World War II Vet & Roppel Industries Co-Founder, Virgil Roppel, Reflects On a Storied Life
At 94 years old, Virgil Roppel has had quite a storied life. He served in the Navy during World War II, launched a successful business with his brother that continues to thrive today, raised six children, was the President of the Model A Club and seemingly never met a stranger.
Until recently, the Jeffersontown resident would drive himself to the American Legion G.I. Joe Post 244 every day to enjoy an Early Times and Diet Coke and spend time with his friends. A nasty fall at home last spring has left him mostly homebound, but he still makes it out to visit the Legion when he can, where he is the oldest living WWII veteran member.
Despite some health issues and the disappointment of not getting out of the house as much, Virgil has maintained his sense of humor. Asked if his friends at the Legion miss his daily visits, he quickly responded with a laugh, “They miss my money!”
All jokes aside, Virgil has truly made a name for himself through his business, as a long-time Jeffersontown resident, and through his membership at the Legion. He even has a designated parking spot.
“It makes me feel so proud that he has so many friends,” says his daughter Maureen. “They take care of him and watch after him and are such great people. They honor his WWII service and are always congratulating him for that.”
Virgil lives with Maureen in the home the family moved to in 1950 on Pelham Court, which, at the time, was a gravel road.
“Taylorsville Road was a two-lane road, and it was long distance to call Louisville from the house,” says Virgil’s youngest son, Tom. “It was a rural community at the time but such a wonderful place to grow up.”
Virgil grew up in the St. Matthews area and joined the Navy when he was just 17 years old. He was stationed at Pearl Harbor and was in charge of the catapult crew on the aircraft carrier USS Marcus Island that shot off planes in the Pacific Ocean.
After returning from war, Virgil and his brother, John, opened a small service station business that evolved into a radiator shop. Founded in 1947, Roppel Industries has grown to become the Midwest’s largest distributor of automotive, industrial, heavy duty and agricultural engine cooling and air conditioning products.
The men taught themselves everything they needed to know about the business and threw themselves completely into the work. They even lived in apartments above the shop on Baxter Avenue with their families for a short while.
“My mom loved it because she was from the city and could hear all the noise of the city,” says Maureen of Virgil’s late wife Peggy.
Virgil met Peggy, who was from Philadelphia, while he was in the Navy. Peggy struggled some when the family moved to J-Town, as it was much more country. A neighbor at the end of the street had cows, and she had never seen cows in person before.
But the family quickly got to know everyone from the chief of police to the mayor, and their house became a favorite hangout spot for their neighbors and friends of their children.
The Roppel’s put a pool in the backyard when Tom was in high school and loved having people over. Their New Year’s Eve parties would draw hundreds of attendees, and the family welcomed others into their home who needed a place to stay with open arms.
“He never met a stranger,” Tom says. “He’s just always been one of the most generous people, him and my mom. They were always there for us, their friends and people we didn’t even know.”
Their hospitality even extended into the family business.
“I remember a customer from out of town had a broke down car during Derby week,” Tom says. “He needed to stay in town overnight to wait for parts that had been ordered and dad invited him out to stay with him. That’s how my family is.”
Virgil retired in 1997, but he still maintains a strong tie to the business he loves.
“His whole world was that radiator shop,” Maureen says. “He still wears his uniform almost every day. It’s his identity.”
Now known as Roppel Industries, the company has a second and third generation of Roppel’s at the helm. Tom serves as Vice President, and two of his sons, Corey and Ryan, have worked their way up in the company. Virgil could not be any happier that his son and grandsons are continuing the family legacy and said it makes him very proud.
“I’m going through now what my father did 30 years ago when I was really starting to take over, and I’m seeing what I put him through because I’m going through it now,” Tom says. “Dad let me run the store and make mistakes. He was always there to talk to, but he let me make mistakes.”
With more than 100 employees across 14 locations in four different states, the company looks much different than its beginnings as the small shop on Baxter Avenue, but much of their staff have been in it for the long haul.
“We have a lot of employees who have been with us well over 30 years, and a few have even been with us more than 40 years now,” Tom says. “It’s so neat to know we’ve been around almost 71 years now.”
After Virgil’s retirement, Corey made a plaque for him with all the tools required to make a radiator, and his employees gave him a heartfelt plaque commemorating 50 years of service. He was even recognized by the National Automotive Radiator Service Association in 1996 with their Lifetime Achievement award.
“He was good to his employees, and to this day they all love him,” Maureen says. “He was always fair with everybody, but he also demanded certain things from his employees. They had to be there on time, do what they were supposed to do and customers came first.”
For his part, Virgil enjoyed the manual work of the business but took the greatest joy in customer interactions.
“I loved working with customers, and that’s partly what built the business,” Virgil says. “Sometimes I thought I was right and they were wrong, but I took care of the customers.”
These days, cars are more of a hobby than a job for Virgil. A large detached garage at his home is filled with old cars, including a yellow 1939 Buick Convertible. He and a few friends started a local Model A Club many years ago, and his son Vince is in the club now.
Virgil may not make it out as much, but if you happen to see a black Cadillac Escalade roaming around J-Town, know the man inside has one heck of a story to tell.