it until somebody decides, “Oh yeah, okay, that’s the way we want it to look.” You know, every action in the whole thing was like that. You break things down in little, tiny, bite-size elements. You know, you, you do this little piece, then you do this little piece, then you do this little piece, when they’re done, through the magic of film editing, you know, they put it all together and make one contiguous thing out of it. But it was great. They gave me a big chunk of money, enough money that the building that I’m sitting here in, in Greenville Tennessee that’s mine, I paid cash for it.
Chris: What was it like to buy a commercial building and, I gather you needed to do some fixing up of it once you bought it?
George: Yeah. It was absolutely one foot in the grave and the other one on a banana peal. I had some real specific, besides the fact that I wanted a building big enough to have an art gallery in, you know, my wood shop in, and a place to live, I had some other criteria too. It had to be in a town that was walkable. It had to be in a spot that was visible. It had to be in a place that was, you know, close to amenities, grocery stores, restaurants, doctor’s offices, and those types of things. So, every little town, my friend Sharon and I, we kept a log, and we looked at, I don’t know how many hundreds of buildings, but we actually went inside forty different buildings, you know, looking at buildings to buy, starting over in Memphis Tennessee, coming all the way across the state of Tennessee, over into the very western tip of North Carolina, and then up into the southwestern corner of Virginia, and then into the southeastern corner of Kentucky, there’s a whole ton of little towns over in this area. And we just kept looking and looking and looking. And I was a little bit under the gun to find a place to move because Enchanted Hills only gave me ninety days to get my stuff off of their property after I quit. And all the wood working machinery, tools, and equipment that was at Enchanted Hills that we ran all of our programming off of all belonged to me. It’s all my equipment. So, they were a little bit snotty about it, you know, “You’ve got to have it all out of here in 90 days, bla bla bla.” So I started looking, and I found something. It is exactly what I wanted. The roof was bad, there was no windows left in the building, no heating plant, electrical panel was poor at best, there was really not a functioning bathroom in the building when I bought it, but besides that, it was a fantastic building! Oh, and the termites had really done their job on one corner of it. (Laugh.)
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Liz: What advice do you have, either in general or in terms of starting a career, for other blind people that you may want to share?
George: Never take advice from anybody who doesn’t have some sort of investment in the outcome of their advice they give you. Because you can tell anybody anything, and if the outcome doesn’t effect you at all, it’s real easy to tell someone, “You should go to college and become an X or a y, because that’s what blind people do. They go to college and they get a degree, and then they go off and get a job.” Well, then you go off and you do that, and then you can’t find a job, those people had nothing invested in that. Only you did. So, figure out what you want to do, and then pursue that. Being successful is really hard. Having a job, where people pay you an hourly wage or a salary or whatever, if you go into that job, and you have a bad day, you don’t feel good, you go home, you get your sick pay, really very little consequence to you as to your existence. You know, you come back in the next week, you pick up the stuff that you kind of missed, you know, you go on and you do your job, and you get your paycheck every week. Kaching, kaching, kaching. When you work for yourself, that no longer exists. If I don’t produce product in my shop every day, and put stuff in my gallery, my cash register in my gallery doesn’t go “kaching, kaching.” So, it takes a lot more personal dedication to make your own gig go. But the reward is really good too. The reward is that if I decide tomorrow morning that I want to go get on an airplane and go to L.A to see somebody perform, if I have the cash in the bank, I can do that. No one can tell me “no.” I mean that’s the benefit of working for yourself, but I mean, you don’t get there over night. I spent one huge amount of time, hundred hour weeks once upon a time, building my shop in Traverse City, it was long and hard to get it to where it was. And then, the risk is there too. You know, then you lose the whole thing and you have to start over again. I mean that was pretty devastating. You know, to spend almost ten years of my life building something into what I thought was going to be my life long vocation. Running, you know, Wurtzel Wood Working in Traverse City Michigan. To have that all just jerked right out from underneath you, that’s pretty tough. And then to pick yourself back up and decide that, “What do I do now?” And go right back at it, it’s hard. Don’t let anybody tell you that starting your own business, working for yourself is easy, ’cause it’s not.
