- Associated Press - Friday, February 13, 2015

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) - Upon cleaning out the basement of Feyen Zylstra’s new headquarters building in Grand Rapids, Doug McGarvey came across a surprising discovery: a moldy, water-damaged plaque that names 165 local men who fought in World War II.

“I thought, boy, that’s a dirty shame to have that plaque in the basement. This is something important and should be resurrected,” the tool repair coordinator told The Grand Rapids Press (https://bit.ly/1IENaA2 ) . “They gave their all so we can have what we have today.”

Over the course of three months, McGarvey and several employees restored the World War II plaque from being dull and nearly illegible to as close to its original pristine condition. The nearly 5-foot-by-3-foot plaque is now on display in Feyen Zylstra’s main hallway on the building’s east side.

“It was my honor and privilege to do it,” said engineer and Navy veteran Jim Kujawa. “They are people who did something for our country that most people don’t get to experience. I think it’s neat that it’ll be up there for the foreseeable future. I hope that nobody forgets and that people will remember it and not get too complacent with our freedoms.”

Feyen Zylstra, which had been spread across three locations in the greater Grand Rapids area, purchased the former Fairview Elementary School for its headquarters last April. Kenowa Hills closed the school in 2010.

CEO Nate Koetje said they then spent more than $3 million to convert the 44,000-square-foot building into a modern work space. The new space allowed the electrical contractor to consolidate its three Grand Rapids locations into one location. Feyen Zylstra continues to operate its satellite offices in Traverse City and Nashville, Tenn.

When the World War II plaque was discovered in October, employees said it was covered in mold and mildew. Water had significantly damaged the backboard, causing it to warp and separate. The 165 names of the Fairview area men who fought in the war were nearly unreadable.

“I thought it would be a shame to have something that’s historically significant to just let it rot away,” account manager Mike Miling said. “It should honor the guys who fought in the war and should be displayed.”

“Some have a gold star next to their name so we assume they were killed in action,” said Todd Wagner, an estimator at Feyen Zylstra whose father and other family members served in the military. “It’s the right thing to do. Those people get very little recognition as it is and to do something like that just makes you feel good.”

Wagner, Miling, McGarvey and Kujawa took the plaque completely apart, rebuilt the backboard and ordered new mounts for the nameplates and display lights. They also painted and detailed the historical memorial before hanging it in a visible location late last month.

“I think the plaque really fits with what we’re trying to do - how to pay tribute to what this space once was,” Koetje said. “Schools are typically centerpieces in their communities. It’s been years since this school has been a centerpiece. But if we look back historically … the plaque is just an example of what life might have been like in the 40s and 50s and the purpose this school served and all the way through the 2000s.”

Koetje noted that about 10 percent of Feyen Zylstra’s workforce are veterans and it was important to the men who restored the plaque that it not remain in a dark corner in the building.

“As people have looked at it and really recognize the tradition that it represents, I think there’s this instant emotional connection between our employees, the building, the community and that plaque,” he said.

While employees did not recognize a majority of the names on the plaque, they hope it will give the community a sense of historical significance.

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Information from: The Grand Rapids Press, https://www.mlive.com/grand-rapids

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