Gene (Eugene Martin) Witz of Chicago, 86, succumbed to heart failure in his Chicago home, surrounded by love and support, on Jan. 26, 2010.
Born in Chicago in 1923, the youngest of three sons of Russian immigrant parents Michaelena Kaplan and Harry Witz, Gene graduated from Lane Technical High School and then attended the Illinois Institute of Technology before joining the U.S. Army Air Force where as an eventual rank of second lieutenant, he piloted 35 combat missions in B-26 airplanes over Germany in World War II. Gene considered this part of his life one of the most profound and formative phases he would ever experience, and after being stationed in England, France, Belgium, Germany and Salzburg, Austria he was decorated with nine medals, ribbons, stars and service bars.
At the end of the war, Gene returned to Chicago and worked in the electrical construction business, Continental Electrical Construction Co., that was started by his father. He married Edna McOwen and they raised two sons, Charles Leroy (Chuck) and Harry Jay. Gene eventually became president of Continental Electric and worked as an executive there until his retirement.
During Gene’s adolescence, he had become enamored with downhill skiing, teaching himself in the small slopes in Chicago parks, so after his tour of duty in Europe in World War II he returned to Chicago and perfected his athletic ability as a skier in the Rocky Mountains and Midwestern ski areas. He became a ski instructor at Iron Mountain, Mich., taking the train there from Chicago on weekends in order to pursue his passion for the sport and love of the mountains. Skiing then drove Gene to the ski capitol of Aspen, Colo., where he and his family spent many weeks each year of the rest of most of his life. There, he was able to pursue his love of the sport and also contribute to Aspen’s business community. He was elected president of the board of the North of Nell Condominium Association in Aspen and became a part-owner of The Black Pearl of Aspen jewelry and its partner stores by the same name, in Kauai, Hawaii.
Gene was seen as a natural leader, talented businessman and creative problem-solver as he effectively served as president of other organizations, including Lincoln Park Place Condominium Association in Chicago, where he and his wife, Dr. Marylou Witz, whom he married in 1976, resided for 29 years. He served for several terms as president of The Adventurers Club of Chicago where he could share his unique and adventurous travels experience with other club members. An intrepid adventure traveler, he and Marylou spent time in more than seventy countries on four continents, including over 18 months of several weeks at a time, in Bali and other lesser Indonesian Islands. During the 1980s and 1990s they visited, photographed and wrote various articles on their tribal experiences in remote areas of Bali, the Venezuela Amazon, the Brazilian Amazon, and with the Asmat, Dani and Yali tribes of Irian Jaya, Indonesia.
In 1979, not long after he had had his first coronary bypass operation, he and his wife trekked to an altitude of 18,000 feet in the Himalayan Mountains in India, with Tenzing Norgay, the Sherpa mountain climber who first reached the top of Mt. Everest with Sir Edmond Hillary in 1953. He survived three separate coronary bypass operations during a 25-year period, several serious ski accidents and various other necessary surgeries, but always recovered quickly from each and was always soon ready to plan and embark upon another life adventure.
Gene’s talents as a photographer made him a highly sought-after slide show presenter and lecturer. His presentations of his travels at both The Adventurers Club of Chicago and civic and wilderness clubs in Aspen were guaranteed to be standing-room-only events. Since he had been awarded two separate commendation flags from the Adventures Club, for dangerous, unique and difficult intrepid travels, audience members who knew his reputation as an adventurer were always eager to hear his stories and see his photographs.
One of Gene’s most philanthropic contributions in Chicago over a period of many years was his role as a board member and financial contributor to Swedish Covenant Hospital. He was one of the original conceptualizes of a fitness center that he strongly advocated for the hospital, in the late 1970s and 1980s, when these facilities had not yet becomes mainstream. He and Marylou were major endowers of the Galter Life Center at the hospital and the running track there is named after them because of Gene’s generous foresight and financial contributions.
Gene has two sons, Chuck and Harry, and daughters-in-law, Lori Witz and Charyl Witz, two grandsons and five great-grandchildren.
A memorial service has been held. Tax-deductible checks in Gene’s memory can be made to the “Gene Witz Study Scholarships” at the Ravinia/Steans Institute Program for Piano and Strings, and be sent to: Marylou Witz Enterprises; 333 N. Canal St. No. 1807; Chicago, IL 60606.
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Theatre Aspen’s Solo Flights one-person play festival returns to the Hurst Theatre this summer Aug. 25-31with double the programming compared to its inaugural four-play festival in 2019.