We Salute Ralph Drees, Kentucky Homebuilding Trailblazer, RIP
As is the case with so many individuals who commit themselves to livelihoods in building homes and communities for others, the good stories of Ralph Drees are often stories of Ralph Drees doing good.
For a photographic portrait taken circa the 1970s, the late Ralph Drees stands a step down from his father, Theodore, who founded Drees Homes in 1928. That way, the fact that Ralph was more than half-a-head taller would not jump out upon casual observation.
Ralph Drees worked directly for his dad from 1959, and succeeded him at the helm in 1965. He built Drees Homes into the multi-regional top 25 homebuilding empire known as The Drees Company, and then passed the mantel to his son David, whose children work among the firm’s associates – a fourth generation.
Ralph Anthony Drees died Saturday, March 27, 2021, near his home in Crescent Springs, KY, and, that day, homebuilding lost one of its genuine, literally larger-than-life great souls and innovative builders of communities and a company culture. The loss – especially coming now – is felt more deeply in a moment when people like Ralph are just the ones we need to look up to as examples. His devotion to customers, to his team member associates, and partners each touch at the core of what the present and near future, full of upheaval, calls for.
One can imagine as he passes into a heavenly pantheon of American housing’s giants, his warm hand extended to whomever may guard those gates. That hand attached to a very long lean arm leading up to a million watts of warm, smiling, Southern charm, character and integrity. Just because he’d want everybody up there to be happy and get along, just as he did when he was alive.
The bio on paper tells of a man of abundant energy, constant focus on what counts, and a wide repertoire of talents and virtues – leadership, generosity, caring and humor.
The Drees Homes site notes of his achievements, both as an example for other homebuilders and as a citizen devoted to justice and charitable causes:
It was Ralph’s philosophy of diversification and industry leadership that took Drees into new markets and spurred an era of exponential growth. Under his leadership, Drees gained national attention and was named “America’s Best Builder” by Builder Magazine and “National Builder of the Year” by Professional Builder Magazine. During his tenure, the company also earned the “National Housing Quality Award” from the National Association of Home Builders.
In addition to blazing a path in the industry, Ralph was also an influential thread throughout the local community. From 2004 to 2010, he served as Kenton County Judge Executive. He also held positions with the Northern Kentucky Area Planning Commission, the Kenton County Airport Board, the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, Northern Kentucky University and Thomas More University. Ralph has been recognized for his charitable giving on a national level, earning the Hearthstone Builder Humanitarian Award. Additionally, he has been named to the Cincinnati Business Hall of Fame and has been awarded the Carl H. Linder Award for Entrepreneurial and Civic Spirit as well as the Kenton County Pioneer Award.
Current President and CEO David Drees shared, “Ralph was a bold innovator, forging the company to new heights, but on the other hand, he was also my father, a loving, devoted family man and an exceptional role model who will be missed by many.”
Still, as is the case with so many individuals who commit themselves to livelihoods in building homes and communities for others, the good stories of Ralph Drees are often stories of Ralph Drees doing good. Kindness in his being wanted a constant channel to come out.
And so often, it was Drees Homes customers who felt it.
It’s said that, a few years ago, after Ralph had given up day-to-day reins to his son, David, Drees homeowners in a community Southern Ohio built out 25 years earlier started to see a hillside give way, eroding just outside their homes, literally pouring mud into their walk-out basements.
Corporate counsel at the time looked into legal liabilities and responsibilities, but Ralph said, “No, we’re going to support these people,” and committed more than $1 million to remedying the cause of the slippage.
“Whatever he said, went,” observed a long-time Drees executive.
While customers and caring for them always ranked among Ralph’s highest priorities, anybody who knew him well, knew, too, that he was as passionately focused on his team-members’ well-being and, most of all, family.
“He spent as much time talking with assistants and secretaries about the company as he did with anybody else,” said the executive. “He was the most welcoming man” many had ever met.
Ralph Drees, this piece in the Northern Kentucky Tribune, notes:
… is survived by his loving wife of 64 years, Irmaleen Drees (nee Schultz); and his children, David (Karen) Drees, Lynn (Bill) Hemmer, Susan (Glen) Panoushek, Philip (Jennifer) Drees, and Barbara (Richard) Jones. Ralph also leaves behind his beloved grandchildren, Alexa (Joe), Trey, Ryan, Paige, Scottie, Caitlyn, Sean, Megan, Tad, Weston, Mitchel, Cooper, and Georgia; and his great-grandson, Wiley.
What peers, colleagues, family members, customers, business partners, and, even sometimes, competitors share in their memory and tribute to Ralph Drees comes down to character. George Casey, Vistage Group Chair, and one-time CEO of Cincinnati-based Zaring Homes, spoke of his spending time with Ralph at a builder executive conference in Naples, FL, in 1995 or so.
“What I recall was the openness and grace of Ralph. He was tall and distinguished in appearance and could have easily been intimidating. Instead, he was unassuming and curious; utterly without pretense. I believe that we had a short conversation and he invited me to connect with him any time, which I occasionally did.
“In retrospect I now see how he truly fit in with the giants of homebuilding who were the natural leaders, loved to build and serve customers, and saw their companies as an integral part of the fabric of their community. They provided shelter, employment, and the texture of a caring neighborhood to those in their proximity.
“His humility and caring were his strengths that enabled him to inspire others, including me, and to build both a great and lasting company and a towering personal legacy.”
As one who met Ralph myself at a conference that took place in May, 2005, just before one of Ralph and Irmaleen’s legendary barbecues on the eve of a Kentucky Derby, and felt that warm grip of a hand extended from a very long arm, leading up to a mega-watt smile, it's hard to put it any better than that.