Gene Could Fix Anything
by Steve Merritt

(Gene's son-in-law)

Gene could fix anything.

I’ve learned this over the years, and I’ve tried to grow my own fix-it skills by emulating his.

Gene never ceased to amaze me with his ability to fix things. He was a mechanical engineer by training of course, but his skills went far beyond that. And his fix-it abilities applied across a wide range of topics.

If something in our house was broken and the way to fix it was not immediately obvious to me, my first call would always be to my father-in-law Gene. “Gene, I’ve got this water pipe in the basement with a hole in it”— “Hmmm,” he would say, giving him the one or two seconds of time he needed to think of the most elegant and practical solution… “try a rubber sleeve and two hose clamps.” Brilliant! It never leaked again.

I remember one time visiting Gene when he was working to keep the city of Poth’s water supply on-line and in compliance with EPA rules. He was working on a Chlorination system—changing out valves, injections pumps and the like. (Apparently, this was part of the job description when you are mayor.)

Anyway, he was working with chlorine gas. Now I spent my career working in health and safety in the energy industry, and I know that this is something that can be quite dangerous if not handled properly. Gene respected the hazard of the chlorine, but it didn’t slow him down one bit: he could fix it. And he did.

Shortly after Carrie and I were married, we bought a vacation home together with Gene and Clay in Truckee California, in the Lake Tahoe area. We started an annual Truckee tradition of having a backyard barbecue and camping sleep-over for the Fourth of July.

Well, actually, Gene and Sonia had begun the barbecue tradition many years earlier when, together with friends, they started the San Antonio Dog Training Club. So we were really just extending their tradition now in Truckee. Gene loved to slow cook chickens with his secret sauce while enjoying a beer or two. Or maybe three.

Our first barbeque in Truckee was a challenge. How were we going to slow cook chickens for 30 people with no grill too cook on? Build an in-ground rock-lined barbecue grill. Of course!... Why didn’t I think of that? Gene could fix this problem.

Speaking of the dog club, Gene loved dogs. And they loved him too-- He always seemed to develop a special relationship with our dogs. When he would visit us, Mallory-- the chocolate lab we had early in our marriage-- would follow Gene around and wait patiently for him to scratch her ears. Our current dog Lucie—a Vizsla-- did the exact same thing. Gene and Lucie had a special bond.

On the subject of Vizslas, if you are not familiar with the breed, they were imported from Hungary… Did you know that back in the 60s Gene and Sonia bred some of the very first Vislas in the United States? The breed is hugely popular now. Gene and Sonia were clearly ahead of their time.

I think Gene learned to fix stuff from working in his father’s garage on the square in Poth while he was growing up. There’s a picture of the Maeckel Garage on the memory table. He would tell me stories about how they could fix just about any problem on just about any car. This is most likely what led to Gene’s life-long love of the automobile… more on that in a minute.

Gene shared what he knew about fixing things as well. Just a couple of years ago, before she headed off to college, he gave his granddaughter Jillian a 2-hour lesson on basic auto mechanics.

Of course, Gene could fix people problems too, and this was no doubt his most important skill. Over the years, whenever Carrie was upset, she’d immediately get on the phone with her Dad. He had a knack for looking at things in a way that made them seem less bad than they seemed when you first described them to him. Invariably she would hang up in a better mood. Me too.

In addition to fixing things, Gene saved things.

In many respects, he was a visionary. Gene liked to tell us that he was re-using and recycling things way before it was fashionable.

One year he gave his granddaughter Sydney a birthday girl pin. When asked where it came from, he said, smiling, “you don’t want to know.”

I guess if you can fix anything, and you know it, then there’s really no reason to throw anything out. This may not be the best example, but take the old hot tub currently on Clay’s back porch. Gene always thought he could repurpose it as a watering trough for cattle. Like I said: a visionary.

Gene never threw anything away. He collected all kinds of stuff over the years—from coins to aluminum cans to vacuum cleaners. Carrie always said he would buy buildings not necessarily as an investment, but because he needed a place to keep all of his “treasures.” There is definitely some truth to that.

Speaking of buildings, Gene always saw the value in real estate. He and Sonia bought their first home in San Antonio back in the late 50s, and many people thought they were paying way more than they should have for a young engineer working at an electric utility. Something like five thousand dollars! But Gene knew it would only go up in value. And over the years it most certainly did.

More important than just investing in real estate, Gene would always improve the properties he bought.

One of the buildings on the square in downtown Poth—the EB Poth building-- was a dilapidated old hardware store when he got it. But Gene had a vision: he hired an engineer and an architect and completely transformed it-- turning it into what is today a thriving community, with numerous tenants.

I mentioned earlier that Gene loved cars. Well, with one exception, he never got rid of any car. The story is that he sold one of the first cars he owned—an MG-- and he always regretted it. So from that point on, he never sold another car. He had to keep buying more barns and other buildings to store all of them.

One of the best examples is the 1953 Jaguar that Gene bought in 1954 and he and Clay recently finished restoring. You can understand why he kept the Jaguar; he picked up Sonia on their first date in it.

But perhaps the most notable thing that Gene saved was our knowledge of the past: history. As we all know, Gene loved history—especially Texas history, and especially Wilson County history. He spent basically his whole life in Poth and he was always excited when he discovered something new—something or someone that was not widely known or talked about, but noteworthy nonetheless.

Whenever I was doing a home improvement project with Gene—and there were a lot of them-- he would invariably talk about something that happened in Texas in the 1800s – or the 1600s-- and how it related to something happening today. History was a life-long passion for Gene: you will hear a lot more about his contributions a little later.

In addition to fixing things and saving things, Gene also built things:

He built rock walls at our home in Truckee. One of my fondest memories of Gene is the countless hours we spent together methodically and carefully stacking rocks, and slowly—over the years-- turning the lot from a jumble of boulders and random rocks into a neatly manicured yard. Clay reminded me that Gene’s rock wall building skills started with he and Sonia’s first home in Shavano Park. and while that house has been replaced, some of the rock walls he built are still there.

More significantly perhaps, he spent a good part of his career building power plants—both in Texas and then later in Mexico. Some of Gene’s best stories came from the time he spent in Mexico. He also was part of a team that designed one of the largest steam turbine blades in the world when he was working at Allis Chalmers in Milwaukee in the 50s.

Gene also built communities. He was a strong believer in public service and he always said “if you don’t like the way something is going, then get involved and fix it.” Over the years he volunteered for, and led many community and historical organizations—too many to list—and he was the Mayor of Poth for over 10 years.

In every group he was a part of, Gene loved to engage in spirited conversation—some might even say he liked to argue. Despite his love of verbal sparring, Gene built consensus in every organization he led. He keenly understood the importance of bringing people on board in order to move forward.

Gene also built relationships.

One of my all-time favorite memories of my personal relationship with Gene was Friday Martini Nights. We spent countless Friday afternoons and evenings discussing politics or history while sipping on a martini. Or two.

But at the end of the day, the most important thing that Gene built was a strong family. He and Sonia raised Clay and Carrie as close-knit family that relied on each other.

We were going through pictures the other night to prepare for this memorial, and it struck me that the Maeckel family did everything—from dog training to home repairs to family vacations—together. In fact, with one exception-- when our daughter Sydney was 1 week old, Gene, Sonia, Clay and Carrie spent every single Christmas together as a family.

Gene Maeckel was a man who fixed things, saved things and most importantly, built things. Everything he touched or got involved with, he made better. And knowing him made all of our lives richer. We will miss him more than I can imagine.