Gary Fravel was a teacher, a storyteller, an adventurer, and a cowboy.
Gary’s story began in Hershey, Pennsylvania, in 1940. Gary was the oldest of three children, born to parents with stories of their own. Gary’s mother, Josephine or “Jo”, hand twisted the foil wrappers of kisses in the Hershey Chocolate Factory, and his father, Jacob (Jake), a railroad fireman, served in World War II as part of a top secret scientific team in the Pacific.
When Gary was eight years old, he developed a severe kidney disease and wasn’t expected to live. At that point, young Gary asked Jesus to be his savior, and he carried the card that he signed witnessing to that until the end. God spared his life, the doctors declaring his return to health a miracle. He did remain bedridden for the next three months, though, during which time his mother cultivated his love for books and taught him how to embroider. Gary was very precise in everything he did, so was a natural with needle and thread.
In 1952, Gary’s family moved from Pennsylvania to Arizona, where Gary spent summers with his aunt and uncle on a guest ranch in Dateland – which is where his love of the west began. He loved it so much that he stayed to live with them for three years, year round. Gary loved everything about ranch life – working with the horses, even learning to cook ranch food with his aunt. He went back to live with his parents in order to finish high school.
The year before Gary graduated, the family took a trip to Disneyland right after it had opened. Gary decided then and there that this was where he wanted to work someday… setting into motion the next phase of his life. Although he enrolled in Tempe University in Arizona, and spent two years there, he spent the summers working as a jungle boat guide at Disneyland. After his second summer, he made an 8 millimeter film of a behind-the-scenes look at being a jungle cruise guide and Disney employee. They played the film at the end of summer party, where it caught the attention of Van France, advisor to Walt Disney and the man who would become Gary’s mentor. Van and Walt had a plan to create a training facility for employees, to learn the “Disney” way… and when Van showed Walt Disney Gary’s short film, Walt saw the kind of person he wanted to help create “Disney University.” They put Gary in charge of teaching classes, training supervisors how to train their employees. Disney University is still alive to this day.
In 1965, Gary left Disney to return to his cowboy roots. He bought a small guest ranch in Cottonwood, California and named it Timber Trails. It was here that he met the love of his life and his partner, Charlotte Frazier. Charlotte was the best friend of Gary’s youngest sister, Joan, and when Gary’s family came to the ranch to help him fix it up, Charlotte often went along. Most of their courtship happened in the mountains of northern California. Charlotte graduated in 1967, and they “officially” began dating at that point. Gary proposed to her on Christmas Eve, and they were married in September of 1968.
Gary and Charlotte spent their honeymoon at Colter Bay Village in Grand Teton National Park – Charlotte had grown up a city girl, but loved the mountains. They rode horses in Grand Teton, they floated down the Snake River on a WWII pontoon raft, they went to the Bar J Chuckwagon. This trek to the Tetons became an annual event.
Returning to California after their two week honeymoon, they settled first in a little California town called Elk Creek. But soon Van France was calling Gary back to Disney, asking him to take over Disney University and assisting with the opening of Disney World at the beginning of 1970. The company flew Gary and Charlotte to Florida to see the property while it was still under construction. Gary’s first job was to make a 20 minute short film on the construction of Disney World, so he and Charlotte took pictures and made notes, wearing hard hats and mud boots. They returned to California, and Gary began editing his short film which would be shown in theatres to promote the opening of the Magic Kingdom, but he soon had to return to Florida to begin training all the employees in the “Disney Way.” There were 1200 employees in all, and he and two friends were responsible for teaching all of them. Disney World opened with all the stars and TV galas in October of 1971, and Gary and Charlotte were there behind the scenes for the whole thing. Charlotte worked in the floral division, and Gary had to assist from time to time because of the enormity of the job! Charlotte’s first delivery was 100 red roses from Blake Edwards to Julie Andrews… the arrangement was so huge it wouldn’t fit into their small delivery van, so Charlotte and her assistant had to use the monorail, which was still being tested!
Walt Disney was the dreamer, and his brother Roy was the financier. Walt passed away just before Disney World opened, and Roy passed away in 1973. At that point Gary and Charlotte watched the magic of Disney World transform into a money-centered business, and they decided to move back to California.
