Gunther Wertheimer, businessman and freelance writer, dies

Gunther Wertheimer, a former partner in Seaview Construction and Mid-Atlantic Builders who was also a free-lance writer and art collector, died Feb. 13 from recurrent lymphoma at his Edenwald Retirement Community home in Towson.

The longtime Mount Washington resident was 92.

“Gunther read voluminously and was a quiet, scholarly man who was very firm in his beliefs and principles,” said Antero Pietila, an author and former Baltimore Sun reporter and foreign correspondent. “He had been active for years in social and political causes.”

“He was a great friend and had the best smile and laugh ever,” said longtime friend C. Fraser Smith, a former editorial reporter and columnist for The Sun and later WYPR’s senior news analyst. “He always knew more about the country than anybody else. He cared about you and wanted to know how you were doing.”

Gunther Wertheimer was born in Kippenheim, Germany, the son of Leopold Wertheimer, a businessman, and Poni Wertheimer, a homemaker.

Because of Nazi activities in Germany’s Black Forest region, he and his family left in 1936 and emigrated to Brooklyn, N.Y., where he graduated in 1943 from New Utrecht High School. He was his class valedictorian.

Mr. Wertheimer entered the Navy in 1943 and was selected for officer training. He was sent for his undergraduate degree to an accelerated program at several colleges including Dartmouth, and obtained a degree from Williams College.

He became a U.S. citizen in 1944, while still in the Navy. He was then discharged.

He had been considered “an enemy alien — and he was very distressed by that,” said a daughter, Debra Wertheimer of Mount Washington.

Mr. Wertheimer entered Columbia University and obtained a master’s degree. He was active in the civil rights and peace movements.

In 1947, he married Joan Tonkonogy. The following year they moved to Baltimore when he was accepted into a doctoral program at the Johns Hopkins University.

He continued his activism and agitation for liberal causes while speaking out against the Korean War and nuclear weapons as a member of the Maryland Committee for Peace. In 1950 he was summoned to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee, where he was accused of being a communist, in part because of his association with the Maryland Committee for Peace.

“It was [the un-American activities committee] that got him bounced out of the Hopkins program. Gunther had wanted to become a professor,” Mr. Pietila said.

“He was basically finished, and had written his dissertation when he was expelled from Hopkins for his activities with the Maryland Committee for Peace,” his daughter said.

In order to support his family, Mr. Wertheimer worked as a machinist at various local manufacturers, including Crown Cork & Seal, American Can Co. and Wilkins Rogers Mills in Ellicott City.

“He had to move from job to job over a period of years due to the intrusive surveillance by the FBI and his activity in the union movement, which got him fired,” his daughter said.

Through his activism Mr. Wertheimer became friends with Milton Bates, who supported similar causes and also had been a target of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

In the 1950s Mr. Bates and his partner, Sydney Yellen, established Seaview Construction Co., a home improvement business, and Mid-Atlantic Builders. The two brought in Mr. Wertheimer as a partner.

The businesses were successful and flourished during the building boom of the 1950s and 1960s.

By the 1980s, Mr. Wertheimer was able to retire and pursue his interests in writing, art and public issues. He became a prolific contributor, generating more than 50 articles to the Evening Sun’s Other Voices page.

“He was a really good guy and a really good writer,” said Mike Bowler, who edited Other Voices. Mr. Bates also contributed to the section.

“He and Milton both contributed terrific articles for the page, and they did not require a whole lot of editing,” said Mr. Bowler. “Both ... were sharp as tacks and solid in their beliefs. The was no pussyfooting around with those with those two.”

Mr. Wertheimer’s byline was familiar to Evening Sun readers during the 1980s. He continued writing until the paper ceased publication in 1995.

He commented on issues of the day, from a nuclear freeze to the Iran-contra affair, and from land-use debates to the shuttering of Enoch Pratt Free Library branches.

He had a strong opinion of the sale of rare volumes from the Peabody Institute library by Johns Hopkins — he considered them local intellectual and cultural treasures.

“Irony is writ large in the decision of the Johns Hopkins University to remove from the Peabody Institute library and sell at auction 10 sets of rare books, including an autographed edition of John James Audubon’s ‘The Birds of America,’ ” he wrote. While noting both the “Peabody and Hopkins had fallen on hard times,” he wrote in a 1989 article that the books were “major assets of the city and nation.”

When a Hopkins provost explained the university would be shirking its fiduciary responsibility if it didn’t urge the auction house to get as much as it possibly could for the Audubon work, Mr. Wertheimer wrote, “Saint Matthew asked: ‘For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul.’ ”

In another piece he wrote about the necessity of raising money to protect Baltimore’s cultural institutions, comments made 30 years ago that now seem prescient:

“Baltimore’s image, especially during sessions of the General Assembly, is that of a beggar rattling his tin cup,” he wrote. “Aging populations, plants, sewers and roads have strained the city’s abilities to the outermost limits.”

Mr. Pietila said that he, Mr. Bates and Mr. Wertheimer met regularly to discuss issues. “We enjoyed talking about this and that.”

A longtime resident of Ridgedale Road in Mount Washington, Mr. Wertheimer served on the board of the neighborhood improvement association and had played an instrumental role in the establishment in 1989 of the Mount Washington Preservation Trust, a group dedicated to preserving green space for future generations. He also had been a founder of the Mount Washington Swim Club.

An inveterate collector of German Expressionist art, prints and self-portraits, Mr. Wertheimer became active in the Baltimore Museum of Art’s Prints and Drawing Society, including tenure as its president.

“He also enjoyed listening to the music of Richard Wagner and Gustav Mahler,” Mr. Pietila said.

Mr. Wertheimer was a former member of Beth Am Synagogue, and after moving to Edenwald five years ago he attended services at Goucher College.

“Gunther was a thoughtful man who led a very active life and contributed greatly to the community,” wrote Brian Sullam, a Mount Washington resident and former business reporter for The Sun, in an email.

Services were held Feb. 15 at Sol Levinson & Bros.

In addition to his wife of 70 years and daughter, Mr. Wertheimer is survived by his son, Samuel Wertheimer of New York City; two other daughters, Pelle Wertheimer of Mount Washington and Susan Wertheimer of Philadelphia; 10 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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