Jack Wirtz, 78

Legendary OPRF Orchestra director

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John Henry "Jack" Wirtz, 78, died on March 12, 2013 at his home in Ottawa. Born on August 20, 1934 in Chicago to Anthony J. and Alida (Freund) Wirtz, he grew up in McHenry and attended McHenry High School, where he earned an Eagle Scout Badge. He completed his master's degree at the University of Illinois Champaign, then served in the U.S. Army and played in the Army Band at Fort Chaffe, Ark. for two years.

He married Catherine Freund on June 20, 1956 at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Johnsburg. He taught orchestra in Springfield schools for two years and at Elgin High School for 11 years including one European concert tour.

From 1971 to 1989, he taught at Oak Park and River Forest High School as Music Department head and director of the orchestra, which performed during eight European concert tours.

Wirtz's tenure coincided with choral director Robert Fuller and Theater Department Chair Jim Eitrheim, forming a legendary creative triad during the 1970s and '80s. The school's OPUS scholarship was established to honor the threesome.

"He's been one of the most human, decent, caring people we've had here," said Fuller in 1989. "Nobody loves the school more than he does."

When Wirtz retired in 1989, he told a reporter for Trapeze, the school newspaper, "I teach my students to have a deep appreciation for success in their art form. After that, if they want to go on to become professional symphony musicians, so bet it." His own son, Jeffrey, eventually became director of the Hinsdale Central High School Orchestra.

According to his son, Raymond, his father "conducted and grew three orchestras, which is unheard of in school districts. This was [his] paradise, to have a community that truly supported the arts, had a great feeder system that allowed him to expand his orchestra boundaries while teaching highly motivated, talented students to maximize their musical experiences."

He was active in the Illinois Music Educators Association (president of District 7) and the Illinois High School Association. In his final year at OPRF, he conducted the Illinois All-State Orchestra Concert.

He brought in a number of guest musicians to instruct his students, including Bud Herseth, principal trumpet with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie. His favorite piece to conduct was The New World Symphony by Anton Dvorak, and he ended every European concert with "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

In retirement, he loved sailing and boating and was a model train enthusiast. A member of St. Columba Catholic Church in Ottawa, he was a member and past secretary of the Ottawa Noon Rotary Club.

John Henry "Jack" Wirtz is survived by his wife, Catherine (Katie); his children, Raymond J. (Julie) Wirtz, Jeffrey A. (Kathy) Wirtz, Mark H. (Diane) Wirtz, and Mary C. (Cary) Shinsako; 14 grandchildren; and his three great-grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his parents. A memorial Mass was held on March 18 at St. Columba Church with Rev. David Kipfer, pastor, officiating. Burial was at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood.

Memorials may be directed to the St. Columba Building Fund. Arrangements were handled by Mueller Funeral Home in Ottawa, 815-434-4433. The online guestbook may be viewed and remembrances shared at www.MuellerFH.com.

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