Gary James Pace, the world’s greatest hugger, died on Sunday, January 10, 2021.
Gary began his life in Dodgeville, Wisconsin in October 1946, where he spent his first decade with his older sister, Carol Ann, and their parents, Dorothy Anne (James) Pace and Lyle Lake Pace. He was a bright and energetic child who thrived off silliness and tomfoolery. As a young boy, Gary loved playing with his cousins in Bagley, family camping trips to Northern Wisconsin, and fishing with his grandpa James.
In the mid-1950s, the Pace family moved to Monona, Wisconsin, and shortly thereafter Patricia Anne was born. Gary embraced his new role as big brother. He looked out for Patti and, as older siblings sometimes do, Gary loved to tickle his baby sister. She was the light of his life, and she adored him right back.
Gary’s teen years were much like those before, filled with fishing, camping, tickling his little sister, and plenty of mischievous tomfoolery with his buddies. The year he was a senior at Monona Grove High School (1963-64), Gary worked at a grocery store and he drove a Studebaker two-seater. He really thought he was hot stuff in that car. One day after school, he parked his sweet ride in the steep driveway in front of his house so he could run inside to get changed for work. When he came back outside, the car was gone. It had rolled down the driveway, across the street, and straight through the neighbor’s garage door. His family loved teasing him about that for years to come.
In March of 1965 Gary met Carron Rene (Gradel) Pace at Rusty’s on University Avenue in Madison and they married in October 1965 after a short courtship. The newlyweds lived in Beloit, Wisconsin for a few months while Gary was in management training at Woolworth’s department store. During that time, the couple lost their first child to miscarriage. While they were grieving the loss of their daughter and before he could complete his management training, Gary received his draft notice for the United States Army. He left for basic training in Anniston, Alabama on St. Patrick’s Day 1966.
After basic training, Gary completed his Advanced Individual Training to become a textile repairman and learned how to replace collars and repair bullet holes in uniforms. He thought he would be staying in Anniston, so the couple agreed Carron should move there. However, two weeks after she arrived, Gary received his orders for Kaiserslautern, Germany, where he would serve his country as a postal clerk until the spring of 1968. While stationed in Germany, Gary and Carron lived off base in a one-bedroom apartment on a centuries-old cobblestone street in Otterberg.
From Germany, Gary and Carron moved to the top floor of an old hospital in Monroe, Wisconsin. From there, they moved to Janesville where Gary would start his career in shoe sales. In the spring of 1972, Gary moved to Dodgeville to open Pace Bootery with his parents.
In October 1972, Gary and Carron lost their second child, Judith Renee, just one hour after her birth. The couple, as well as their extended family, were grief stricken. But life, as they say, must go on. Gary put his energy and focus into building Pace Bootery into a thriving family business. Pace Bootery operated in three different locations on Iowa Street in Dodgeville until its closure in 1985.
While in Dodgeville, Gary was a member of the Freemasons, the Lions Club, and the Dodgeville Chamber of Commerce. He also served in the Wisconsin Army Reserves each summer. It was there that he developed his skill and love for cooking.
Two weeks before Christmas 1973, Gary and Carron were blessed with a healthy baby girl named Christyn Renee. Gary, Carron, and their entire families were overjoyed, and the light in Gary’s life was restored. The light grew once more when a son, Mitchel Gradel, came along in August 1975. Gary’s family was complete, and he was such a proud and attentive father.
In June 1980, Gary lost his father and mentor, Lyle Lake Pace. Much like Lyle, Gary was an excellent salesperson and a champion bullshitter. They were both the kind of guy who could sell a ketchup popsicle to a woman in white gloves. Gary believed in letting a quality product speak for itself and providing excellent customer service came naturally to him. Much like Lyle, Gary has been beloved over the years by his coworkers and customers alike.
From 1975 to 1987 Gary’s family of four lived on Walnut Street in Dodgeville. Gary introduced his family to his love of fishing and camping, and they took many trips to Northern Wisconsin in the summer. During those years, he loved to go bird hunting. Gary was an excellent cook, and at Christmas he would serve roast pheasant, duck, or other wild fowl for the family holiday dinner. He also loved to garden, and every summer through fall the family would enjoy a wide variety of freshly harvested vegetables.
