Jamie Howell works on the “Gee Whiz” soundtrack.
Filmmakers Jamie Howell and Jeff Ostenson never met Grady Auvil, yet they know the legendary orchardist well.
"If we could sit down with him for coffee, we could tell you everything that would happen—the tip he would leave, the topics the conversations would be, pretty much his opinions on politics," Ostenson said.
"We’d know what time he got up and how fast he drove to get there," Howell added. "It’s unique to know so much about someone and not know them."
The two have spent the best part of two years delving into the life of the Orondo, Washington apple grower, for a biographical film entitled Gee Whiz: The Story of Grady Auvil that will premier during the Washington State –Horticultural Association’s annual –convention this month. Auvil, who was active throughout his life, died in December 1998, at age 93.
The filmmakers, who own Howell at the Moon Productions in Wenatchee, Washington, interviewed more than 30 people, pored over Auvil family archives, and found video and audiotapes of Auvil himself.
It was interesting to sit down with all those people and hear different perspectives on one man, Howell said. "Some people held him in the highest regard, and others were rubbed the wrong way."
"But every single one respected him," Ostenson added.
Auvil wasn’t reluctant to speak his mind, and in his old age could be contentious, they found out. He didn’t hesitate to announce to the world that "Red is dead," at a time when Red Delicious still made up two-thirds of the Washington apple crop.
"I thought there would be more detractors," Ostenson said, "But, overall, everybody had something good to say about him, and some people said phenomenally good things about him."
A notebook of "Important Thoughts" that Auvil had kept over the years gave the producers invaluable insights into Auvil’s philosophy on life.
"There are not many things money can do for you that are good for you," was one of his observations.
"Making money in business is simple and easy—all you have to do is take in more than you pay out," was another.
Howell began the project thinking that Auvil had some unique business philosophies. "I was drawn by his openness with information, and I was drawn by his approach to his labor force. He really felt compelled to pay well and provide them with all of the perks that he could to keep the best possible employees around.
"That was definitely borne out," Howell said. "He was open to a fault, some people would say."
Their inquiries also confirmed that he was not obsessed with money. "The fact that he had made money was simply evidence that his systems were working," Howell noted. "He wanted things to be efficient and productive. He wanted to figure out a better way to do something, and if he had done something right, money was the result."
But there were revelations, too.
"I guess he was more dictatorial around his employees than I was aware of," Howell said. "He was hard to work for in the sense that if you worked hard and were fully committed to his way of doing things, you could do very well, but if you disagreed or argued or slacked, you were not in a very good place."
"The thing I found impressive about him was his ingenuity," Ostenson commented. "He was smart and capable, like a lot of farmers are, but he kept going. He really started his peak at 65, when most people retire. He worked pretty much full time until he was 90. He did his best work between the ages of 65 and 90."
Auvil was not simply focused, though, on his own business. Whenever he spoke at an industry meeting, such as the Hort Convention, it was to explain ideas that the whole industry could benefit from.
"He really believed that if he could help the industry be more healthy, that would in turn help him," Ostenson said. "I think that’s a little counter intuitive to what you see today. A lot of folks are focused on the success of their business and their bottom line. I don’t think he was looking at Auvil Fruit Company as the ultimate bottom line, though I would not say he was –completely philanthropic. He was doing these things to help himself, but doing it in a way to help the entire industry."
Howell said Auvil had no fear of competition because he knew he was so far ahead, yet he was always looking for the next great thing. "He just had that spark," Howell said. "He was not cowed by anything, whether it was his teachers, father, brothers, family, or industry. He really believed in himself—’I have the intellectual capacity to figure this out, and I don’t need to be afraid.’ He just went forward. He made mistakes, and he absolutely refused to fixate on them."
Auvil profited from a series of smart moves, combined with good luck, and was able to build on his success, Ostenson noted. "We all know you need money to make money. As he was successful with Granny Smith, it gave him money to invest in the next successful variety he went after, Fuji. It was really an upward spiral of success."
But he was disgruntled with the state of society and declared that politics in the United States were in a sorry state, with national politicians spending too much time blaming each other rather than solving problems. Auvil contributed to many political campaigns and community causes, and by the end of his life was giving away huge amounts of money, including at least $40,000 to the Stanley Civic Center where the Hort Convention is held.
During the Great Depression, Auvil had to work for others at 40 cents an hour, as well as run his own orchard, in order to make ends meet, Ostenson said, but he ended up a multimillionaire.
"He was basically a rock star. What I found amazing was he didn’t leave Orondo much. He didn’t want to move outside his little sphere of where he lived and grew things." But he was frequently featured in the media, and people came to him from all over the world.
"No one will argue that he didn’t have a sizeable ego," Howell said. "He did. There was not a sense that he wanted to be in the press just to be in the press, but he was absolutely willing to share what he thought would be the next best thing."
The 30-minute film was created in affiliation with the Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center with a budget of $124,000.
Howell said KCTS television in Seattle has expressed interest in broadcasting the movie.