Last year around March, Scuffy Gross called me one or two times. He had an article about my late mother, and he wanted to give it to me. It was a very sad time for the Topinka family, and it was just nice to hear Mr. Gross’ voice.
We arranged a time to visit. A day later, driving up to our house on Herrick Road was Mr. Gross. I was told later that he did not make many personal appearances but there he was, Mr. Gross, spry as always.
He came in, and we talked about my mom, and we talked about him. We especially talked a lot about Riverside and the Riverside Public Library which he, my mother, and others just adored.
That building had always been a part of our lives and the lives of others in Riverside, especially if you were ever a student in District 96 writing a research paper. Mr. Gross had a smile on his face and a sparkle in his eye when he said words to the effect: “Next time you are there, look up by the fireplace in the main hall. That is my old sled. Neat, huh?”
All I could think of at the time was how many times Mr. Gross’ sled had gone down the hill near the Swan Pond, a question I will probably be asking in my mind for the rest of my life.
I had known Mr. Gross since I was a student at Hauser Junior High School in the early 1980s. I always called him Mr. Gross. It drove him nuts.
“Call me Scuff, Joe, just call me Scuff,” he would say for decades.
“Sorry, Mr. Gross, I cannot do that,” I’d say, and then I would explain each time why. Simply put, he was like a king to me. Let me explain.
When I first met Mr. Gross, he was involved with an effort to refurbish old train cars that were parked behind the Riverside Swim Club. I was on a tour led by my teachers from Hauser. We stopped by the Riverside Museum and were lectured by JoAnne Kosey about Riverside history and then we visited these amazing train cars. I always loved model trains so the visit was like being in train paradise.
Mr. Gross talked to us about the train cars. He almost seemed larger than life. He was in charge of old passenger train car the likes of which I had never seen.
They were amazing, and Mr. Gross inspired me by what he had to say about trains in general. I had an HO train layout in the basement of our home on Selborne Road at the time, but this man had full-size train cars in Riverside. He was not just a simple man, he was a king! He was then and always was going to be to me, “Mr. Gross, the King of Riverside.”
Flash forward to many years later. Mr. Gross and I were talking at a political event, and I think he addressed me by my nickname at the time and said words to the effect of, “You have to visit my office someday in Township Hall.”
“Why?” I asked. He said, “You’ll see.”
Township Hall is not Buckingham Palace, but it’s our Riverside runner-up so I was honored by the invite. I agreed and made a visit soon thereafter. Most people cannot claim to look forward to ever going to the assessor’s office, especially with our property taxes the way they are in Riverside, but this was different.
I climbed the stairs (I always hated those elevators in that building since I was a Cub Scout in the 1970s) and entered into Mr. Gross’ office, or should I say, his throne room where he held court.
What an incredible view of Guthrie Park and the Bank Building. What incredible things on the wall, including the print of the SS North American.
“This man loved ships in addition to trains,” I thought to myself. “He truly is a king!” We talked for a long time. When I left his office, I said to myself, “Mr. Gross is the luckiest man alive.” He loved what he did, he tried to help people through what he did, and he loved where he lived. If that was not criteria worthy of being a king, what is?
Being a king is not about ruling people or having power. It is really about loving your life and doing what you love to do and loving where you do it. In that respect, all people are kings and queens if they are truly happy.
Mr. Gross, like my late Mother, Judy Baar Topinka, were happy in the way they lived their lives. They loved what they did, especially for others and, more importantly, they loved Riverside with all their hearts.
All hail Mr. Gross, King of Riverside! I will miss you sir.