Chris: When we talked on the phone, you had some pretty strong opinions about what blind people are capable of when it comes to making money, and ways that we could … we could do that. Do you remember that conversation, and do you want to talk about that a little bit?
George: I’ve had this quote unquote “philosophical” conversation with multitudes of different blind people over my lifetime. People who think that it is demeaning for blind people to make brooms because that’s a blind person job. It’s stereotypical. I mean, you both may be young enough that you don’t remember that there were blind broom makers in the world, but I mean it was one of those things that sheltered workshops or workshops taught blind people how to do. I think the last blind broom maker that I know of is in Indianapolis Indiana, and he put two or three kids through college making his brooms and selling them on the street corner. That probably wasn’t too bad a living. We don’t do anything with teaching blind people about animal husbandry. All the schools for the blind that existed, you know, I want to say pre 1965 anyways, I’m gonna guess with the exception of maybe ones in New York City, or Chicago or something, but all of the schools for the blind, they all had animal husbandry programs. They all taught people how to raise chickens. How to take care of goats. How to milk goats, and, and that. And I don’t know when the last time was that you guys bought a dozen free range chicken eggs, but you pay 6, 7 dollars a dozen for free range chicken eggs. You can go to the grocery store and buy factory made chicken eggs for about a buck and a half a dozen. There’s a pretty big chunk of change in between those two points. That all goes into your pocket. I mean, there is good, I mean really good money raising free range chickens. Now, is it an easy job? No. You’ve got to get out there, you get chicken (sensor beep) on your hands, you’ve got to pick up the eggs, you’ve got to clean them, you’ve got to get them in cartons, you’ve got to get them to whatever the marketplace is, but I mean, that’s all your money. We don’t teach people skills jobs anymore. Because rehabilitation has gone from, people who used to work at rehabilitation centers to teach people blindness jobs, we’ve gone from people who actually knew how to work to people who have college educations. So, I, as a, you know, sixty-year-old guy, I walk into a rehabilitation office for the blind, and say to some twenty-six-year-old kid who just graduated from college, “I want a job,” and the first thing he is gonna say, “Well I think you should go to college.” cause that’s the only thing he’s ever done in his whole life is go to school, so that’s the only thing he knows. And, he has been taught, that’s the easy thing for blind people to do. Go to college, get a degree, get a job. There are people like me who just don’t fit well in the college job market. I cannot work behind a desk. I mean I just can’t, I mean I’ve tried to do it before. I’ve made it 18 months once, working behind a desk, and it just is not me. I want to work with my hands, I want to build stuff, I want to be creative, I, I’ve been in two of the big major shows based purely on the merit of my work. And you submit your slides, you become a number, you get evaluated by the people who are picking the people for the show, and then you get awarded a slot. And then they get to know that you’re no longer number 27, you’re George Wurtzel. And that’s what I’m looking for. Don’t ever tell me that I’m amazing ’cause I can build a piece of furniture. If you want to tell me I’m amazing ’cause I built a really, really cool and fantastic piece of furniture and you judged it against a hundred other people, I’m thrilled to hear that.
Chris: You also talked about how it feels, and what you do, when people reject your bids because you’re a blind person, and that happens from time to time. Can you talk about that a little bit?
