Sadly, on November 30th, 2005, one of San Pedro’s greatest pioneers took his “final flight.” The San Pedro Sun’s August 19th, 2004 issue
had an “Our Community” on John Greif II.
Decades ago, Ambergris Caye was only accessible to visitors by sailboat; a boat ride that would take from six hours to a day. San Pedro Town did not have any public accommodations to offer visitors either, but with the island’s first hotel and soon after, its first airline, the island was well on its way to being properly equipped for the tourism industry. This week, The San Pedro Sun is proud to introduce a man responsible for these amazing advances – Mr. John Greif II.
John was born in Paducah, Kentucky, USA on November 11th, 1921 to Katherine and John Greif. As an only child, he was often seen visiting his father’s blacksmith shop, where he helped him “strike the hot iron and turn the drill press.”
John began earning his own way taking odd jobs. Every afternoon after school, he would help a neighbor with household chores for which he was paid 25 cents a week. During the summer, he also transported ice from the ice house and delivered newspapers in his “little red wagon” for another 25 cents. When John had saved two dollars, he used it to pay for an airplane ride, which sparked his dream to one day become a pilot.
John graduated from Tillghman High School in 1938, and moved to Glendale, California to live with his cousin. He went to work as a dishwasher at Mel’s Drive-In for two dollars a day and all he could eat! When the drive-in went out of business, John got a job at the Old Walnut Shop, an antique furniture shop, where he learned everything he could about wood. After working all day, he spent his evenings learning how to weld at Hemphill Trade School. Finishing the course, he got a job welding stainless steel oil tanks at the Lockheed Aircraft Company.
During World War II, young men were being invited to join the Army Air Corp Aviation Cadet Program and John felt this was the perfect opportunity to chase his dream and learn to fly. He joined the Army, where as a private he earned $21 a month. After being selected for the pilot training program, he was sent to an Army flight school in La Mesa, Texas for a year. John was then shipped out to Camp Roberts in California and later stationed in Carrabelle, Florida. Unfortunately, John suffered a broken leg as a result of an emergency landing and was re-assigned to Randolph Air Field in Texas. By the time his leg healed, he had already completed training to become a flight instructor and the war was nearly over. So, before he could begin teaching, he was given an honorary discharge.
John then moved to southern Florida where he began training infantry men and paratroopers how to defend themselves against air attacks. There, he met Don Paderson, an airplane mechanic who having received a medical discharge, was working as a civilian mechanic for the Army. When the war was over, the Army began offering loans to soldiers, so between the two of them, they were granted a $20,000 loan. They used this money to purchase 40 acres of land and start a flight school. At Missouri Flyers, John taught the students while Don fixed the airplanes. On the side, they bought damaged airplanes at auctions, which they fixed and resold for extra cash.
A few years later, John decided that he wanted to be closer to home, so he got a job as an engineer at the Atomic Energy Commission and went to work in the welding test lab near Paducah. He remained there for a year, except for a short break when he sold pharmaceuticals. Upon his return, he was elevated to a management position.
Two years later, during a vacation to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, John decided to get back into flying, and went to work as a flight instructor for a Florida/Cuba Cessna aircraft dealer. On one of his training flights to Cuba, John met a student from British Honduras (Belize) who invited him to visit the tiny Caribbean country. Not long after, he and a friend flew to Belize and upon arriving, John met 19-year-old Arcelia “Celi” Nuñez. Two weeks later, they were married and are now the proud parents of John III and Celi Jean, both successful San Pedro business owners.
John and Celi moved to Miami Beach and then to Boston where John worked as an engineer, building the tallest television tower in the world. After that project was finished, they moved to Paducah and bought a house. Employed at a radiator factory, John worked as an industrial engineer, managing the maintenance department and tool room. Two years later, Celi was homesick, so the couple decided to move to San Pedro Town.
Since there were no hotels on the island at that time, John presented a blue print of a four-room beach hotel to the Prime Minister of Belize, George Price. Receiving approval, he and his wife built the first hotel on the island – The San Pedro Holiday Hotel. The business prospered but John knew that he could get more tourists to visit the island if they did not have to suffer from sunburns and seasickness on the long boat ride from the city. Therefore, he made another proposal to the Prime Minister and after getting the “go-ahead” for his plans, John chopped trees and bush to make way for the first airstrip in San Pedro Town. Tourism began to thrive and so did John and Celi’s businesses, from a four-room to a ten-room hotel, and from one airplane to five. Unfortunately, the marriage did not survive their success and the couple went their separate ways. John went on to build a home on the beach and dedicated his days to his airline, Central American Transport, which later became Tropic Air.
Today, at the age of 82, John spends his days relaxing in his beach home, reading “any and all books that fall into my hands.” He enjoys watching television and loves visiting family members and friends, reminiscing about days gone by. “I got through life by doing what I loved and that is what I tell everyone now. If you can get paid for doing what you love and what you are passionate about, you enjoy life,” John ended.
An entrepreneur, and a loving family man, with a passion for flying, John Greif is known as the first to “fly the friendly skies” bringing tourism to “Our Community.” http://sanpedrosun.net/old/05-483.html
Read also the History of //ambergriscaye.com/mervino/window/BB/trop_air.html by Mervino.