A life of bloomers and cookies: Ralph Tack of Bud and Ralph's in Grand Forks reflects on 60 years in appliance repair business
Ralph Tack says his Maytag washing machine still runs like a top after nearly a quarter-century, but it's his 81-year-old dishwasher that's even more impressive.
The longtime technician and founding partner in Bud and Ralph's Appliance Service in Grand Forks says his Louella model not only works like a charm — she's charming, too. And he's been married to her for more than 60 years.
"She washes, and I dry," Tack said with a laugh. "And if she's not there, I wash, too."
Neither would want it any other way.
Besides, he explained: "That's one less thing I have to repair, and it's a good time to shoot the breeze."
Twice retired and this time for good, the 86-year-old is looking forward to spending more time with his great-grandchildren and with his painting hobby.
In well-worn cowboy boots and chewing his trademark Doublemint gum, he spent his final workday Thursday strolling the shop and visiting with customers and colleagues.
Though it was time for that dreaded year-end inventory, it seemed more like an all-day party. Current shop owner Jane Kram, the daughter of Tack's late business partner Bud Olson, started by delivering a pan of his favorite bars straight from the oven. By late morning, another friend stopped by with a jumbo cake — decorated, appropriately enough, with a frosting refrigerator, range and washer/dryer. Still later, there was pizza for lunch.
"All my years here, this is what I do best," Tack said with a smile as he raised his coffee cup in the air. "And I love to eat."
Cookies to computers
In fact, the complimentary coffee and cookies were two of his favorite fringe benefits in the days he still drove the countryside to make service calls up to 100 miles away.
"Back then, the door was always open even if they weren't home," Tack said. "You'd go in and there would be a note on the washing machine, 'There's cookies and coffee.' Oh, I used to love that. Boy, they'd put up some good cookies."
And if he happened to stop by a farm close to the noon hour, he most certainly would be invited to pull up a chair for lunch.
"I maybe did some little thing, and I'd feel guilty," he said. "I didn't come to eat, but they'd say, 'No, sit down. Eat.'"
Tack was born and raised on a farm and later worked on a dairy farm north of Grand Forks before he was drafted and served two years with the U.S. Army in Japan.
Home again, it was 1957 when a friend tipped him off to a job at Maytag Sales and Service in downtown Grand Forks.
"I went over there and, of course, they hired me right away," he said. "Back then, every serviceman in Grand Forks was an ex-farmer. Improvising and fixing machinery, you knew how to handle tools. That's what they figured."
Five years later, Tack joined the service department at Goodman's Home Furnishings in Grand Forks. Olson already had been there since 1955.
The pair opened Bud and Ralph's in 1986. Goodman's was getting out of the service business, so they took most of the crew with them.
Tack says a lot has changed over the 60 years he's been in the business.
"Years ago I could walk into the house and tell you right away what was wrong," he said. "We're not servicemen anymore, we're parts changers."
Fellow technician and son-in-law Bob Burckhard said, "Just because it's new doesn't mean it's better."
Today, it's more about electronics and control boards than mechanics and old-fashioned elbow grease.
"It's the same thing with cars," Tack said. "You open the hood and you darn near have to go to the university to change the oil on it."
Technicians long for the days when they could tackle more traditional headaches.
"We miss the old GE washer with a sock stuck in the pump," Burckhard said with a laugh. "It was very frustrating. But you knew what you were in for, and it was something you could fix."
Beware of bloomers
Struggles or not, the business was never short on good times. Jane's husband and technician Harry Kram reminded Tack of one particular service call from an irate customer suffering the effects of a faulty washing machine.
"I don't know why she was so angry, but she was madder than heck at me," Tack said. "She wanted to know what was wrong, and she wanted me to fix it. I think she could have slapped the snot out of me."
But the shouting woman was silenced suddenly by the sight of her own bloomers.
"I pulled them out of the pump, held them up and said, 'This is what's wrong.'"
She was a large woman, Tack added.
"It looked like a blanket," he said. "That was it. She went upstairs, and I don't think she even said goodbye to me."
Over the years, the company has continued to grow. Jane Kram, who bought out her dad in 1993 and then Tack's share of the business in 2000, said some people were sure the flood would put Bud and Ralph's out of business because everyone had brand-new appliances.
"But we can't keep up," she said. "We're so busy." The phones rang nonstop Thursday as office staff hustled to pick up and schedule service trips. The company employs 12 people and runs three trucks Monday through Friday. The shop also reconditions used washers, dryers, ranges and refrigerators for resale.
The business has stayed strong, but Kram says she might shed a tear when Tack doesn't show up for coffee in the morning. She's known him since she swept the floors at Goodman's as a teenager.
"Ralph was like a dad to me. I've learned so much from him. He was a mentor, and he's seen me through a lot of things," she said. "He always wanted to make sure this business was a success. I hope his legacy goes on for many years to come."