By Kinnidy Thoreson, Contributing Writer
On June 3, Woodruff resident George Reitmeier celebrated his 95th birthday. Though he did not grow up in Woodruff, he is a well-known fixture in the community, specifically known for his stories of World War II and his steam tractors.
Reitmeier moved to Woodruff 22 years ago from the Buffalo, New York area. Like many northerners, Reitmeier wanted to move somewhere where the weather was better than Buffalo, especially in the winter. But his wife Faith wasn’t quite ready to move yet, so he thought if he studied weather patterns that would help his case. “Not to find a place that was real warm but to find a place that was good year round,” he said.
After researching the weather in places like California, Arizona, Texas and Florida, he found that the weather in this area was as good as you were going to find anywhere, and thus, the Reitmeiers settled on South Carolina. Proximity to an airport (for his job), a railroad track, and golfing, were other attributes that attracted the Reitmeier’s to Woodruff area specifically. Even still, he also had family in Greenville that helped sway them to stay here longer than just for the winter seasons.
A man of many careers, he recalls his early days as a military sergeant. Serving in the 264th regiment in the 66th infantry division of the United States Army, Reitmeier has a first-person perspective of the S.S. Leopoldville Disaster that occurred on Christmas Eve 1944. The ship was crossing the English Channel on way for his division to relieve other troops in the wake of what would become known as the Battle of the Bulge when the ship was hit by a German torpedo. “It was chaos. You had no idea what to do,” Reitmeier said.
Reitmeier remembers jumping to safety on to an English destroyer ship that came to aid the Leopoldville. This disaster ultimately claimed the lives of 763 soldiers. The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in France is where those fallen soldiers, and almost 9,000 more, are honored with rows upon rows of unmarked crosses in an impeccably kept field near the shore. Last fall, Reitmeier, his wife and two of his children and their spouses made the trip to pay respect to the friends he lost that night the Leopoldville sank. Also on this trip, Reitmeier was finally able to see the concrete divisions where the submarines that carried the torpedoes that hit the Leopoldville were kept.
While at the Normandy American Cemetery, Reitmeier was able to attend and participate in one of the daily closing ceremonies. And to his surprise, at the end of the ceremony, he was also acknowledged and honored for his service in World War II. He says that helping fold the flag and then being presented with it “was a real special deal.” He was also given a coin from the cemetery that is displayed during special memorial celebrations. That coin and the flag he received at the ceremony sit proudly in his mancave at his Woodruff home, alongside a Quilt of Valor and other memorabilia he’s collected over the years.
Beyond his military service, Reitmeier developed a strong work ethic. He has taught at universities, received a master’s in engineering from the University of Buffalo, and is a licensed professional engineer in 20 states (but ironically, not in South Carolina). He was a member of the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying, was an engineer and one of the founders of BirdAir Structures Inc., has operated a farm, and has served as a building inspector.
During his trip to France last September, he was also able to visit the Pleumeur-Bodou radome, a project he was the chief engineer of while at Birdair Structures in the early 1960s. This radome, which at the time had a twin structure in Maine, sheltered a telecommunication antenna covered by a huge white dome and was the site of the first live transmission between Europe and the United States in July 1962. The radome site is now a telecommunication museum.
Among all his vocations, Reitmeier says his long-standing career as a consulting and forensic engineer is probably his favorite. Forensic engineers testify on the failure of products and machinery often used in consultation regarding liability cases. After finally retiring in January 2016, he describes this line of work as the most fun and challenging, where he was able to travel and met lots of nice people. His only objection would be the amount of time he had to sit in courtrooms and work with lawyers.
Outside of his career endeavors, Reitmeier has an interest in trains, specifically steam engine trains. The railroad that goes through Woodruff was one of the features that attracted him to the area. Reitmeier has even built his own steam tractor, a vehicle you may have seen in numerous Woodruff Christmas parades. Built from Ford truck axles and a regulation engine, the feat was otherwise built entirely from scratch and has both his New York and Woodruff addresses. Since retirement he has also restored two Jeep vehicles.
Alongside his full life, Reitmeier has three children and many grandchildren, most of whom have gone to Clemson University. Since moving here, Faith, Reitmeier’s wife, has enjoyed working with the Woodruff Christmas parade and women’s ministry at their church, Joy Lutheran Church in Moore. Reitmeier was chair of the building committee at their church. Though they do not participate as much anymore, they are proud members of the Woodruff community.
Reitmeier looks forward to celebrating his milestone birthday with his family, finding his next project to tinker on and listening to audiobooks in his mancave. “I’ve put a lot in those 95 years. When I think back on it, it’s unbelievable.”