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Analyst David L. Gregal Dies; Repair Whiz Defied Disability

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 10, 2004; Page B06

David Louis Gregal, 65, who died Aug. 30 of colon cancer at his home in Washington, was a Department of Labor policy analyst for 25 years, writing regulations and traveling the country to ensure that federal labor standards were observed. Before that, he spent 11 years as an administrator with the U.S. Job Corps, also in the Labor Department.

But his neighbors and friends remember Mr. Gregal more as a man who was generous with his time and his help, whether it meant repairing broken plumbing in the middle of the night or talking people through hard times. Known for his uncanny mechanical wizardry, he kept many of the cars in his Tenleytown neighborhood in running order.

Labor Department policy analyst David Gregal in 1979. "I think if he was sighted," said his wife, Alice Gregal, "he would have been an engineer." (Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)

Mr. Gregal had at least 40 cars of his own over the years, did carpentry, was a sailor and skier, taught relatives how to drive and guided people around Washington, pointing out landmarks, potholes and upcoming turns -- and did all these things even though he was blind.

He refused to let his disability limit his interests or the scope of his life. As a child in Pennsylvania, he attended regular schools and performed the same chores on his family's farm that his brothers and sisters did. Early in life, he showed a remarkable aptitude for all things mechanical.

"He would fix my car on the street at night," said Dan Meyer, who hired Mr. Gregal for his first job at the Labor Department in 1965. "I would sometimes look in with a flashlight, and he would say, 'Could you shine that a little farther to the left?' You just plain forgot he was blind."

Mr. Gregal's garage was full of tools, including power saws, drills and ramps for hoisting cars. He relied on his extraordinary hearing, spatial awareness and a sense of touch so refined that he could tell the size of a bolt just by holding it in his hand.

Another friend and former colleague, Leon A. Schertler, once saw Mr. Gregal working on a Volkswagen, with every part lying on his driveway.

"Two days later," Schertler recalled, "it was running."

A year ago, as Hurricane Isabel swept toward Washington, Schertler was preparing to take his sailboat, the Amy Baker, to safety. Mr. Gregal, already ill with cancer, insisted that his 80-year-old friend needed company, so he and Schertler's daughter also made the trip.

They anchored the boat in an estuary to wait out the 80 mph winds. After the first blast of the storm, the winds shifted about 1 a.m., making it necessary to realign the boat. The only problem was that the engine wouldn't start.

"Dave went down in the engine room," Schertler said. "It was dark, but of course that didn't bother Dave."

He got the engine running, and after Schertler moved the boat, they rode out the rest of the storm.

Mr. Gregal piloted sailboats and powerboats in open water, and he could parallel park a car. He sometimes drove motorcycles and cars in fields or parking lots. He taught his sister, sister-in-law and both sons how to drive.

"One thing I hate being is uncontrollably dependent," he said in a 1979 interview with The Washington Post. "A car is a small thing to get in my way."

He repaired his neighbors' burst water pipes, clogged toilets and burned-out toasters. He once replaced the oil furnace in his house, putting in all the electrical and gas lines himself. He somehow managed to get the old oil heater out of the basement -- his wife still isn't sure how -- and cut it into pieces with an acetylene torch to sell for scrap.

"I think if he was sighted," said his wife, Alice Gregal, "he would have been an engineer."

Mr. Gregal was born Nov. 25, 1938, in Houtzdale, Pa., and grew up on a farm without electricity or running water. His father, a Yugoslav immigrant, was a coal miner.

A midwife accidentally spilled a chemical solution in Mr. Gregal's eyes at birth, leaving him with minimal vision in one eye. He could tell the difference between light and dark, but after an accident to his other eye in 1976, he lost all sight.

Nevertheless, he rode bicycles as a boy, milked cows and leaped into water-filled quarries. He could read Braille, but he usually relied on tape recorders and a remarkable memory.

Mr. Gregal received bachelor's and master's degrees in counseling from Pennsylvania State University. He came to Washington in 1965 with $30 to his name and found work with the fledgling Job Corps, administering counseling programs.

In 1969, the Labor Department began hiring a series of part-time readers to help him with his work. In 1976, he became a policy analyst with Labor's Office of Federal Contract Compliance, where he worked until retiring in 2001.

Mr. Gregal, who rode the Metro to work, once fell into the Metro rail bed, breaking his wrist. Another time, he stepped into an open construction pit, landing on a 2-by-8-inch plank, which saved him from a 40-foot fall onto a concrete foundation with upright iron rods exposed. But throughout his life, he neither requested nor accepted special consideration for his disability, preferring to go his own independent way.

"I hate complacency," he said in the 1979 Post article. "The fun is in the going, not the getting. I may not always be happy, but I'll never be bored."

Mr. Gregal was a member of St. Columba's Episcopal Church in Washington.

Survivors include his wife of 34 years, Alice Gregal, and two sons, David L. Gregal Jr. and John Gregal, all of Washington; one sister; and two brothers.

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