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Joseph J. Gerngross, 93, leader in contracting business and the Catholic community

Mr. Gerngross was willing to share his talent with anyone – it didn't matter who you were. He put a local literacy program on solid footing, and it remains so today.

Joseph J. Gerngross
Joseph J. GerngrossRead moreCourtesy of the family

Joseph John Gerngross Sr., 93, of Ambler, the former president of a family-owned mechanical contracting business and a respected leader in the Catholic community, died Saturday, June 9, of heart failure at his home.

In 1950, Mr. Gerngross and a partner, George Thomas, founded Gerngross & Thomas Corp. in the Frankford section of Philadelphia. Five  years later, Mr. Gerngross bought out his partner and with his father, Fred, founded Gerngross Corp.

The company became a major force in the area, designing and installing heating and cooling systems, refrigeration, piping, and plumbing for building projects. It also did electrical contracting work.

By the late 1960s, the firm had landed major contracts worth millions of dollars, including the plumbing in Veterans Stadium, and the heating and air-conditioning systems for the University of Pennsylvania's Radvin Institute, Philco's Blue Bell research lab, RCA's Moorestown plant, and the Sears plant in Levittown.

When his father died in 1969, Mr. Gerngross assumed control of the company as president and chairman of the board, and ran it until retiring in 1992. Under his tenure, the firm expanded its reach to Atlantic City.

Born in Philadelphia, he graduated as valedictorian from La Salle College High School in 1943. He earned a degree in mechanical engineering at Villanova University in two years under the Navy V-5 program, which trained cadets, and served aboard the Midway at the end of World War II.

"He ran the auxiliary engine room," said his son, Fred, a lawyer.

In 1949, he married Mary H. "Jeanne" Gerngross. The couple had nine children and lived in Cheltenham. The family enjoyed spending time in Ocean City, N.J.

In the Catholic community, Mr. Gerngross served as a trustee of Immaculata University in Malvern, a member of the board of managers of Catholic Charities, and past president of the Holy Name Society of St. Joseph Parish in Cheltenham.

In the 1970s, he was a member and  president of the Serra Club of Philadelphia, a Catholic lay organization devoted to the promotion and support of vocations such as the priesthood and other roles in religious life.

He served as treasurer and a founding board member of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Literacy and GED Center of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

The sisters maintain three local literacy centers, one in Coatesville that helps non-English speaking children prepare for kindergarten by taking English lessons, and two in Philadelphia that are geared toward adult immigrants who want the lessons so they can become U.S. citizens.

Mr. Gerngross was instrumental to the success of the centers, said Sister Rita Lenihan, secretary of the local Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. He obtained grants from the City of Philadelphia and the state. He also acted as a benefactor.

"He put the IHM Literacy Centers on solid footing, and they remain so today," Sister Rita said.

Sister Marian Anne Smith, an Immaculate Heart of Mary member, knew Mr. Gerngross when they served together on the literacy centers' board of directors from 1995 to 2004. The first center opened in 1989.

"He was very inspirational," she said. "He consulted with other people and respected their differences. He was thoughtful and considerate. He was willing to share his talents with other people, it didn't matter who you were, and that included the people who came to our center for English classes."

The Catholic Church recognized his service in 1985 when he was named a Knight of St. Gregory the Great by Pope John Paul II. The award typically requires recommendations from bishops or papal nuncios.

He was granted Letters of Affiliation in 1986 with the De La Salle Christian Brothers. In 1999, he was inducted into the La Salle College High School Hall of Fame.

He also was a past president of the Citizens for Educational Freedom chapter in Pennsylvania.

His wife died in 2008. He is survived by children Mary Jean McCorry, Anne Marie Palilonis, Maggie McHale, Joseph J. Jr., Robert J., Marianne Quinn, Frederick J., John J., and Rosemary Grimm; 25 grandchildren; and 20 great-grandchildren.

A viewing from 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday, June 13, at St. Alphonsus Church, 33 Conwell Dr., Maple Glen, will be followed by a second viewing from 9:30 to 10:45 a.m.  Thursday, June 14, and a Funeral Mass at 11 a.m. at the church. Interment will be in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery.

Donations may be made to the De La Salle Christian Brothers, Development Office, Box 238, Lincroft, N.J. 07738. Checks should be marked "in memory of Joseph Gerngross, AFSC."