When Navy sailor Bill Gronau was 19, a massive wave swept him off the deck of a destroyer. He’s here today thanks to that same destroyer, which gradually turned around and retrieved him.
“When you’re swimming by yourself in the Atlantic Ocean, watching that ship go away, you get a real bad feeling,” Gronau said.
Nonetheless, he and his wife, Adrianne, just returned from a cruise to Alaska. Now they’re making plans to go to the Panama Canal.
“Cruises are more of a retired person’s activity compared to mountain climbing,” said Gronau, who has summited all but 13 of the 100 highest peaks in Washington, many with his oldest son, Mark.
Gronau, a retired manufacturing engineer who worked for Boeing for 34 years, has been active his whole life. Now, at age 73, the Mukilteo resident tailors his activities to his abilities.
In August 1994, for example, he broke his leg climbing Mount Formidable with a friend.
“I laid there overnight and was rescued the next day, about noon. There weren’t good flying conditions for the helicopter and I saw it flying up and down the canyon. I climbed down to a rock and waved my blue windbreaker,” he said.
His signal worked, but there was more trouble.
“The helicopter couldn’t land, so a Navy rescuer tied me into a 200-foot rope, and they swung us out over 3,000 foot on the end of a rope.”
They took him to a Mount Vernon hospital, where an orthopedic surgeon suggested that he insert a pin to secure the broken bone.
“But I felt that a pin would hamper my ability to climb. And I wanted to be ready by the next spring.”
Sure enough, he was back at it, peak bagging, living by his climbing motto: “There are too many mountains to climb once to climb one of them twice.”
Now, he’s been retired from climbing for about a decade and has taken up geocaching to stay active.
Geocaching is an intellectual and physical treasure-hunting sport that can take you almost anywhere: a city, a park, or even a mountain trail. You go online to find the coordinates of a hidden container, called a “cache,” and then use a GPS device, smartphone app or old-school navigation technique to get to it. Once an item is found, you can take it and leave another item behind or simply sign your name on a log inside.
There are caches all over Everett.
“Looking for little containers with GPS coordinates is a little less demanding than mountain climbing,” Gronau said.
He considers each one found a small achievement, and he’s amassed a long list of achievements in his life.
“I am the type of person that’s never been involved in team sports or things that are team-oriented. I set individual goals. I would perform in one area and when life situations changed, I would find another goal and pursue that one,” he said.
“I was the Washington state archery champion in 1966. I was a competitive bridge player. I played in the state chess championships — I got pounced, but I could perform at that level; I could go, play and not be ashamed. I ran in 12 marathons. Climbed most of the mountains in Washington state, the Matterhorn in Switzerland.”
His hobbies adapted with life stages and circumstances. As a competitive archer, for instance, he lasted only two years. By age 27, he had four children.
“I realized — I can’t do this. There just isn’t time with four kids,” he said.
Instead, he focused his time on his family and his job at Boeing.
“Boeing was pretty much the only job I ever had in my life.”
He started in Renton in 1965, but a promotion in 1968 moved him to a small office building with a handful of employees at what is now the Everett Boeing factory. At the time, construction workers were still breaking ground on the factory’s foundation.
“I was one of the first employees transferred to Everett. To the best of my knowledge, I had worked in Everett longer than anyone else by the time I retired. All of the people who started with me no longer worked from Everett. They moved on,” he said.
Boeing flew him all over the world: Milan, Bangkok, Singapore, Tokyo. He’s seen most of the large cities in Europe, Asia and South America and about one-third of the large cities in Africa.
“I was part of a small crew that went out and fixed an airplane if it was damaged somehow. If a wing tip was tore off. I repaired wheels-up landings where the whole bottom was tore off,” he said. “I’m not talking tune-ups. I am talking immense physical damage.”
He worked on many Boeing 747s, about a dozen 767s and one 777 before retiring in 1999. As manufacturing engineer, he was responsible for accumulating the equipment and parts necessary to complete the repair and moving items through customs.
“Consequently, I was often the first person to arrive and the last to leave.”
Gronau cherished his job, earning good money and traveling the world. But repairs often lasted two or three months.
“Really, my wife needs to be congratulated because she raised the kids. My job kept me away much of the time.”