By Jim Hagerty
One of Rockford’s best-known businessmen has died at the age of 98.
Born Alfonso Graceffa on Dec. 4, 1918, Al Grace opened Al Grace Appliance & TV at 312 9th St., in the early 1960s. There, Grace became Rockford’s source for new and used appliances after already carving a name for himself as a longtime area musician.
The business moved to 811 W. Riverside in 1999.
With Grace the pitchman, the store is a Rockford staple, a flagship local retail business that continues to thrive as big-box stores continue to come and go.
Grace’s “Peanut Sale” campaign, for which he collaborated with numerous Rockford luminaries, became legendary on local TV. The spots earned Grace an ADDY Award from the American Advertising Federation of Northern Illinois in 2016. “The Most Interesting Man in Rockford” was also a notable series of ads.
An immigrant from Sicily, Grace graduated from Rockford Central High School, where the UW Health Sports Factory now sits. He was later drafted into the United States Army during World War II, and was stationed at Rockford’s Camp Grant.
Like other servicemen returning from the war, Grace and wife, Marie, started a family. He worked as an appliance repairman. She was a stay-at-home mom. Grace supplemented the family’s income playing the horn and leading the Al Grace Orchestra.
“That’s really where the name ‘Al Grace’ came from,” Grace’s son Lou Graceffa said. “It was easier to market it by dropping the ‘ffa.’ Every Saturday night, he had a gig someplace.”
The band of sometimes a dozen players performed at country clubs, schools, the downtown Moose club and the Faust Hotel.
Those were the days Graceffa got his start working with his father.
“I would go with him on Saturday afternoons to prep the music stands, set the lights up and put the music out for the guys,” Graceffa said.
Grace stopped playing with the band in 1960. After 20 years working for Wilson Electric, he opened the first Al Grace Appliance in 1962.
“He just did service back then—washer and dryer repairs in homes,” Graceffa said. “It was him and my mother who ran the business. They did a lot of work at night doing the books. He also had a guy inside and my uncle.”
Although Graceffa marks 1971 as the year he began his career, he was long part of the foundation Al laid years earlier. Before he graduated from the University of South Dakota, Lou’s days were spent on service calls, learning the hands-on end of things from his dad.
“He was really the best teacher I could have ever had. I did electrical, plumbing and cut pipe,” Lou said. “I even ran gas pipes. I learned a little bit of everything back then. We had to. I had a brother and sister, and we had to make a living.”
Then came a conversation that would forge the somewhat unplanned course of Graceffa’s life. With a teaching degree in hand, the only thing missing was a job.
Al Grace had the perfect solution for his newly married son.
“He said, ‘Why don’t you come to work for me?’ Lou said. “So, that was it. I started Feb. 1, 1971, and I am still here.”
Over the years, the Al Grace Appliance business plan has remained centered on what Al Grace, himself, possessed—a certain quality not easy to harness.
“The basic thing was personality,” Graceffa said. “He just exuded kindness. People liked him because the No. 1 thing for him was service. People trusted him so much they would leave him the keys to their homes.”
Grace worked into his 90s, until health problems forced him to retire. He had been at East Bank Rehabilitation Center since last December.
He also leaves daughter-in-law, Joan Graceffa; daughter, Sue Born; son, Randy Graceffa; four grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
Visitation is from 5 to 7 p.m., tonight, at Gasparini & Oliveri Funeral Home. Funeral services are at 10:30 a.m., Thursday, at Holy Family Church.