George: This comes back to what you think of yourself. Self esteem, how thin-skinned you are about different things, I hear people who wine about the fact they went out, and they applied for jobs, and they didn’t get the job. I worked in the business where every week, if you’re gonna stay in business anyways, every week, you bid a job. To do Mrs. Smith’s kitchen, to do the bank teller line for First National Bank, you know, to put a new store front on Bill Smith’s store, or whatever, and you submit your bid, and they decide if you’re gonna get the job or not get the job based on somebody making a decision. I always figured, in my business, as a person who was out bidding jobs, if I worked at about an eighty percent failure rate, I was doing really, really good. So, I knew 80 percent of the jobs that I did, I was never gonna get. Eighty percent failure rate. So you get really used to failure. And you don’t let it bother you anymore. Because it’s absolutely impossible for you to have a hundred percent success rate in bidding jobs ’cause it’s physically impossible for you to do that amount of work. So, I have had people tell me right, point blank to my face, “I’m not gonna hire you for this job because I don’t think you can do it because you’re blind.” And my first gut reaction is to say something rather unpolite and politically incorrect, and then, the rest of me says, “You know, there’s a lot of other work out there. I’ve lost jobs for who knows what reasons whatsoever. You don’t like my work, that’s fine and dandy. Go somewhere else.” And you have to learn to accept those kinds of things. You can’t let it bother you. You can be momentarily hostile towards the person, but that really won’t do you any good. But if I get the job, I’ll be really thrilled about it. If I don’t get the job, I’ve got other things to do. I’m not gonna lose any sleep over it. What battles do you want to fight? Is the other thing. And as I’ve got older, I’ve also taught myself, ’cause it … it really took teaching, and nothing else, to look at things and say, sometimes, “Do I want to be happy, or do I want to be right?” And I’ve decided in the last, you know, twenty years especially, that I’d much rather be happy. If I’m not right, that’s okay. You know, I’m gonna take, especially now, I’m gonna take the happy every time.
Female Announcer: We’ll continue our interview in a moment. But first, …
Male Announcer: When it comes to money, do you feel a little lost? When you’re in an unfamiliar financial environment and need a hand in understanding the lay of the land, Penny Forward is here to help. We provide affordable one on one and group financial education programs that give you the confidence to get out there and achieve your goals. Visit
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Liz: Is there something you’d like to talk about? Visit
to learn how you can contact us, and send us a voice mail that we may share on air.
Chris: We’ve got a question from a listener, who submitted it via our Speakpipe voice mail system on
and I’m gonna play it for you now.
Listener: Yes. Ask George about coming from Michigan to Hickory North Carolina to enroll in the furniture program at Catawba Valley community college in Hickory NC, and his meeting with the head of the department there.
George: I should know who that is and I can’t think of their name.
Chris: That question comes from Nick.
George: Oh, from Nick. Okay. Okay. I touched on this right at the very beginning, about wanting to make sure I graduated from a quote unquote “regular high school,” right? So, when I decided I wanted to go back to college, my shop had just crashed, I was trying to decide what to do, I researched in the country and I found what I thought was the best fit for me. I was too poor to go visit the school and examine it before I went there. So, I sent my transcripts to Catawba Valley college, and got accepted into their furniture production program based on my high school transcripts and the few little college classes that I had already taken, and then I had also submitted a small portfolio of work that I had already done. So, I get to Catawba Valley college, and, the very first day, and I go in, and I meet with my scholastic advisor person, who happened to be the head of the furniture department. And I walk into his office, and I’m not in his office more than, you know, 90 seconds. And he says, “I see that you have a cane.” He says, “Do you have a vision issue?” And I said “No, I don’t have a vision issue, I’m totally blind.” And he goes, “I think we have a problem.” And I said, “We have a problem? I don’t have a problem.” I said, “I know why I’m here, I know what I want to do.” And he goes, “Well, this program that you’ve signed up for is to learn how to run big pieces of industrial wood working equipment, and how to work in a furniture factory, not a little basement workshop.” And I said “Yeah. I understand that. That’s why I’m here. That’s what I want to learn how to do.” And he goes, “But … but you’re blind. I don’t know how you’re gonna do that.” And I said to the gentleman, I said “You know, when I shook hands with you, I noticed that you only have a thumb and one finger on your hand.” And he goes, “Yeah, that’s right.” And I said “How did that happen?” He says, “Well, it was in a woodworking accident in a furniture factory.” And I said, “Are you blind?” And he goes, “No I’m not blind!” And I said, “So, what you’re telling me is, being blind has nothing to do with cutting your fingers off then. Is that correct?” And there was dead silence on his side of the table. And I said, after the pregnant pause had gone away, I said to him, “You know, the only thing I’m looking for from you and your school is the same opportunity to cut my fingers off as you had.” And that was the end of that … it was the end of that discussion over … (Laugh.) If I was gonna be in their furniture program or not. I was gonna pull out the next card in my deck, which was, “Do you receive federal funding, and if you receive federal funding for your college,” (Laugh.) “You’ve pretty much got to let me in no matter what you think.”
