Local veteran Al Brey celebrates 100 years
A family man, veteran, businessman and Sabetha resident for 65 years, Al Brey celebrates his 100th birthday on Saturday, Feb. 12.
Alfred Oran Brey was the first-born son of Jacob and Zelma Brey, born on Feb. 12, 1922, in Ozawkie. He had three brothers and three sisters, including a set of twins, Charles and Ceona, and then Loreta, Dale, Eldon and Belva.
Al laughed as he recalled helping his dad plow fields.
“I walked behind a two-horse plow, while my dad rode behind a five-horse plow,” Al said.
Besides helping on the farm, Al said he also played basketball for four years and participated in track.
“I ran the 440 race, and we got second place for Jefferson County and I was the anchorman,” Al said.
Following graduation from Ozawkie High School in 1940, Al attended Sweeney Aviation School in Kansas City.
“[There were] no jobs, and a sheet metal guy out of Kansas City went to talk to my dad about sending me to [aviation] sheet metal training, since I was only 18,” Al said.
Al’s son Galen tells more of the story behind how Al ended up at the Sweeney Aviation School.
“Jake [Al’s dad] was in the field plowing when the Sweeney man appeared and, being somewhat of a miser, refused the offer. Undeterred, the Sweeney man went to the house and convinced Zelma [Al’s mom] that the school would be a good thing and that Jake had said it was okay. Realizing the opportunity for her son, she wrote the check. Jake was furious when he found out what had happened and immediately went to the bank to stop payment on the check. However, the Sweeney man had beaten him to the bank and cashed the check. Thus, thanks to his mother, Al was allowed to receive the training that changed his life,” Galen said.
Upon completing his training in aircraft sheet metal work, Al went to work at the Glenn L. Martin Bomber Plant in Baltimore, Md., which manufactured B-26 bombers.
“I got on a bus at Ozawkie for $3.55 and went to Baltimore!” Al said.
After about 1-1/2 years in Baltimore, Al moved back to Kansas. He worked for about 1-1/2 years at North American Aviation, the B-25 medium bomber plant in Kansas City.
As an aircraft sheet metal worker, in the two bomber plants, Al worked in the rework department of the aircraft factory, did rework on all parts of the plane other than the motor, replaced defective parts, and did riveting and skin-fitting.
He also read blueprints, installed shortages, made engineering changes, and put on tubing and other parts needed to fulfill the engineer’s specifications.
Rather than waiting to be drafted, Al enlisted in the U.S. Army in August 1943, and was inducted and entered active duty at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
“I had to work until I was 21 years old before I could get into the army, at that time. Eventually, everybody had to go in at 18,” Al said.
Following training at military installations in Texas and Oklahoma, Al was sent to Camp Beale, Calif., from which he was shipped to Hawaii in early 1945, seven months before the Japanese surrendered.
He was stationed near Honolulu, on the island of Oahu, assigned to the 481st Ordnance Tire Repair Company, as a tire rebuilder. Al’s work in Hawaii involved repairing tubes and tires of all kinds for all types of vehicles, equipment and aircraft. Replacement tires were scarce to nonexistent, he said, so they repaired both tubes and tires.
Al did not experience combat, but his assigned military facilities and barracks were located on Sand Island where his unit’s tasks supported combat units.
One experience Al enjoys sharing is the time while he was in “bivouac training” and the men were issued comforters. Upon returning the comforters, Al’s had “three small tears in it.” He was ordered to pay a fee, but being stubborn, refused unless all the other guys did the same. In the end, he said he never did pay that fee.
“That’s just how ornery I was,” Al said.
In March 1946, after 2-1/2 years in the Army, Al returned to the United States and was discharged at Fort Logan, Colo., with the rank of Technician Fifth Grade — E-5, corporal equivalent.
His military decorations and citations include the American Service Medal, Asiatic Pacific Service Medal, World War II Victory Medal and Good Conduct Medal. He qualified as a marksman in the M’03 Rifle and S Carbine.
Al also received a letter from the White House, signed by Harry Truman, expressing gratitude to those who served honorably.
He recalled his veteran interview with Patty Locher, and how she had asked him, “How did you ever remember so much?”
“Well, because I enjoyed it!” Al said.
Al is very proud of doing his patriotic duty in military service during World War II.
Life After service
Al worked right out of high school, then proudly served his country, and then went right back to work to support and raise his family.
“[I] didn’t have time to go fishing, I was busy working,” Al said.
After his discharge, Al returned to Ozawkie and worked on the family farm briefly before being employed at a number of jobs in and around Ozawkie, Topeka, Valley Falls, and then finally landing in Sabetha.
In early 1946, Al landed a temporary job through the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) wiring houses in the Ozawkie and Topeka area.
Following that project, he worked at Montgomery Ward in Topeka as the store’s hardware and electrical manager for about 1-1/2 years. He then was hired by Sears and Roebuck in a similar management position that he held for about 1-1/2 years.
Having gained experience at REA and these two businesses, Al started B&L Construction in Topeka, where he built mostly farm houses for about 3-1/2 years.
General Motors at Mercer Chevrolet in Valley Falls then hired him, and he was bookkeeper and sales person for two years.
With this experience, in 1957, Al moved to Sabetha and bought the General Motors (GM) auto dealership from Mishler, naming it Brey Chevrolet, and owned it for about 20 years.
As a long-time Sabetha businessman, Al served on the Sabetha Housing Authority Board for 25 years.
In September 1975, Al sold the GM dealership and got into dealing used farm equipment, cars and trucks for more than 30 years before he retired in 2019.
When asked about retired life, he laughed.
“I never did retire, I just kept right on working!” Al said. “Get a job that you love and do it!”
Marriage and Family
Al met his wife Dolores June “Dee” Gibson when she was a sophomore and he was a senior at Ozawkie High School. They were married on Aug. 24, 1947, in Oskaloosa. They were married for 62 years before Dolores passed away on Nov. 19, 2009.
Al is a very proud dad and grandpa. He and Dolores have one son, Galen Brey, D.D.S., who graduated from Sabetha High School in 1968. Galen and his wife
Rebecca live in Fairhope, Ala.
Al has two grandchildren, Molly Brey Johnson of Asheville, N.C., and Jacob Brey of Birmingham, Ala.; and two great-grandchildren, Claire Marilyn and Crosby Alfred Johnson.
Al enjoys sharing stories about his life experiences, but nothing has brought him more pride and joy than to talk about his “son who is a doctor” and his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
“He is quite a jokester. He loves life, loves to laugh, loves to have a good time and [is] very ornery. I know I have to keep my eyes on him,” said Sabetha Manor nurse Sherry Gibbs.
In true Al fashion, he laughed and replied, “I did a lot of things I probably never should have done.”
Maybe the keys to reaching the 100-year milestone is to do what you love with the people you love and laugh a lot!
Editor’s Note: Portions of this article were taken from Patty Locher’s story on Al, which was printed in the Nov. 11, 2020, Veteran’s Day Section of The Sabetha Herald.