To read a 1993 feature we wrote on Rupert Wenzel, click on the “Buggin’ Out” link at the bottom of this page.
Rupert Wenzel’s life played out on a couple of stages?#34;one local, the other global. As head entomologist with the Field Museum in Chicago, he became an expert on beetles. That expertise, in turn, enabled him to help Oak Park develop its battle plan in the fight against Dutch Elm disease, which is spread by beetles. Today, though the disease continues to take its toll, Oak Park still has many more elm trees than most other communities in the Midwest. “The beetles involved in that are similar to my beetles, so I am very familiar with the disease and the mechanics of transmission,” Wenzel said in a previous interview.
Dr. Wenzel died in his Oak Park home on July 7, 2006.
During World War II, he served as a medical entomologist in the Army Sanitary Corps. He commanded the 202nd Malaria Survey Unit, which worked to stop the influx of malaria-carrying African mosquitos by returning U.S. airmen flying into Brazil. He was honored by Panama for his groundbreaking book on ectoparasites. His field work for the Field Museum took him to Central America, Australia, China, Russia and London.
But he was perhaps proudest of his work as a public servant in Oak Park. From 1961 to 1969 he served as a trustee on the village board. As chairman of the Zoning, Building, Housing and Planning Committee, he helped lay the groundwork for the landmark Fair Housing Ordinance, the first of its kind in the country, passed in May 1968. In the aftermath of a racial controversy in the early 1960s involving an African-American violinist who was not allowed to play with the local symphony, Wenzel proposed the formation of what became the village’s Human Relations Commission, which spearheaded the open housing movement, leading to the 1968 ordinance.
In a 1993 interview in Wednesday Journal, Wenzel said, “It was a long, bruising process which alienated many otherwise good people, but in the end we prevailed. It was even worth undergoing a serious death threat.”
Dr. Rupert L. Wenzel Sr. was born in Owen, Wis. on Oct. 16, 1915. Educated at Waller High School, Crane Junior College, and the Central YMCA College, he earned his doctorate at the University of Chicago. As a teenager he became fascinated by insects and volunteered at the Field Museum’s Department of Entomology. Eventually, he became curator of Entomology and chairman of the Department of Zoology. He lectured at Roosevelt and Northwestern universities and the University of Chicago. A fellow of the Entomological Society of America, he was also a member of many other scientific organizations. His specialty involved the taxonomy, biology, evolution and zoogeography of beetles of the family Hysteridae, bat flies of the family Streblidae, and host-parasite relationships of ectoparasites. And he established the highly regarded entomology library at the Field Museum.
In recent years, he expressed concern about attacks on the teaching of evolution in the classroom, and commented often that he found no conflict between science and religion.
He also had an interest in acting and appeared on radio programs such as “Jack Armstrong, All-American Boy,” and performed with the Jack and Jill Players along with his future wife, Mary Ryan. Classical music (especially opera), the environment and fishing were among his other strong interests. And he was a longtime member of the Caxton Club, a group that focused on rare book collecting.
In addition to his two terms on the village board, he served on the board of directors of the National Conference of Christians and Jews (1959-1962), as president of the Friends of the Oak Park Public Library (1960-61), vice president of the board of governors of the OP-RF Community Chest (1962-64), and chairman of the Village Reforestation Committee (1977).
“I’m very proud of the community service aspects of my career, and in retrospect, the eight years I served the village as a trustee were among the most satisfying of my life,” Dr. Wenzel said.
Mary and Rupert Wenzel were also among the first investors in Wednesday Journal, Inc. during the early 1980s.
Rupert Wenzel Sr. is survived by his three children, Dr. Judith Wenzel (Dr. Olaf) Anderson, Rupert L. (Gail) Wenzel Jr., and Stephen (Caron) Wenzel; his six grandchildren, Joy (Ira) Bird, Elsa Wenzel, Karl (Kristen) Andersen, Philip (Amy Wagenseller) Andersen, Gregory Wenzel and Geoffrey Wenzel; his three great-grandchildren, Oliver Bird, Charles Bird, and Ryan Wenzel; his sister, Gladys (the late Robert) Rivers; and his dear friend, Barbara Ballinger, who brought great joy to his last years. His wife, Mary, preceded him in death.
Visitation will be held Wednesday, July 12, at Drechsler, Brown & Williams Funeral Home, 203 S. Marion St., Oak Park from 4 to 9 p.m. Funeral Mass will be celebrated on Thursday, July 13, 9:30 a.m., at St. Edmund Church.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Family Service & Mental Health Center of Oak Park-River Forest, 120 S. Marion St., Oak Park 60302.