The Van Wert County Courthouse

Wednesday, Jun. 19, 2024

George Brake: American original

The Van Wert Solid Waste Management lost its director and a good man last week. Van Wert County lost an icon.

For the last quarter century, George Brake personified conservation and recycling not just for our county, but also for much of the state. Earlier this week, a delegation from a nearby six-county consortium visited our office in a good will effort to help us envision our future without George. Four of five times, they ended trains of thought at “well, George kind of created that program, too.” Their final conclusion was that we were going to need a director and a consultant to replace him and that still wouldn’t get us there.

By County Commissioner Todd Wolfrum
By County Commissioner Todd Wolfrum

I didn’t know myself until I read the stories about George in the press last week that he had actually started the recycling center from scratch. His wife, Kathy, relates that the first time she went to have lunch with him all those years ago at the site where the recycling center now sits, there was just a box truck and a pile of mulch.

“I asked him where we were going to eat and he said ‘right here’, meaning in the truck,” she said.

Raised by a single mother of six, George had a lean childhood. It is difficult, and maybe unnecessary, to look into a man’s past to try and decipher what made him extraordinary. Growing up with little in the way of material things, though, certainly must have affected his approach to the world later in life. Perhaps in a life of plenty it’s easy to throw things away.

Graduating in 1975 from Van Wert High School, Brake was focused more on music and ideas than a career. In 1977 when he met Kathy, he was working part-time at The Tavern in Convoy, a job he preferred because in the slow times the owner didn’t mind if he played his guitar or read a book.

“When I met him, he was a long-haired hippie and I fell in love with him at first sight,” Kathy said. “Even the night I met him he had just come from helping someone; that’s just who he was. He had helped pull a Buick out of a ditch in the snow with his 1971 Beetle.”

George and Kathy were married in 1979 and, like many young idealists, he soon became reconciled to the fact that he needed gainful employment, first at the old Borden’s factory and then in construction. It wasn’t until the late Eighties that he answered an ad in the paper for a job at the Van Wert Soil and Water Conservation District and began what would be a visionary career in conservation. His efforts at the Van Wert SWCD led to much of the no-till farming and rows of windbreaks set up across the county in that period. “He could have just taken that job and sat behind a desk, but that wasn’t George,” Kathy said of her husband.

He had found a calling and his efforts didn’t go unnoticed. When a group of politicians in the mid-1990s, including the commissioners of that day, wanted to start a recycling center, they approached Brake, who initially turned the job down. He liked what he was already doing. But after a few more meetings, his plans for what would become the recycling center began to take shape in his mind and he accepted.

Around that time he also started attending church for the first time. He would become as passionate about his involvement in Ohio City Church of God as about the recycling center, eventually becoming involved in jail ministries.

“He took to heart that we are God’s servants,” Kathy said. “He was always a servant in his own mind. He always told our kids that. That’s what defined him more than anything.”

Starting with just the truck where he and Kathy had had lunch, he would wait until the truck was filled, mostly with paper, and drive the loads to Fort Wayne after hours, beginning a pattern of putting in unbilled time for the county that would continue throughout. In the last months before his death, unbeknownst to our office, he was working past midnight for several weeks rebuilding the platform on the sorting line. Most people would have just come to us and asked for money to have it repaired and we would pay for it. But George Brake never wasted anything, including taxpayer money.

He grew the recycling center into the multiple-building, several-acre complex it is today, with the capacity to recycle just about anything you would normally throw away. Van Wert’s Solid Waste District is an oddity — counties of our population are generally in a consortium to save costs. Brake did better with what he had than most consortiums do with twice the resources, finding ways to make money on the products wherever he could, but also finding ways to recycle items that didn’t make money just to provide the service and keep as much out of landfills as possible. He was underpaid — extremely underpaid if real value is considered — but I think he knew that if he made any more, that would only be less money available to put towards the overall project.

His shoestring budget required employing people at lower wages, which meant the working conditions had to be made enjoyable.

“He always told people he hired that he wanted this to be a first job,” Kathy said. “A way to step up to the next one in a year or two. He tried to give people an opportunity with the jobs he had there. He tried to build employees up like he did his own kids.”

Brake, the father of five children, had to sell his wife on having the first one after eight years of marriage. Kathy joked that in another life George could have been a cult leader because he could very calmly talk anyone into anything.

“The guy everyone knew in public, that was the same guy we had at home,” she added. “In all of those years of raising children, I can count on one hand the number of times I heard him raise his voice.”

George Brake’s life was full of odd coincidences. George and Kathy were married on April 22, 1979. Entirely unintentionally, they made their vows on the ninth anniversary of Earth Day, a day to celebrate conservation and recycling. In another strange alignment, Cows and Plows, one of the more public of the many programs Brake helped create, went on during the day of his funeral viewing. There was a certain serendipity to George Brake’s life that leads one to think that the freak accident that took his life on the roadway was part of a larger celestial plan. Really, it’s the only thing that makes any sense.

POSTED: 10/10/15 at 8:00 am. FILED UNDER: Opinions