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High School music teacher John ‘Jack’ Wirtz was ‘hero’ who inspired students

John Wirtz Obit photo. | Provided Photo

John Wirtz, Obit photo. | Provided Photo

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Updated: April 26, 2013 6:26AM

Back in high school, Shelley Wasmond Lewis would blush scarlet when somebody spoke to her.

Today, she heads Little Angels, a long-term care facility in Elgin for patients with serious medical needs and disabilities.

She said she owes her career to her high-school music teacher, John “Jack” Wirtz.

Thanks to him, “I can stand up to [the departments of] Public Health, Public Aid and Illinois Human Services to make sure the children and young adults I serve get the services that they need,” said Lewis, whom Wirtz taught at Elgin High School.

“Jack was my hero. I was a very shy, timid kid, and he really molded me into a very confident young woman,” she said. “He put me into the mix of everything and gave me enthusiasm for competing with fellow musicians. And he gave me the confidence to work hard and practice, and be the best violinist I could.”

Mr. Wirtz died March 12 at 78 at his home in Downstate Ottawa.

For nearly 20 years, he chaired the music department at Oak Park and River Forest High School, where he headed the freshman orchestra, the concert orchestra and the larger symphony orchestra. Every other year, he led the symphony orchestra on trips to Europe, including stops in Germany, Italy and the Netherlands.

A 1989 article in Oak Park’s Wednesday Journal reported “a sold-out house of 1,600 packed the Musikverein, home of the Vienna Philharmonic, to hear the Oak Park and River Forest High School Symphony Orchestra in concert with the 150-strong Viennese Choir.”

“There’s nothing to beat that,” Wirtz told the Journal. “That’s the epitome of what music education is all about. For the kids, it’s a great educational experience; professionally, there’s nothing better.”

“My dad would have pancake breakfasts” to help kids pay for the trip, said his daughter, Mary Shinsako. In the winter, he helped the students sell citrus fruit. “We would be unloading hundreds of grapefruits and oranges from Texas to sell. This is all during his free time, on weekends, unloading, scheduling.”

Being in his orchestra “was the best thing about high school,” said Sandy Bernat Ridolfi, a former student at Oak Park and River Forest. “Symphony was last period,” she said. “It’s the end of the day, and people are kind of tired, but he was introducing us to the wonderful music, the great composers.”

His expectations were high, and the students met them, she said. “We played Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.”

Mr. Wirtz was raised in a music-loving family in McHenry. His parents arranged for him to study violin. In high school, “I chased him till he caught me,” said his wife, Catherine. “We had a magical life, I’m telling you. I’m going to miss him awful much.”

He studied music education. In 1956, “He graduated from the University of Illinois on a Saturday in June, and we got married the following Wednesday,” she said.

After teaching in Springfield and Elgin, he became music director at Oak Park and River Forest. He invited working musicians to talk to his students. His guests included Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie and Dale Clevenger, principal horn with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

The Wirtzes entertained Gillespie at a restaurant, where Catherine Wirtz marveled at how much food he enjoyed shortly before performing.

“I’ve never seen a man who could eat so much food, and play,” she said.

Mr. Wirtz conducted the school orchestra during musicals, as future stars, including Mary Elizabeth Mastrontonio, trod the boards.

During summer breaks, he taught at Southern Illinois University. The Wirtzes lived at a nearby campground, in a former Greyhound bus he gutted and rehabbed into a mobile home. He even outfitted it with electricity and plumbing.

They used the scroll above the driver’s seat to spell out its new name: “The Wirtzmobile.”

“We slept in there, the dog, the four kids and my mom,” Mary Shinsako said.

Back home, in Oak Park, he relaxed by going down to the basement and operating his model train. The set replicated the folksy villages he and the orchestra kids visited in Europe. “There were little pubs, and little glasses in all of the pubs, everything lit up,” his daughter said.

In 1989, he retired. Jack and Catherine moved to the river town of Ottawa, where he boated on the Katydid, a watercraft named for his wife. He volunteered with the Rotary Club, sold real estate, and enjoyed steak and potatoes — and Manhattans.

Other survivors include sons Raymond, Jeffrey, and Mark; 14 grandchildren, and three-great-grandchildren. Services have been held.

Ridolfi recalled a transcendent moment for his students during an orchestra trip to Austria. After performing Mozart near Salzburg — the composer’s birthplace — the response from the audience was so rapturous, they were confused.

“The audience stood up and started stomping their feet, and at first we didn’t know what they meant — and they brought out this huge bouquet of flowers for Mr. Wirtz. And I remember thinking, when he passed away, that’s how he should be greeted in heaven.”

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