The Virginian-Pilot
                             THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT 
              Copyright (c) 1996, Landmark Communications, Inc.

DATE: Sunday, April 7, 1996                  TAG: 9604050197
TYPE: Business 
DATELINE: SUFFOLK                            LENGTH: Medium:   88 lines


IN KEEPING with what he calls the ``downtown renaissance,'' longtime owner Andrew B. Damiani turned over Washington Square Mall to new owners Mark and Sandy Grethen in hopes that they will carry the torch of the future for the building that he has owned for 24 years.

The Grethens, who purchased the property under the corporate umbrella of SanMar Investments Incorporated for $147,950 on a 10-year, owner-financed note, operate Tidewater Information Group, which does business out of a 1,300 square foot suite in the mall.

They plan to continue to upgrade the mall, including installing a security system with video cameras.

Damiani said he had not put the West Washington Street mall up for sale before ``because it is not a piece of property, it is a business, I'm selling. The buyers had to be tenants interested in maintaining and renewing the property, and I felt that no one but an owner-occupier could do that.''

The sale comes at a time of personal renewal for the Grethens, who were expecting the birth of their fourth child last week. Mark Grethen noted that ``every time something big happens with my business, I have a child; which is really something, because I am not supposed to be able to have children.''

Grethen had testicular cancer in 1981 and was declared sterile by doctors after an accident while working for the U.S. Postal Service in Red Wing, Minn., in November 1980. He was unloading about 600 pounds of mail when the cart came crashing down on him, pinning his groin between the cart and the mail truck.

After being given a diagnosis of three to six months to live and a surgery plan ``that included slicing me up like a gutted fish and putting me back together with enough staples to set off a metal detector,'' Grethen discharged himself from his doctors' care and embarked on a radical macrobiotic diet supervised by local nutritionists and chiropractors. The treatment was successful - but the rest of his life turned to shambles.

``It was a horrible time for me - I had lost my health, I lost my house, my car, my motorcycle, and I lost my job the same day President Carter lost his. The postal service fired me right after my accident.''

To add insult to injury, his efforts to enlist in the Navy were rejected due to a series of congenital birth defects in his back, including scoliosis, spinal bifida and spondulosis.

The setbacks prompted Mark to re-evaluate the direction his life was going. In the spring of 1981, he returned to Hampton Roads to finish his high school education. ``I realized the stupidest thing I had ever done was to drop out of high school. It's not the piece of paper that matters, it's the discipline, skills and friendships that make the experience.''

At age 24, he was the oldest student in the history of Bayside High School in Virginia Beach. Despite ongoing difficulties with dyslexia, he received his diploma.

For the next four years, Sandy worked two jobs to support them and helped Mark study by reading textbooks out loud and typing his school reports. Her assistance, along with a semi-photographic memory, enabled Mark to graduate magna cum laude at Virginia Wesleyan University with a bachelor's degree in liberal arts in 1988. He also received a letter of commendation from then-president Ronald Reagan and earned inclusion in the Who's Who of Outstanding College Students of America.

While a working student, Mark joined forces with a friend who owned a computer store and began to learn the business. He is now a consultant to the advisory board of VAR magazine, a computer trade publication, a member of the IBM BEST team, and is listed in the Sterling's Who's Who of the computer industry.

In 1993, he and Sandy opened Tidewater Information Group, which provides information systems and support to a variety of large businesses throughout Hampton Roads. They are the exclusive Virginia authorized dealer for Dragon Dictate software, which is a comprehensive voice-driven dictation device used by physicians, handicapped persons and others seeking to free themselves from keyboard usage.

The Grethens intend to conduct computer training classes and product seminars in the newly remodeled office. Sandy, whose experience in advertising and publishing stems from long-standing family ties in the business, handles all accounting and marketing services for the firm.

``We really like the mix of tenants in the building, and they have all been very excited and supportive of the change-over,'' Sandy said. ``We've come a long way since we started, and we hope this is just the beginning of great things to come for us and downtown Suffolk.'' ILLUSTRATION: Staff photo by JOHN H. SHEALLY II

Sandy and Mark Grethen work with Dragon Dictate, a computer program

for voice-driven dictation.

by CNB