Biloxi Native has Given Back to His Community for Over Half a Century
By BOB CRABTREE
BILOXI - Dr. Frank G. Gruich, or Dr. G, as he likes to be called, still goes to Biloxi Regional Hospital nearly every day. He spends the mornings reading, socializing and waiting for lunch in the cafeteria. Dr. G. gets his lunches free, and no one begrudges him the privilege.
The hospital, and Biloxi for that matter, owes Gruich considerably more than a plate of red beans and rice. He is a living witness to the past, a spokesman for a city and an era that has almost vanished from memory. Beyond that, Gruich is a venerable local figure widely known for his fierce loyalties, mischievous spirit and substantial accomplishments.
Gr uich was born in 1920, but his character was formed a decade later, during the Great Depression. His family, like almost everyone else, was bitterly poor. Mitchell, his father, cooked on a shrimp boat; his mother, Marie, picked shrimp in the seafood factories. Frank carries a burning memory of how hard the work was and how little it paid. During his boyhood, all the toilets were outside, underwear was made from flour sacks and on the whole of Point Cadet only four families owned automobiles.
East Biloxi was different then. It was strongly Croatian and Catholic, poor and desperate. Money was so tight that by the end of each summer, every nickel in town had circulated through so many shrimp-encrusted hands in the factories that the coins were discolored and identified as "shrimp nickels."
In Biloxi, as in many communities, churches stepped in to help. Some established Biloxians treated the Slavonian immigrants with contempt, even coining a term for them intended to be an ethnic slur. Over time, the word became a symbol of a stubborn and resilient cultural pride. Dr. G, like many "Jugos" of his generation, feels an obligation to community and church that he can never completely repay. Those foundations are central pillars of his life.
Education becomes key
Even for a boy with a supportive circle of friends, 1937 was not a promising time to graduate from high school. Gruich's diploma got him a job in the office of the Kuluz Shrimp Packing Plant instead of on the factory floor. The high school courses in bookkeeping and shorthand had paid off, but only to the amount of 23 cents an hour.
Most of his salary went directly to his mother. Of the $12 he earned every week, he kept 88 cents. His dues in the Slavonian Benevolence Association took another dollar a month. The organization provided a platform for the Croatian community to band together and help itself. Gruich remains a member to this day.
By 1939, he had almost given up hope of finding a better job when one literally walked in the factory door. When a federal shrimp inspector arrived, his new pair of shoes and shiny class ring caught Gruich's attention, and he asked what qualifications were needed to land a job like that. The inspector answered, "18 hours of chemistry." Gruich realized education was the key to his hopes for a better life.
Perkinston Junior College, forerunner to Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, was the closest school to offer chemistry, so that fall Gruich headed north to Stone County. He didn't have much money or much background in science, but the poor Yugoslavian kid from the Point had a remarkable capacity for hard work. By 1941, he had earned a degree with special honors and even was named the best organic-chemistry student in the state, a gratifying accomplishment for a student with no high school chemistry. Those years were the beginning of a lifetime devoted to the pursuit and support of education.
Army helps with training
Today, 67 years later, Gruich still sits on the MGCCC Board of Trustees. Through the years he has volunteered his educational stewardship on boards of Catholic schools in Biloxi. He remains a passionate supporter of Ole Miss, where he went for the next phase of his education.
A one-hour health class at Perkinston had convinced Gruich to abandon shrimp inspection for medicine, so he arrived in Oxford certain of his goals but short of money. He was rescued by a scholarship from the Kellogg Foundation, and even today, only Kellogg cereals are allowed in the Gruich kitchen. The $250 stipend was enough to keep him in school until the U.S. Army snapped him up, along with other aspiring doctors, to train him for service in World War II.
On the day before Gruich was accepted to medical school, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and he graduated the day they surrendered. The Army paid for most of his higher education, first at Ole Miss and later at Tulane Medical School.
