William John Petter, 93, of South Haven passed away July 20, 2019, at his home under Hospice care.
William, oldest of eight children, was born to Blanche and William Petter in Ellsworth (population 250) situated six miles west of East Jordan along a chain of lakes connecting Lake Bellaire to the south.
Whenever asked what it was like growing up during the Great Depression, Bill would say, “No one in Ellsworth really knew there was a depression because no one had any money to begin with. The only difference was that more guys came back home from the city.”
After a childhood of hunting, fishing and picking beans on Grandpa’s farm, as Bill would tell it, for five cents a day, he graduated early from high school and at age 17 enlisted in the Navy to go fight for his country. (In 1943, the United States was a year-and-a-half into World War II.)
While training to be a radio operator at Northwestern University in Chicago, Bill met Joyce Ronningen (his future wife) at a mixer set up for the enlisted boys. Soon after, in 1944, he shipped out on an LCI (Landing Craft Infantry) from Corpus Christi, Texas, and sailed via the Panama Canal to the Philippines to join the war against the Japanese for the following year.
Bill didn’t talk about his wartime experiences with the exception of surviving a severe typhoon shortly after the end of hostilities somewhere in the South China Sea. His description of the storm was terrifying. The waves were huge and their small 150-foot flat bottom boat was ordered to run with the waves. The crew steered the boat designed for landing troops on beaches rather than on violent weathering seas as best as they could. The waves caught up from behind and gradually lifted them up to the crest only to slide and bounce them down the back of the waves and into the trough. This kept up for days. Their ship survived but five other full-sized destroyers were lost in the storm.
Discharged in 1946, Bill and Joyce, after staying in touch via letters and packages for two years, became engaged and were married on Dec. 18, 1948.
Taking advantage of the GI Bill for returning soldiers, Bill earned a college degree from Western Michigan University. Bill went to work at his father-in-law, Helmer Ronningen’s recently started company selling irrigation equipment. He liked to tell the story of his first sales trip when he hitchhiked from Kalamazoo out to Allegan and Fennville to make the rounds selling irrigation pumps. He was surprised at how easy it was to sell them along the way. Upon returning with a stack of orders, he was very disappointed to learn that due to wartime rationing and shortages, the pumps had been unavailable for years and were still not available.
By 1949, Bill and Helmer moved from irrigation equipment into industrial equipment specializing in the needs of the paper industry concentrated in Kalamazoo. They eventually named the company Ronningen-Petter and developed a line of automated filtration equipment, initially targeting the paper industry and ultimately selling to multiple markets worldwide.
During the 1970s, Bill worked with and became friends with Mike Horie, a Japanese businessman. Bill and Mike soon discovered they were stationed on the Island of Corregidor during the war but at separate times. Together they made light of being former “enemies” and now good friends after undoubtedly a grave time in both of their lives.
By the time Bill and Helmer sold the company to Dover Corporation in 1967, Bill and Joyce had five children and were well established in Kalamazoo. In addition to his work responsibilities, Bill got involved with a group organized to assist minority businesses get established. Meeting weekly for years, they helped several companies launch successfully. Bill also headed up a couple of United Way fund drives and was active in the Presbyterian Church.
Bill worked in the corporate world for another 25 years as Vice President of Dover and as president of the Blackmer Pump division in Grand Rapids and later as president of the OPW division in Cincinnati.
Upon retirement from Dover, Bill joined his son Randy to build Maxima Plastics in Kalamazoo, a plastic injection molding business. They later added a facility to perform test runs on tools. Randy died in 1996 and Bill sold Maxima some years later. Several of Bill’s other family members started businesses too, and Bill was always available as an informal advisor offering a wealth of experience for generations to come.
Bill spent the last decade of his life slowly slipping away with dementia. Though he struggled to remember names and places, he always was helpful and patient. He died at home with his wife of 70 years and his daughter Marta at his side.
William is survived by his wife, Joyce (Ronningen) Petter; children, William (Leslie), Matthew (Constance) and Marta and Douglas (Juli); 10 grandchildren and two great grandchildren; his brother Eddie; and his sisters, Linda, Marilyn and Sue.
He was preceded in death by son Randall; sisters, Betty and Shirley; and brother Jiggs.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to Good Samaritan Family Services, P.O. Box 206, Ellsworth, MI 49729.
Kindly share your thoughts and memories on the family’s online guestbook at www.FilbrandtFFH.com.
The family is being helped by the Filbrandt Family Funeral Home of South Haven, (269) 637-0333.
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