Gary went to work for Bank of America in Redding, California, as operations officer, transferring to Fall River Mills in the mountains soon after, where he and Charlotte bought a five acre piece of land with a log house and loved it. They still traveled to and from Wyoming as often as they could, though, and Gary soon came to the conclusion that he wasn’t a banker. When they noticed an ad in the newspaper advertising for summer help in Grand Teton, they knew where they were headed. Gary was hired as training director immediately, and Charlotte went into merchandising. They had two months to sell everything, put their house up for sale, and head to Wyoming in the summer of 1976. Gary’s sister Joan and her husband joined them, and their summer jobs soon turned into full-time, year round employment. Gary was hired to develop new training programs, taking over human resources in their third year, and soon developed innovative recruiting practices which are still in place today – such as hiring retirees with campers as a stable workforce during the shoulder seasons, and working with Christian Ministries to recruit seminary students to offer services in the park.
After almost six years, Disney called again, and Gary, who was tired of being a supervisor, took a job as a submarine guide at Disney World. But the hiatus didn’t last – a headhunter soon convinced Gary to take a job as head of human resources and executive trainer for Amelia Island off the coast of Florida. Soon after, he received a call from Stouffers, which was opening large restaurants at hotels near major airports, and they asked him to institute training programs for them. This job took them from Denver to Los Angeles, until Rockefeller Holdings called him to do trainings for their hotels in the Caribbean. They spent the next year and half there… until finally Gary decided he needed a vacation! So they stayed home in Sacramento for a few months. While on their “vacation,” Charlotte began a business building miniature Christmas tree scenes… which would become a large part of their life in later years.
Rockefeller’s Rock Resorts put Gary to work next on a small island in Hawaii, where they stayed for two years, until Rock Resorts sold and Gary began doing independent consulting work. One of his consulting jobs was for the Greenbriar Hotel in West Virginia, which soon turned into a permanent job offer. Although they only planned to stay there for a couple of years before heading back west, they developed wonderful friendships and enjoyed their church so much that they stayed in West Virginia for the next 26 years.
No matter where they went, Charlotte was always Gary’s right hand woman. She set up rooms, she helped with pre-interviews, she typed and helped him prepare papers. Often she would work in the retail shops for the hotels and resorts Gary worked for. But the miniatures business she started in the mid-seventies, “Master’s Touch,” became a tremendous undertaking while in West Virginia. The Greenbriar was the first to sell her pieces, but soon they were in other states. Tom Clancy, who frequently did his writing at the Greenbriar, bought several pieces, along with Michael Landon and others, with pieces shipped to England and all over the world. Although the business started out as Charlotte’s, Gary contributed more and more over the years.
The Fravels continued to vacation in Wyoming, and as soon as he could retire, he did… and they came to visit Wyoming in 2010 with the intention of finding a place to spend their retirement. Their first night in Cody, they came to the Dan Miller Cowboy Music Revue. The next morning, they made an offer on their home in Powell… and returned to the Music Revue that night, announcing to their new friends that they were moving to Wyoming! It took them a month to pack up their life in West Virginia and head to Wyoming.
Gary and Charlotte’s giving nature came into play in my life when my twelve year old son became critically ill, and they offered to spend time sitting in the hospital with this young boy whom they had never met, while I had to spend time at work. They became close friends of our family and grandparent figures to my son, a tribute to their giving hearts and loving natures.
Right after he married them, their pastor said, “Gary, you’ll have to learn to find and be able to worship the Lord in a church…” and “Charlotte, you’ll have to learn to find and be able to worship the Lord in nature.” Gary could find God in a church, but always felt nearer to him outside. So many places they lived didn’t have a church building, especially when they worked for the national park service. There they found God in the open spaces, where they would have services. They loved to hike and get up in the mountains, and that’s where they both felt the Lord closest to them, many times.
Gary’s love was always for the west, for the mountains, for being a cowboy. Gary spent his working years appreciating the freedom that his employers gave him to be creative, in all the places he worked. He loved to teach, he loved people, he loved writing... he loved being Charlotte's husband. He loved the magic! Gary was a child at heart, his whole life.