Piped into youth, family, community

Harold’s Plumbing owner Curt Gilbert on retiring: ‘Awesome ride’

“The clubhouse” was Curt Gilbert’s kind of place. Friendly, fun, busy with work and play.

Sports memorabilia decorated the walls and filled display cases next to chrome faucets, shower heads, porcelain toilets and accessories. Plaques of shop-sponsored local youth sports teams sprinkled another wall.

Parts, supplies and file cabinets occupied the back half of the building.

Generations of loyal customers met familiar faces, shared stories, asked and received good service for repairs and projects.

Just the way Gilbert always expected it to be at Harold’s Plumbing, a small shop tucked along West Main Street that has served the Auburn community and neighboring cities since 1951.

“Awesome ride, almost like something you would dream about,” said Gilbert, who retired last week after nearly 10 years as shop owner, having sold the business to one of his employees, Tom Morraitis, to carry on the tradition. “It’s like these guys (sidekicks and employees) here, Scott (Armstrong) and Dean (Fitzsimmons). We all lived in Auburn and went to school together since elementary and junior high. We always referred to this as our clubhouse.

“We’ve known each other since we were kids. In fact, some of our wives are part of that same group that grew up together in Auburn.”

Armstrong added, “It’s like a family thing (here).”

The shop is where Gilbert’s father got his start in the business 60 years ago. Out of the military and eager to learn a trade, William Gilbert eventually became a licensed journeyman plumber under the watch of the man who hired him, Harold Sagen, the original owner.

“He (Sagen) told my dad at that time, ‘Make this a career because you’re good at it. You’ll do this the rest of your life,’ which he did,” Curt Gilbert said. “My dad is 82, and if he could still work with tools, he would.”

When Sagen retired in 1979, his son, Bob, took over the business and ran it until Curt Gilbert, looking to run his own company out of the throes of a crippling recession, bought the place in 2009. Gilbert and his brother, Mike, owned and operated Evergreen State Mechanical in Auburn. Mike continued on with the big commercial business while Curt decided to go out on his own.

When he bought Harold’s Plumbing in January 2009, Gilbert kept the name and its long ties to established clientele.

“People still needed to have things fixed,” Gilbert said of why he took on Harold’s. “New construction went away but repairs didn’t.”

At 16, Gilbert began to do things as a plumber with his father, and, like him, became skilled and able to handle just about any job. It’s what he knew best, self-employed and turning a pipe wrench for more than 40 years.

Returning the favor

Being a business owner also meant giving back to the community, especially for a boy who grew up in Auburn and enjoyed playing sports and being a part of a team in his neighborhood.

Gilbert fondly remembers Louie, a gentleman who owned and operated a downtown gas station and supported youth baseball. Gilbert, 12, an all-star catcher, proudly wore his “Louie’s Shell”-sponsored jersey at play.

“Louie would come to all of our games and sit in the grandstands and watch our games,” Gilbert said. “He didn’t have a child on the team, a grandson, nobody involved. … We would be starting a game, and I would look over in the bleachers and there’s Louie, sitting there, wanting to watch a good baseball game. It was liking owning the Yankees to him. It inspired me to no end.”

It was a gesture he wouldn’t forget.

Gilbert began in 1990 sponsoring local boys and girls sports teams, from Little League to city rec baseball, bowling to cheerleading squads, even kids who competed on motorcycles.

“I was always a sucker for someone 14 years or younger looking for a sponsor. I would help them out,” Gilbert said. “I figure after 14 you’re old enough to help earn your sponsorship.”

When Auburn was making its first-ever appearance in the Little League World Series at South Williamsport, Pa., in 2010, Gilbert was one of the team’s biggest backers. His grandson, Isaiah Hatch, belonged to a explosive-hitting Auburn team that made history.

Green and gold balloons with posters of winning box scores from Auburn’s spree decorated Harold’s exterior. Inside, a large flat-screen TV adorned a wall, tuned into ESPN for score updates.

“It’s pretty impressive on how they have played,” Gilbert said of the 2010 boys of summer in an interview with the Auburn Reporter at that time. “Not just one player has dominated. They’re an 11-man team. They play (with heart).”

A fan of all Seattle sports, Gilbert collected memorabilia over the years from silent auctions and fundraisers to which he donated.

Community has always come first to Gilbert.

“He has been a staple in the Auburn community,” said Carmin Sawyer, one of three daughters Gilbert and his wife of 42 years, Candy, raised. They have 11 grandchildren. “He has done so many great things for so many people. He has always been behind the scenes and never wanted any recognition. He never wants recognition for things he thinks people should already be doing from their heart. … He has the biggest heart.”

Armstrong, a longtime friend, said, “He’s a guy who has made everybody’s life here better. … He’s helped us out in more ways than one.”

Gilbert, who seldom sits and whose cellphone seldom stops ringing, is looking forward to spending more time with family, fishing, travelling and attending NASCAR races.

Gilbert prefers to go out quietly in retirement. While he removed the sports memorabilia from the shop, Gilbert left the 50 or so plaques on Harold’s wall of fame so that customers can drop by and spot a son or a daughter who may be in one of the team photos in the shrine. It’s just one of his ways of saying thanks.

“When I walk out that door this afternoon,” Gilbert said on his emotional last day at work, “it’s not mine anymore.

“It’s an overwhelming day … pride in parting from owning a business in a city I grew up in,” he said.