Mackinac Island Hotel, business leader known as the champion of the island

Victor Callewaert Jr. may have been known for his signature pink shirt and big smile, but beneath that folksy fudge-selling charisma was a stubbornly persistent businessman whose legacy can be counted in a number of spots. of landmarks lining the main street of Mackinac Island.

Longtime friends and visitors remember Callewaert, who died on May 8. He was 85 years old.

“Victor was a true champion of Mackinac Island,” said Tim Hygh, executive director of the Mackinac Island Tourism Bureau. “There wasn’t a significant island-wide cause or effort that he didn’t have a positive influence on. He was a huge presence who will be forever missed.

Callewaert was an island resident who also had homes in Grosse Pointe Shores and Florida. His family’s island portfolio has grown in recent decades to include: The Island House Hotel, 1852 Grill Room, Ice House BBQ, Ryba’s Fudge Shops, Mary’s Bistro Draft House, Pancake House, Pine Cottage Bed & Breakfast, Seabiscuit Café and Starbucks.

Last year, Callewaert and his family were honored for their decades of devotion to the Island House Hotel, the Victorian grande dame of the island’s main street. They received the Legendary Family Historic Hotelier of the Year award from Historic Hotels of America. The effort to bring this property back was a hallmark of his island career, as was his love for a good bite of fudge.

“For the past few years, Vic could be seen walking through downtown wearing his pink Ryba’s Fudge shirt and Michigan baseball cap, always ready with a wink or a wave,” Island House staff said on social media after his death. “As a steward of the Island House Hotel and an avid fudge connoisseur, he will be remembered for his many contributions to the Mackinac Island community. It is our honor to carry the torch ensuring Victor’s legacy is proudly carried into the future. Friends who wish to remember Victor are remembered at “Think Pink,” as he would call it, and can contribute to the Catholic Parish or St. Anne’s Medical Center on Mackinac Island; or the charity of his choice. Services will be announced as details become available.

Ryba’s has multiple locations on Mackinac Island. Live photo.

Callewaert’s career on Mackinac Island actually became a possibility on a Detroit street corner in 1936 when his energetic skills as a newspaper peddler caught the eye of nearby candy store owner Harry Ryba. It wasn’t long before Ryba hired the youngster, who later became his business partner and then his son-in-law when Callewaert married his high school sweetheart, who was Ryba’s daughter, Rena. Both men sold their Mackinac Island fudge at major events, festivals and fairs. In 1960, they decided to match the location to the style of fudge, opening their first of four Ryba’s Fudge stores on Mackinac Island. Their showmanship style of enticing customers by making fudge right next to store windows was a big draw, and Callewaert earned the nickname “Fudge King”. Customers loved seeing the process – and still do – and walk away with little pink boxes of the sweet treat the island is known for.

But Callewaert’s ambitions quickly expanded beyond sugar and chocolate. He branched out into Mackinac’s other mainstay: older hotels. He oversaw the renovation of the Lake View Hotel and teamed up with his brother-in-law, James Ryba, to buy the messy Island House Hotel in 1969 to save it from the wrecking ball. It reopened to guests in 1972 and was soon named a state historic landmark.

Throughout his decades on Mackinac, business leaders say Callewaert was known for mentoring young workers, some of whom later became business owners themselves. If he was persistent in business, he was relentless when it came to raising money for a good cause. This included the annual raffle tickets which benefited the island’s lilac festival and its medical centre.

“Residents would sometimes turn away when they saw him coming, knowing that Victor wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer when supporting worthy causes. His legacy includes financial support for the rebuilding of the Arch Rock Steps in memory of his late wife, the rebuilding of Fort Holmes and the Botanical Garden Walk to Arch Rock,” tourism office staff said.

Callewaert was predeceased by his wife, Rena, in 2009. He is survived by their five children, Mary, Todd, Ann, Amy and Gregg, as well as numerous grandchildren and other family members and friends. .

Memorial contributions may be made to St. Anne’s Catholic Parish or Mackinac Island Medical Center.

The Callewaert family

Victor Callewaert and his family outside the Island House Hotel on Mackinac Island. Photo courtesy of the Mackinac Island Tourism Bureau.

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