July 1, 2008

Corvette Man

By Joe Holleman, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Jul. 1--Owning a Chevrolet Corvette is cool. So what does that make Jerry Craig, who just bought his 18th Vette?

Very cool.

Even better, Craig picked up his new black beauty at the Corvette factory in Bowling Green, Ky., on June 23 -- 50 years to the day that he bought his first Vette.

"I've loved them since they came out in 1953," said Craig, 72, an engineering graphics professor at Washington University. "I got this newest one in black because my first one, a '58, was black."

While the colors of the 16 others have varied, Craig's love of the model has never wavered, "even though in the 1970s when my kids were young, we had station wagons."

Craig grew up in Kirkwood and while at Kirkwood High, Craig watched with interest when Chevrolet announced it was going to produce a European-style, two-seater sports car.

"Chevy shipped a brand new 1953 Corvette here to compete in a sports car race," Craig said. "So a couple of friends and I went to Smartt Field in Boschertown (in St. Charles County) to see this car race. It lost badly, but I fell in love with it."

Craig has been a member of the St. Louis Corvette Club since 1959 and served as president in the early 1960s.

What makes the Corvette special? Craig said the use of fiberglass for the body is its single biggest asset. "It gives designers the ability to create a body shape that you simply can't if you use metal," he said.

After graduating from Washington University, Craig, single and 22, was driving a Ford station wagon.

"I had a buddy -- who drove a Porsche -- who nagged me about my car," he said. "He said I was an idiot for driving a wagon and said I needed something cooler."

Only three 1958s sat on the Chevy lots in St. Louis. Craig liked the black one at Feld Chevrolet in Maplewood the best.

"It cost me $3,341.46," said Craig, who still has the window sticker.

Fifty years later, the car Craig picked up in Bowling Green has a sticker price of about $62,000.

Craig and his wife, Armynta, a retired nurse, live in Ellisville with a cat and several older Vettes. Their two grown children own Corvettes, as do a handful of their brothers and sisters.

Now, Craig owns 3 1/2 Corvettes; he shares a two-tone brown 1978 with his son, Jeff.

Seven members of the clan went with Craig to Bowling Green to pick up the latest addition to the fleet. They all were there when the car rolled off the line and Craig drove it away.

"All of the workers came and shook his hand; it was quite nice," Armynta said.

Craig still teaches at Washington University but has retired from teaching at St. Louis Community College at Forest Park. He also writes engineering textbooks. Far from a breezy read, one book contains a section entitled "Sketching Isometric Pictorials for Orothographic Projection."

"I've written three textbooks and they're in use at about 230 colleges," Craig said, smiling. "Those are what pay for all the Corvettes."

Over the years, Craig grew to love more than just the looks of the car. Its engineering excellence also impressed him. His new one, which has a 427-cubic-inch V-8 engine, got an astonishing 28 miles to the gallon on the trip back from Bowling Green, he said.

The Craigs, married for 42 years, agree that the iconic two-seater is partly responsible for their successful marriage.

"It only has two seats -- no room for a mother-in-law or any kids," he said with a laugh. "It's the perfect car for you and your wife to get away."

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