Where the Arches are Made of Gold
(page 3 of 4)
The Trefz family embodies the quintessential American success story. Their parents immigrated from Heilbrun, Germany, to New Haven in the 1920s with very little money. Trefz Sr. landed a job at Roessler’s and was putting in as many as 65 to 70 hours a week to feed, clothe and shelter his young family.
The boys’ earliest years were spent in New Haven, but when they were 11 and 14, the family moved to West Haven. Both sons inherited their father’s work ethic, and before they were in their teens they were working on truck farms in North Haven that supplied area grocery stores. They did everything from cleaning chicken coops to picking corn.
Ernie says, “We had nothing, so if we wanted money for a pair of jeans or anything, we had to work for it.”
“I was paid 50 cents a day to pick corn from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and the farmer threw in Hostess cupcakes and a soda for lunch,” says Chris, laughing now at the memory of the outdoor sweat shop. “I had good relations with the farm owner and he sent me to Boston periodically to deliver truckloads of cider. Sometimes the truck driver wouldn’t show up so I’d have to drive the truck there and back overnight. I was 15 and didn’t even have a driver’s license. I’d leave after dinner and return by 7 the next morning, just in time to catch the school bus. My parents had no idea that I was not only driving the truck but that I was alone.”
Somehow, Chris Trefz managed to save $131 (yes, he remembers the exact amount) and gave the money to his father, asking him to buy a lawnmower for him with it. Chris then built a cart for the back of his bicycle in which he carried his new green-and-yellow lawn mower around the area, charging $2.50 per lawn, contributing 30 percent of his income to the family budget.
“I also did bike repair,” he recalls. “We lived near a dump. It’s amazing what you can find in a dump. I would assemble three bicycles at a time from the parts I found and then sell them.”
Not to be outdone, Ernie chimes in that he sold Saturday Evening Post subscriptions door to door: “Our parents were struggling. They were both loving parents and our mother stayed home, but our father worked long hours just to make ends meet.”
Perhaps it was this aspect of their characters to which Ray Kroc responded so positively. In later years, when the big man came East twice to visit universities in order to donate to their endowments, he invited the Trefz brothers along. The first trip was to Dartmouth, the second to Yale.
By the time he visited Yale, Kroc was in his mid-80s.
“They had him there all day long, taking him from school to school, where each dean made his pitch,” says Ernie. “The poor man was exhausted. He finally announced, ‘I need a nap.’ So we told him we’d meet him for dinner at Mory’s [‘we’ being Ernie, and his two sons, Chris and Paul]. The three of us waited at a table in Mory’s at the appointed time and finally Mr. Kroc arrived with his Yale guide, who said, ‘Mr. Kroc, the deans want you to dine with them in the upstairs dining area.’ Kroc said, ‘I don’t want to talk to any more deans. I want to just sit here with my friends.’ And he plunked himself down at our table. You did not tell Ray Kroc what to do.”