By Nona Tepper
After 72 years, Thiesse Plumbing closed its doors for good in December 2018, with the economic slowdown and demands of operating a union shop taking a toll on the small family-owned business.
"Things were slowing down, and it's hard to compete with all the non-union guys because we were one of the only union shops left in the area, and union is expensive," Owner Amy Thiesse said. "It's very sad. I feel like I let my dad down."
Thiesse Plumbing was started in 1946 by Leonard Thiesse, a born-and-raised Forest Parker who was the son of German immigrants. Leonard started the shop with his cousin Eddie Cohrs at a house on Circle Avenue. Eventually the business grew and moved to a two-flat at 7750 Monroe, with Thiesse Plumbing located downstairs and Leonard living upstairs. When he wasn't working full-time at his business, he also served as the plumbing inspector for the village of Forest Park.
He raised his son, Peter, with the same traditional German values he was taught: "You work, you save, you work hard, you do the best you can, you're not lazy," recalled Joyce Thiesse, the late Peter's wife. After 30 years, Peter bought the family business.
Peter married Joyce on Dec. 22, 1962, and just days later shipped off as a member of the Navy's Seabees team. His first big deployment was out of the now-closed Davisville base in Rhode Island, where he was sent to Thessalonica in Greece to do desalination and communications work. As they crossed the Atlantic Ocean, there wasn't much plumbing to do, so Peter volunteered to work in the ship's galley, where he cleaned dishes and helped put food out for the officers. To keep their trays from sliding, officers would take a piece of bread, soak it in water, slap it on the table and anchor their plate on it.
When the weather was bad, officers made their own fun. Joyce remembers Peter once smuggled live frogs onto the ship and put a little frog in each man's salad. "They weren't cooked. He said, 'You never have seen so many people toss their salads.'"
Around January 1964, Peter returned to Forest Park, and met his new son, Daniel, for the first time. The growing family lived in a house on the 7700 block of Adams Street, where sons Daniel and Andy and daughters Rachel and Amy were raised just a half block away from the plumbing office.
"For the first five or six Christmases that we lived on Adams, Pete was not home on Christmas in the morning. Somebody needed him because they put something down a disposal they're not supposed to. Same with Thanksgiving," Joyce recalled. "But he loved his work and he loved being a plumber."
Amy remembers spending her summers riding around town in the Thiesse Plumbing trucks. When she wasn't in the truck, she was in the office, helping her family keep the business running, or playing in the back with the company Bobcat and other equipment.
"We didn't have video games or anything like that, we just played outside, had sleepovers, things that the kids don't do these days," she said.
"We grew up, Amy and I, like tom boys," Rachel added. The kids would play hide-and-seek in Thiesse Plumbing's garage, hiding in the five vehicles there.
The business grew and eventually Thiesse Plumbing bought out the old Melie Plumbing Company on Madison Street. Joyce left her teaching job to help out in the office, where she spent some 20 years. Eventually, Thiesse moved to 1223 Circle Ave.
At some point in the 1980s, Peter served as head of the village's Department of Public Works, "at the insistence of the village council," Joyce said.
"They wanted someone in there to run it who knew about it. But it became a problem to run Public Works as well as the plumbing business because it was like a conflict of interest because we did all the work for the village."
Peter didn't want to spend too much time away from the family business and his pension from the plumbers union. After a few years with the Department of Public Works, he left but continued to work part-time as the plumbing inspector for the villages of Forest Park and River Forest.
But it was not the end of his community involvement. He also served on the Forest Park District 91 Board of Education for about nine years, where he helped recruit Art Jones as superintendent. In that post, he was also able to hand Rachel and Amy their diplomas as they walked across the stage during Forest Park Middle School's graduation ceremony.
"It was quite an honor," Joyce said.
The girls headed off to Proviso East High School, which turned out to not be a good fit for Amy. She ended up dropping out of school, earning her GED, and going straight to work as an X-ray technician. She stayed in that field for about five years. In the summer of 1997, "I was on a break from radiology. I was in between jobs and my dad asked me to come back and work in the office. I never left."
She was surprised that she loved the work so much, particularly working with her father. Her brothers had tried working with their dad previously but their personalities conflicted. "My dad was a very tough man to work for, a very strong-minded businessman, so it made it challenging to be a family member and have to work with him," Rachel said. "Neither of my brothers, unfortunately, were able to find a way to work with him in that environment."
But Amy and her father shared a similar mindset on work ethic and passion for the business.
By 2000, Joyce decided to retire. She and Peter bought a house in Buchanan, Michigan, about 110 miles from Forest Park. Peter wasn't ready to totally give up the business, though, so he'd work three days a week in Forest Park — staying at the house on Adams — and spend the rest of the week in Michigan, where he'd leave the house at 3 a.m. to get to the shop in time to receive copper deliveries.
But with his health was declining, he was ready for full-time retirement. He sold the business to Amy in 2008.
"We understood each other, had the same values, and that's why I think we got along so well," Amy said. "We'd have our arguments, but I'd always walk out and go around the block and come back."
When Amy took over, she computerized all of the business's accounting and other documents. She eventually received Woman's Business Enterprise (WBE) certification from Cook County, which gave Thiesse Plumbing a chance to secure jobs with government agencies and organizations required to contract a certain portion of their business to minority-owned companies. She was the first female Thiesse to own the shop, operating in a male-dominated field, and "I don't think I gained as much respect as a man," she said.
Thiesse Plumbing was a longtime member of Local 130, a division of the Chicago Plumbers Union. Being a union shop allowed Joyce to feel secure about any medical procedure she ever needed or will need — "I've never had to pay a dime to a hospital," she said — as well as retire comfortably. But as many shops transitioned to non-union labor, Thiesse Plumbing struggled to compete with their lower prices. Amy decided to close the business and go back into X-ray tech.
"It's a little heartbreaking to know that the business closed, but eventually I felt that that was going to happen," Joyce said.
"We were always a union shop. Peter always believed in that. We had a good life; Peter worked hard and provided well for us. It's very sad, but I think we'll all get over it eventually. It just won't be the same. You'll go down Circle and you won't see the red awning anymore."