G.B. Russo, a Friend to Many
by Kim Rush, John Russo, and Martin Starr
G.B Russo, a gracious friend to many, assisted the powerful and the downtrodden as well as those that fell in between. He was a friend of George Welsh, one of Grand Rapid’s most powerful politicians. Initially, Welsh figured that Russo might help procure voters from the Italian community. Welsh also shopped regularly at G.B.s store.
G.B. was also a friend of Frank Lamar, a kingpin of Grand Rapids’ African-American community from the 1930s until his death in 1975. Russo always helped anyone that showed an interest in bettering themselves, regardless of their race or ethnicity, or economic situation. He escaped the poorest of economic conditions in his native Sicily where there was little hope for anyone who was underprivileged to ever escape poverty. These childhood experiences permanently effected how he felt about helping others. Ultimately, he gave everything he had to provide for his family and relatives, as well as his community.
“G.B. was very good at using whatever he had to promote growth. He was in debt most of his life. He was able to get loans to buy properties and to add on to existing buildings. He had a large extended family to support. Various family members, including his children, uncles, aunts, and cousins helped operate various businesses that my grandfather had created. So he was always thinking about ways to grow businesses to provide for the family. He had no cash when he died.”
John Russo continues, “G.B was going much slower by the 1950s. He relied on my dad and aunts to keep things going. But I had the opportunity to spend lots of time with him. He woke me up very early in the morning and we would go to the produce markets to buy supplies. Then he would open the store and sit behind the cash counter smoking Italian cigars and greeting all his friends and customers. My dad and aunts would run the deli counter and stock shelves. When I was still a very small child, they showed me how to put cans of groceries on the shelves and I learned how to keep things clean and organized. When I was big enough, I was trained how to use the slicers to cut meat and cheese. I learned how to grate cheese as soon as I was able to handle the weight of the big cheese wheels and run the primitive cheese grater that we had. G.B. liked to spoil his grandkids. So he would stock the freezer with popsicles and give them to my cousins and me. There were several of us cousins living in the family complex then and we had a lot of fun back in the 1950s. G.B. remained active in the business until he died. He was struck by a car on Division Avenue, in front of his grocery store on a Friday night and survived until Sunday morning, December 8, 1952.”
Jennie Russo remembered, “It occurred at night while it was snowing lightly. My father was standing in the middle of the street, trying to cross the road. We assume that the driver simply did not see him.”