Kurt Gerrish — serial entrepreneur, successful businessman, auto racer, Woodstock Chamber of Commerce director, avid sportsman, family man, and community servant — was constantly on the move, ever seeking new challenges.
In phone conversations earlier this week, friends, coworkers, former employees, and community leaders shared their memories of Gerrish, who passed away on April 29 at the winter home in Jupiter, Fla. that he shared with his wife Phyllis, the love of his life for the past 31 years. Kurt, 85, was remembered as a man of boundless energy, wit, wisdom, and a passion for Woodstock and the Upper Valley.
Gerrish’s father, Kenneth, brought his family to Woodstock in 1957, purchasing a small Chevrolet dealership in what is now the town fire station. After graduating from Bucknell University, young Kurt worked briefly in plumbing sales in New York before joining the family automobile dealership at the age of 23. Over the course of the next 55 years, Kurt Gerrish — a classic car aficionado if there ever was one — would preside over a flourishing empire of auto dealerships in Woodstock and the Upper Valley region of Vermont and New Hampshire that proffered vehicles from manufacturers ranging from Chevy and BMW to DeLorean, Volkswagen, Porsche, Audi, and most recently — until Gerrish sold his last dealership and retired in 2016 — Honda.
Longtime employee Steve Atti, who joined the Gerrish automotive team in the late spring of 1985, remembered Kurt as a hard-working, fair, and attentive employer whom he’d come to consider as a valued friend and mentor throughout his life.
Atti shared a humorous story that illustrated Kurt Gerrish’s dogged attention to detail and quality workmanship. “I remember taking all the time in the world working on this one particular car — it was like a day-and-a-half and I was so happy with it. And Kurt came up and there was this little rubber piece on the front bumper of a [Porsche] 911. He lifted it up, put his finger down, and said, ‘You missed a spot,’” Atti remembered, cracking up. “He had a great sense of humor.”
“Kurt became more of a father figure for me because he just had this wit about him,” Atti continued, remembering Gerrish fondly. “He was very resilient because he had been through quite a lot in his lifetime. And even though I didn’t realize the dynamics of it then, I do now and I’m very appreciative of everything he did for me — and I told him that when I last spoke with him two months ago.”
Woodstock dentist Dr. David Laughlin and his wife, Janet, spoke Sunday evening about their friend Kurt Gerrish, with whom Dave Laughlin drove as part of the Gerrish Auto Show Racing Team in the late 1980s.
“We were using the Honda CR-X, which was a very nice race car,” Laughlin recollected. “It handled wonderfully; it was great fun.” The pair, along with two other drivers and a pit crew, raced in Car #32 as part of the International Motor Sports Association’s Firestone Firehawk Endurance Series, taking part in often-grueling endurance events on tracks ranging from the New Hampshire International Speedway to Watkins Glen in upstate New York to Lime Rock in Connecticut and their favorite, Road America, near Sheboygan, Wis.
“We’d travel in Kurt’s motorhome and pull the Honda on a trailer behind us,” Laughlin remembered, the warmth of the 35-year-old memory palpable in his voice. “We always said we had more fun than anybody should be allowed to have. We laughed and we howled and went to races all over the country.
Bill and Mitzi Davis, much like Dave Laughlin, knew Gerrish for well over four decades. Fort Worth, Texas residents who’ve summered in Woodstock since 1978, the Millers’ lives are intricately intertwined with the Gerrish family. Bill and Mitzi’s daughter, Wendy, who now co-owns and operates a horse ranch north of Ft. Worth with her sister, was an active equestrian at the Green Mountain Horse Association in South Woodstock in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It’s there that Wendy met Stacey Gerrish, Kurt’s daughter, who was to become a lifelong friend and, it turns out, a sister-in-law: Wendy is married to Scott Gerrish, Kurt’s son and Stacey’s brother. The longtime Miller-Gerrish friendship is thus a thoroughly family affair.
Bill Davis spoke warmly of his friend and now relative by marriage, particularly noting Gerrish’s oft-cited sense of humor. “His principal business was that car dealership,” Davis commented. “And there was no end to his wry sense of humor about various customers that came in to buy cars. He was always so engaging.” Mitzi Davis also remembered Gerrish’s ownership of the former Woodstock East Marketplace auto dealership and retail complex on Route 4 at the eastern edge of Woodstock Village, which included the Green Mountain Craftsman and Antiques business the ever-entrepreneurial businessman started with two other Woodstock friends, Ron and Pam Jaynes, in the 1970s.
“Kurt was interested in lots and lots of things,” Mitzi Davis said. “And he was interested in all people. He was a great friend, father, and grandfather. We learned and laughed together through many happy years,” to which her husband Bill added, “[Kurt] was constantly casting about for things to absorb his imagination, engaging his imaginative mind in the world around him.”
The Jayneses, friends of Kurt Gerrish’s for more than 50 years, were those long-ago business partners outside the automotive realm to whom Mitzi Davis, Kurt’s daughter Stacey, and the Laughlins referred repeatedly in conversations over the past several days.
“I’m a retired building contractor,” Ron Jaynes said on Monday, “and Kurt and I first met when he was finishing up Woodstock East in the early 1970’s.
“Kurt was a very Type-A personality, go, go, go,” Jaynes said of his friend of five decades’ duration. “Sometimes I was his client, such as when we would buy automobiles, and sometimes he was mine. I worked at his house, I worked at Woodstock East. One thing I learned about Kurt Gerrish over the years is that you just couldn’t keep up with him,” Jaynes concluded.
“The rest of us would just be in awe of his energy and enthusiasm and accomplishments. It was tough to keep up with. Every new idea was the best idea in the world and here we go – bang!”