“Wouldn’t it be nice to live there,” they’d say to each other, to their children. Some 50 years, two businesses and 10 grandchildren later, it was in a glittering house in Manhasset, his home for more than three decades, that Ripley passed away on July 2, 2015, just a few days short of his 86th birthday.
One of Maspeth’s most successful entrepreneurs, Ripley started out as a new Marine Corps grad with a $200 loan from his parents and went on to build numerous businesses throughout Maspeth, reaching customers across the country and employing 17 from his Grand Ave. store at its peak.
“Tom was always someone that could look at something and imagine what it could be,” said John Horan, Ripley’s son-in-law and protégé, over coffee at the Fame Diner last week. “He could see a jewel in the rough, see the ability or potential in it, and follow through.”
Born in Maspeth in 1929, Ripley met the woman who would become his wife, Lorraine, in junior high at I.S. 73, eventually serving in the Marine Corps after graduating from high school and working at UPS for a stint before the pull of entrepreneurship led him on a different route. His father, himself a successful real estate investor, gave him a small loan, and in the late 1950s Ripley purchased Maspeth Glass.
What was a relatively modest operation soon grew as Ripley expanded his roster of products to include tabletops, mirrors and factory windows, going down to the factories in the lower end of Maspeth and Brooklyn himself, pneumatic hammer in hand, and installing glass for customers.
Business steadily grew, with Ripley eventually buying up buildings alongside his factory, however even amidst growing success he maintained an eye towards other business opportunities.
A lifelong boater, Ripley realized that sailing supplies were in short supply in the area, the shop at Broad Channel offering a small selection of high-priced items. Having made some contacts in marine product wholesale through his glass business, he soon started bought up some products and began selling them from his Grand Ave. storefront.
“He ended up putting a little bit of both things in the store,” said Horan. “Guys would come on their way back from the factory, stop in and buy some boat paint.”
He soon added more products, including Sonar radios, and as the boating end of his business began to thrive, he began phasing out his glass business, eventually re-opening as Ripley Marine Supplies. In 1966, as he began focusing exclusively on marine supply, an opportunity for another business venture arose, and Ripley made perhaps his most innovative move to date.
At the time, catalogues were almost exclusively utilized by big department stores and major wholesalers, however Ripley decided he could adapt this model to his much smaller business. He and Lorraine eventually set up a printing press of sorts out of their Flushing home, cutting out pictures from larger manufacturers’ catalogues, reducing the size via a newly-purchased machine, and putting together their own 126 page catalogue.
“I can remember going to Tom and Lorraine’s house when I first started dating my wife, and they’d have big pieces of poster board with all the different papers laying on them,” said Horan. “Tom would lay them out, Lorraine would glue them and type out the prices. There’d be hundreds of boards all over the house.”
Having amassed a rolodex of contacts while selling at boating shows, the catalogues quickly grew in popularity, with Tom soon sending out nearly 100,000 catalogues across the country and to Puerto Rico.
Even as his catalogues took off, he maintained a thriving retail store out of his Grand Ave. storefront, which at its peak had 17 people working in the shipping, retail and massive storeroom sections of the building.
“We had a great business,” said Horan, who worked at the store. “There was a life and an energy there. It was almost like a show—someone would come in, we’d talk to them about what they wanted and we’d yell to Tom, ‘How much is this?’ and he’d yell, ‘Give them 20% off!’ It was almost like an auction house. It was fun.”
His thriving catalogue business necessitated he maintain a tremendous stock of product at all times, meaning he could be depended upon to fulfill retail clients’ more obscure requests.
“People would come in with a broken cable, and say, ‘I don’t know if you’re going to have this,’ and Tom would take absolute pleasure in going down to the warehouse and coming back with it,” said Horan.
While business remained thriving for years, by the mid-1980s more and more companies began computerizing and gaining a competitive edge.
“Tom was emotional and passionate about the business, but he was never so tied into it that he would say ‘I’ve got to make it work,’” said Horan. “He was smart enough to say this business is waning, I need to figure out what my next move is.”
As he began preparing to close down Ripley Marine Supplies over the next few years, Horan said Ripley began to think long and hard about what his next move would be.
“He said, ‘I want to be in a position in life where I’m using my head instead my back, here I’m not working as hard but I can still have a business and a steady flow of income,’” said Horan.
Tom soon focused his attention on real estate, buying up mixed-use properties throughout Maspeth, renovating them, and renting them out to residential and retail tenants. In this venture, once again, he was visionary.
“He ended up putting offices in the basement of one building,” said Horan. “Everyone was saying you’ll never rent offices in a basement, but he put them in anyway, and they’ve been rented for 25 years.”
At the height he owned 17 buildings throughout Maspeth, amassing a reputation in the real estate world that eventually landed him on the board of Maspeth Federal as they were looking to expand their operations.
Ken Rudzewick, president of the board at Maspeth Federal noted that Tom had been a US Marine and certainly had his life squared away.
"Tom was one of the biggest supporters of all the activities that help Maspeth grow including our Memorial Day Parade,” he said. “He was a true blessing to our community and we dearly miss him around here."
Webster Schott, a fellow board member at Maspeth Federal with Ripley for decades, talked about Tom’s influence on Maspeth and on the growth of the bank.
“Tom was the entrepreneurial pioneer of Maspeth in the 70’s and 80’s,” he said. “His Marine shop was started from a small idea when he needed paint for his boat. That turned it into a great business. When he came to the bank, he was a driving force behind the brick and mortar expansion of Maspeth Federal to other areas of Queens.”
Even as his family urged him to take a break, John says Ripley was adverse to the idea, remaining on the board and in peak physical condition well into his 80s.
“On his 80th birthday he was still going up stairs two at a time,” said John. “He never lost his marine corps values. He would work out everyday.”
Even as his mobility began to go, Tom’s brain remained sharp as a tack.
“His mind was always there,” John said.
He passed away at 85 in July.
For a life filled with so much business success, John said that Tom will above all be known simply as a wonderful man. A man who could charm anyone with a zing-y one-liner, who insisted on driving an old station wagon even as he enjoyed incredible success, who nudged John, a protégé of decades, to try out on his own, a move which eventually helped him establish his own successful construction company.
“He just had a nice way about him,” said Horan. “He was such a charismatic guy.”