Victor Callewaert, Mackinac Island businessman, dies at 85

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

The countless visitors to Mackinac Island likely had an encounter with or connection to Victor Callewaert.

The Metro Detroit native was one of its most successful entrepreneurs, including having helped launch Ryba’s Fudge, whose pink and brown shirt he sported for years on outings.

His dedication derived from a love of work and the scenic surroundings, relatives recalled.

Victor Callewaert

“Most of his adult life he spent on Mackinac Island,” said his son, Todd Callewaert. “He would say: ‘Isn’t it wonderful to be on beautiful Mackinac Island? How lucky are we?’ It was a great place to live and work.”

Mr. Callewaert, who had a home in Grosse Pointe Shores, died Sunday, May 8, 2022. He was 85.

His ties to one of the state’s most famous destinations dated back more than a half-century.

He and his father-in-law, Harry Ryba, who had opened sweet shops in Metro Detroit, shilled fudge at events under a name referencing Mackinac Island, Todd Callewaert said.

They eventually opened a fudge shop on the island in 1960 and enticed customers with multiple flavors doled out in its famously colored boxes.

Following that success, Mr. Callewaert was credited with helping expand and renovate the Lake View Hotel, relatives said.

After he and his father-in-law divided their operations in 1988, Mr. Callewaert went on acquire a business portfolio that includes island spots such as the Pancake House, Starbucks, the Seabiscuit, Mary’s Bistro and Draught House.

His family owns the ventures as well as the Island House Hotel, which once faced demolition.  By 2021, the Historic Hotels of America named them Legendary Family of the Year for their efforts to renovate the iconic spot.

Throughout the various ventures, Mr. Callewaert was known for mentoring and focusing on staffers, said his son, who is president of Island House Hotel/Ryba's Fudge Shops.  “He wanted to instill a love of hard work. He cared about so many people.”

The entrepreneurial spirit dated back to his youth.

Born on Detroit’s east side in 1936, he started selling newspapers at age 11, near a donut shop his future father-in-law owned, relatives said. 

After graduating from Southeastern High School, he served two years in the U.S. Army and was stationed in California, according to his family.

Following an honorable discharge, he returned to Michigan and considered careers in law enforcement and plumbing before returning to work with Ryba.

For years, Mr. Callewaert was a familiar sight at his businesses.

Three generations of the Callewaert family.

Though he slowed his routine after turning 80, he routinely stopped in at the many establishments he owned. “He had like eight stores downtown — he’d always make sure they had enough quarters, nickles and dimes,” his son said.

Mr. Callewaert’s dedication made him an island legend, some say.

“A mentor, businessman, friend and fierce supporter of Mackinac Island, Victor Callewaert has touched so many lives,” the Mackinac Island Tourism Bureau said in a statement. “It's hard to put into words what Victor has done for our community, businesses and organizations.”

His family's fudge drew fans far from Mackinac Island. For decades, its goods were sold on the show floor at the Detroit Auto Show.

There were brushes with high-profile figures, as well. Mr. Callewaert met many Michigan governors while running Ryba's Bicycle Rentals, The Detroit News reported. 

Besides work, Mr. Callewaert loved selling raffle tickets for the island medical center auction and the tourism bureau’s Lilac Festival.

He also was a member of St. Anne’s on Mackinac Island, the Mackinac Island Department of Public Works Board of Directors and the Grosse Pointe Yacht Club.

Beyond family dinners and functions, Mr. Callewaert had few other hobbies, his son said. “He was just a worker, and that’s what he loved to do.”

Besides his son, other survivors include children Mary, Amy and Gregg Callewaert, and Ann Parrish; a sister, Margie; eight grandchildren; a great-grandchild; numerous nieces and nephews; and his friend and soul mate for the past 10 years, Liz Boyd.  

He was predeceased by his wife of 52 years, Rena, in 2009 and a granddaughter, Barbara Callewaert Ratliff.

A private service has been held. Interment is scheduled for May 24 on Mackinac Island. 

Memorials may be made to St. Anne’s Catholic Parish, 6836 Huron Road, Mackinac Island, MI 49757, or Mackinac Island Medical Center, 7474 Market St., Mackinac Island, MI 49757.