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As he plans to retire for the second time in his life, 91-year-old George Dunckel hesitated when asked why he is finally retiring after 57 years in the school furniture sales business.
"I've had a lot of people ask me, 'When are you going to retire' but nobody's asked me why," he said. "I'm not 37 anymore."
Dunckel, known to friends as "Uncle Dunckel," believes himself to be the nation's oldest active school classroom furniture salesman.
He actually is retiring for the second time in his life. The first was about 20 years ago, when he stepped down from Beckley-Cardy, Inc., where he was furniture and equipment educational director. But he didn't stay retired for long, because his son, Hank, asked his father to become a sales representative at the Dunckel Distributing Company, the Ravenna firm Hank Dunckel founded in 1975.
At 91, Dunckel considers himself to be in good health, and still lives independently in the home where he and his wife, Virginia, raised their children. But Virginia Dunckel suffers from dementia, and both he and his wife have been in the hospital in the past year. Hank, whose brother died in a car crash years ago, does what he can to help his parents, but lives on his own. His father acknowledges that the house is too big for he and his wife now.
Dunckel, a World War II veteran and native of upstate New York, says his start in sales came when he was in high school and successfully "sold" his classmates on his choice for the class ring design. He also had a job at the local A&P, where he sold items like flour and sugar by the pound.
He started in school furniture sales in Schenectady, N.Y. in 1955.
It was a good time to be in the school furniture sales business, because the Baby Boomers were starting to flood the schools, and new buildings were being constructed to keep up with the demand.
"They were building new schools like mad," he said. "When I first started, the schools were using desks with a solid wood top and holes for ink wells. They were made of cast iron and were bolted to the floor."
In 1957, he accepted a position with an Ohio firm and moved to Ravenna, where he worked the territory in Northeastern Ohio. For the next 45 years, he sold furniture to outfit the student center at Kent State University, the Ravenna School District, Cuyahoga Falls City School District and others.
He didn't work in the factories that manufactured the items he sold, but prided himself in being so well-versed on the products in his line that he would travel to factories to see the equipment being manufactured.
Now, schools boast furniture that's shaped like fruits to engage elementary students. Desks are no longer bolted to the floor, and chairs are no longer attached to desks. Lockers changed over the years. Smart Boards went up instead of chalk boards. And instead of holes for ink wells, there were smaller holes for cords associated with electronic equipment.
Another sign of the times came when he was installing equipment at a university, which wanted foldable changing tables for students bringing babies to campus.
Though sales have gone up and down, Dunckel said it's still a good field for a young person to pursue. But it's not for everyone.
"You've got to like people," he said. "If you don't like people, stay away. Knowing your product is essential, and you have to be willing to work hard."
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