His professional life began with post-war stints at two Army hospitals in Texas. The second, Camp Hood Station Hospital (Fort Hood today), named him chief of medicine in 1948. The position was an honor for a 27-year-old captain, but the young Mississippian had gone as far as he planned to go in the military. His heart was set on returning to Biloxi.
Returning home to Biloxi
Gruich came home in 1948 to work alongside Dr. Joseph Kuljis, another doctor of Croatian descent. Until 1952 the pair tended to many of the ills in East Biloxi, but Gruich realized the city needed specialists. During those years, Gruich made two fateful decisions that would define and enrich the rest of his life: He decided to study obstetrics and gynecology, and he married his wife, Gracie.
Gruich spent the next three years in Shreveport establishing his OB/GYN residency. By 1955, he was back in Biloxi and looking for office space in the Barq building on the corner of Howard and Reynoir.
Between 1955 and 1987, he estimates he delivered about 5,000 babies. In 1997, he retired. In all his years in practice, the mothers and aunts of those babies, and later their wives and daughters, were all his patients, too. On social occasions, it is rare for him to enter a room that does not hold at least one person he helped to enter this world.
Strength of character
Gruich has never been afraid to skewer social convention. For years, he shared a practice with Dr. Michael Bourgeois and Dr. Warren Plauche, and the three devout Catholics referred to each other as "God, the Bishop and the Pope." Gruich's license plate still reads "BIG G 1." The jokes have not diminished the importance of his faith.
In his den, he proudly points out two letters signed by Pope John Paul II. "You know how to get one of those, don't you?" he says, with a laugh, "You make a big enough donation."
Gruich's serious side helped mold Biloxi history. Another colleague of his was Dr. Gilbert R. Mason Sr., whose recent death was a reminder of the Mississippi Gulf Coast's sometimes contentious history regarding civil rights. Mason's memoir, "Beaches, Blood and Ballots: A Black Doctor's Civil Rights Struggle" is an account of his days as a pioneer in that struggle. Twice in the book, he thanks a number of Biloxi physicians who helped him in the course of his career. Both times Dr. Frank G. Gruich is listed first.
Gruich and Mason were more than colleagues; they were friends. In those days, few prominent white men befriended blacks, much less treated them as equals. It may be the "Jugo" from Point Cadet saw something of his own experience in Mason's efforts to overcome prejudice and bigotry. Several stories in Mason's book testify to Gruich's courage and loyalty. One, in particular, is compelling.
During the Jim Crow era, blacks were not allowed free access to Mississippi beaches. On April 24, 1960, Mason and 125 protesters marched on the beaches, as they had in earlier "wade-ins," in defiance of the whites-only ordinance. They were attacked by groups of angry white men.
In the midst of that simmering racial tension, Mason received a phone call with an urgent summons to the Biloxi hospital conference room. The hospital staff's executive committee had resolved to rein in the troublesome black doctor who was fighting for his right to use what was later ruled a publicly funded beach. When he arrived, he found the committee and most of the hospital's doctors waiting for him with an ultimatum: Stop the activism or be kicked off the staff.
Then Gruich rose to defend Mason. He addressed the assembly of healers and reminded them of the rights they all shared as American citizens. Gruich also reminded them of the law. The committee backed down.
Mason wrote about the dramatic confrontation, "I will always remember the courage of Dr. Frank Gruich."
Remember him well
Today, Gruich and his wife, Gracie, are surrounded by evidence of a life well lived. They live in a fine home. Streets and businesses bear the family name.
They are unmoved by their material success, however. Their blue-collar Biloxi roots run deep. When a guest is offered a beverage in the Gruich household, it is an ice-cold glass of Barq's.
They are more proud their four children have gone on to build successful careers and families. The extended Gruich clan includes a number of doctors and pharmacists.
On May 10, the city of Biloxi honored Gruich with a day of his own. Many friends came to celebrate. The hospital even dedicated its new surgical suite to him and announced it with a gold-trimmed plaque.
"A respected, dedicated & committed member of the Medical Staff of Biloxi Regional Medical Center since 1955," it reads. The words, true enough, can only hint at the whole story.