After 30 years as co-owner of a hair and nail salon, Paul Gretschel gave his career a new trajectory, turning his passion for flying into a job with the Federal Aviation Administration.
The Coram resident, who was featured with his brother, James Gretschel, in an Act 2 cover story July 5 in Newsday about people changing careers later in life, died Wednesday, apparently of a heart attack. He was 66.
Gretschel, who grew up in Whitestone, Queens, was a mathematics major at City College of New York, but before graduating he opted for a career cutting hair -- a profession he shared with his brother.
He started hairdressing in 1971. Before opening his own shop, Gretschel worked for Paul McGregor hair salon in Hicksville, while his brother worked for the same firm in Manhattan. Later, the brothers were stylists at nuBest salon in Manhasset. In February 1978, they began a business partnership that lasted three decades, opening Paul James Haircutters in St. James.
While Gretschel enjoyed styling hair, he often talked about learning to fly, said James, who lives in East Setauket. "I pushed him out the door for the first couple of lessons and the rest is history. He loved it, and he kept getting one certification after another." Paul Gretschel began flying in 1982 and about 10 years ago, became a master certified flight instructor, James said.
By the time the brothers sold their salon in 2008, Gretschel had amassed more than 9,000 flying hours, which bolstered his efforts to be hired by the FAA, a spot he coveted.
"Paul was so dedicated to this job that, basically, if we didn't tell him, 'We work eight hours a day,' he'd work 16 hours a day -- he loved the job so much," said Ron Hughes, Gretschel's supervisor at the Flight Standards District Office of the FAA at Republic Airport.
"Paul saw everything one way, and that was the right way," said Hughes, who met Gretschel more than 30 years ago when they were both flying out of MacArthur Airport. "He always did the right thing. He was that way with his children growing up and that way in his dealings with the people who worked beside him."
During Gretschel's five years with the FAA, he was promoted a few times, eventually earning the title of FAA Safety Team program manager, promoting flight safety through seminars on Long Island and upstate, Hughes said.
At work and at home, Gretschel was meticulous about preparation and organization. "He started planning his girls' college education when his wife got pregnant the first time," James said. "We all laughed, but they would have never gotten that education without the [financial] planning that he had done."
Gretschel was proud of his daughters' accomplishments. Alanna Gretschel is an intern for general surgery in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania; Catherine Gretschel, of Sayville, recently graduated from Touro Law School in Central Islip and will take the bar exam.
"He was a great father, a great husband, the best brother in the world and everybody's best friend," James said. "He was my older brother, he was my mentor, my teacher, and he loved me more than any other man in the world," James said. "He reminded me of that all the time."
Other survivors include his wife, Karen; a sister, Cathleen Naftal of Ocala, Florida; and several nieces and nephews.
A viewing will be from 2 to 4 p.m. and from 7 to 9 p.m. Friday at O.B. Davis Funeral Homes, 4839 Nesconset Hwy., Port Jefferson Station. The family requests donations be made to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association at aopa.org.