Gary was a dog lover. His family had many pets over the years, but there was one dog that stood out above the rest. For Christmas in 1982, Gary and Carron brought home a golden retriever puppy. On Christmas morning, Gary was waiting behind the sofa so when the kids came into the room, he could let that little ball of fuzziness go bounding down the cushions. It was a memorable moment, and the blur of golden fun inspired the family to name her “Honey”. Honey would become Gary’s hunting companion. Sometimes she would get loose in the campground, and Gary would have to call for her. He absolutely loved the confused expressions of strangers who heard him yelling, “Honey! Honey! Where are you, Honey?”
Gary loved his family, and he especially reveled in spending time with the little ones. His nieces Tammy, Carrie, and Jamie and his nephew, Carson, always held an extra special place in his heart. At family gatherings Gary could be seen rolling around on the floor playing with the kids, asking them to pull his finger, or tolerating the many times the kids would pet his extraordinarily hairy arms. He filled the role of father figure at times and was always giving sage dad advice like “if it hurts, don’t do that” or “when you play euchre, always lead with trump”.
Gary was a handsome fella. He often smelled like aftershave and kept his hands neatly manicured. He had a pleasant singing voice and could whistle a tune better than anyone you have ever met. He was also the master of dirty jokes and revered the f-word as an effective means of communication.
Gary was a do-it-yourselfer who liked to build things and work on home improvement projects. He built a cantilever deck at the Walnut Street house, and when his grandpa James’ house was being torn down, he dug out some of the heavy foundation stones and used them to build a retaining wall.
After Gary and Carron divorced in 1987, Gary moved to Mineral Point for a couple of years and worked for Lands End and WDMP.
In June 1989, a friend of Gary’s introduced him to a new love, Janet Brown. The couple dated for six months, and they were engaged that December. Gary moved to Sauk City and eventually bought the house on Dallas Street in 1993, where he and Jan lived until his death.
Gary and Jan had so much fun together for many years. They loved to go out for dinner and dancing with friends. They went golfing and fishing together. They played cards and watched sporting events. Gary also introduced Jan to his lifelong tradition of going to Northern Wisconsin on vacation each summer. The couple had a great time on their trips to Jamaica, Punta Cana, and Las Vegas.
During those years, Gary worked at Drexel, Home Depot, and Nonn’s selling floor coverings. The most recent job he had, prior to his illness, was at the Mobil station in Sauk City.
In December 1998, Gary lost his mother, Dorothy Anne (James) Pace, to complications from Parkinson’s Disease. Six years later, in December 2004, he lost his only son, Mitchel Gradel Pace, to a snowmobile accident. After another four years passed, Gary lost his older sister, Carol Ann (Pace) Hebert-Shultz, to cancer in December 2008. In just a decade, there were three devastating losses for the Pace family.
Gary always dreamed of being a grandpa, and in April 2013 he finally got his wish when Chris and her husband, Jason, had a healthy baby boy, Odin Mitchell Stephens. Gary took every opportunity he could to see his new grandson and fell easily into the role after so many years without youngsters in the family. As Odin grew, the two developed a sweet friendship and enjoyed cracking wise together. Now, Gary had a new name, “Papa”. His granddaughter, Dhara Wayne Stephens, was born in March 2015. Papa and Dhara were the best of buddies, and they loved making funny faces at each other. And, once again, there was a child in Gary’s life who loved to pet his extraordinarily hairy arms. These two kids were another light in Gary’s life.
In March 2014, about a year after becoming a “Papa”, Gary got the devastating news that he, like his mother before him, had Parkinson’s Disease. The progression of the disease was gradual, but it eventually took all the hobbies Gary once enjoyed, one by one.
In the final days of Gary’s life, he faced what was ahead of him with bravery and conviction. He will be dearly missed by those who still love him.
If you ever were lucky enough to receive a hug from Gary during his lifetime, you know how spectacular those hugs were. He truly was the world’s greatest hugger.
“Hug like you mean it.” ~ Gary James Pace
Gary is missed by his fiancé, Janet (Nordeng) Brown, his daughter and son-in-law, Christyn and Jason Stephens, his grandchildren, Odin and Dhara Stephens, his sister and brother-in-law, Patti and Jim Blabaum, his nieces, Tammy (Hebert) Hintch (John Willborn), Carrie (Blabaum) Miller (Matt), and Jamie Blabaum, his nephew, Carson Blabaum (fiancé Ariel Helt), extended family members, many good friends, and former coworkers.
A virtual memorial service will be held in early February.
In lieu of flowers, please consider a donation to the Michael J. Fox Foundation in Gary’s name at https://www.michaeljfox.org/donate
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