Liz: Is there anything else that you would like to share with the listeners that we didn’t ask you, but you think we should know?
George: Well, this is my personal plug, my personal advertisement. So I’m getting up on my soap box right now, I’m looking down upon all of you from my Purch here, and telling you that I’m about to go into an endeavor that I consider to be the most significant thing that I’ve done so far in my life. I’ve built a lot of stuff for a lot of people, I’ve done a lot of things, and I’ve done some really cool stuff. I’ve been a paralympic athlete, taken an adventure trip across Northern Europe, raised and trained and, you know, rode horses, and done all kinds of crazy, really cool things. But one of the things that I’ve wanted to do for the last ten years, and have not brought to fruition is, I would like to do some sort of tribute to Hellen Keller, who, it just happens to be her hundredth birthday year. And I am building one hundred reproductions of Hellen Keller’s library table/desk that she sat at in her house and did a lot of her writing and her work from. Her house burned down in 1947. So, this desk that I’m building a reproduction of no longer exists. There is a desk at the American Printing House for the Blind in Louisville Kentucky that’s on display and is labeled “Hellen Keller’s desk,” but that was given to her by the New York desk company sometime around 1950or so after her house burned down and she was, you know, rebuilding a place to live. And we found a photograph of Hellen sitting at her library desk table in her house, and we took the photograph to some experts at a convention, and passed it around to them all, and determined that this desk that Hellen is sitting at is a furniture piece built by Allen JG Stickley, probably built between 1913 and 1915, and I am going to build one hundred reproductions of her desk, I’m going to bring hopefully, over the course of one year, approximately one hundred blind and deafblind people to my shop here in Greenville Tennessee, and they are going to have the opportunities to be co-builders with me on one hundred desks. Each person who participates will sign one of the desks as a co-builder along with my name. And then we’re gonna sell the desks, and the proceeds from the desks are gonna go in to the American Foundation for the Blind, and it’s going to go into the Hellen Keller scholarship fund, earmarked for people who want to do non traditional jobs. Potters, weavers, singers, poets, wood workers, whatever that may be.
Chris: Wow! And we love the American Foundation for the Blind. We had Dr. Kirk Adams on awhile back, so people can still find that on the podcast if they want to hear that interview. George, where can people get in touch with you or find out more about you if they want to?
George: If you google “George Wurtzel,” (Harty laugh.) That’s all you’ve got to do. I don’t know how someone gets a Wikipedia page, ’cause I didn’t have anything to do with it, but I even have a Wikipedia page. I have no idea where it came from, how it came to life or anything like that, but my email address is
My Facebook presence, the very best Facebook presence that has all of the super cool photos and everything that’s happening with my building and all the things that I make and market at the time, is George the Subaru Guy, and then I have a Facebook page that is also just George Wurtzel. Anybody in the world is looking for me, it is not hard for them to find me. I have a friend of mine who was looking to figure out how to set up a piece of machinery to help one of her blind students in the shop class, and she’s a teacher consultant and everything. She goes, “It doesn’t matter what you type in “blind and wood working” into Google, you get George Wurtzel.” (Laugh.) So, …
Chris: Well, that is pretty cool, and we’ll put links to some of the most common sites, including the Wikipedia page that I didn’t know about, into the show notes. And if you want to get in touch with us, and maybe have us get in touch with George on your behalf, you can do that by going to the Contact Us form on
or joining the Penny Forward Facebook group and throwing something in there, and we’ll be happy to do that for you. George, thanks for being here. It’s been really fun.
George: Thank you very much. I had fun doing it. I’m a very open person, if you ever have any woodworking questions, if you want to decide you want to pursue woodworking as your vocation, show up at my house, and bring me beer money, and I will teach you everything that I know. If you want me to teach you, you better get at it soon, though, ’cause I’m getting old.
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. 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
to learn more about who we are and what we do.
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.