As a three-star lieutenant general in the U.S. Army and even after retirement, Otto J. Guenther was a popular choice to speak at graduation ceremonies, workshops and formal events. Inevitably, his speeches involved two of his most popular phrases — “Do the right thing” and “Don’t screw it up.”
“When he spoke, I would end up typing the notes he was going to deliver where he was asked to speak, and he most often included those two sentences,” said his wife, Jan Guenther. “And we always laughed about those.”
Mr. Guenther, a 1963 Western Maryland College graduate who served 34 years in the military before returning to his alma mater after its transition to McDaniel College and became chairman of the institution’s board of trustees, died of pancreatic cancer Oct. 14 at his home in Fairfax Station, Virginia. He was 80.
Dr. Donald J. Hobart, who had known Mr. Guenther since meeting him as a freshman at Western Maryland College in 1959, was president of McDaniel’s Alumni Association during Mr. Guenther’s tenure on the board of trustees from 2006 to 2021. Dr. Hobart said Mr. Guenther had the rare ability to build consensus with anyone he talked to.
“I watched him, and he never raised his voice except for when he laughed,” said Dr. Hobart, a retired assistant chair of the kinesiology department and associate professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. “Everybody did exactly what he said and did it willingly. That is probably why he had three stars.”
The older of two children raised by Otto Guenther and the former Ruth Hilgenhurst, Mr. Guenther grew up in Red Bank, New Jersey, and was a member of the youth group and a tenor in the youth choir at the United Methodist Church of Red Bank. Approaching his high school graduation, Mr. Guenther initially had no plans to further his education.
“Many people in the church saw his potential and observed his work ethic, leadership qualities, and people skills, and they dedicated themselves to helping him get to college and financing his years there, and that’s how he ended up at McDaniel College,” Barbara Guenther wrote in a remembrance of her brother from her home in Holmdel, New Jersey.
At Western Maryland College, Mr. Guenther sang in the college choir, was chaplain of a fraternity and played intramural sports. He committed himself to earning high grades in his pursuit of a bachelor’s degree in economics.
“Otto was a pretty serious student in college,” Dr. Hobart said. “He spent a lot of time studying and not much time socializing.”
After four years as a member of the Green Terror Battalion Army ROTC program, Mr. Guenther was commissioned into the U.S. Army on June 3, 1963, and began active duty 27 days later as a second lieutenant in the Army Signal Corps. After serving two years in Korea, Mr. Guenther returned to New Jersey and visited his sister at Trenton State College in Trenton. At a men’s basketball game, he was seated in the same row as the former Jan Peterson, who was Ms. Guenther’s younger sorority sister.
“We were seeing each other most weekends after that,” said Mrs. Guenther, who married her husband the following year. “It didn’t take long for us to realize that we would be getting married.”
As a Signal Corps officer, Mr. Guenther served in many positions throughout the United States and in Korea and Vietnam. As a lieutenant colonel, he commanded the 102nd Signal Battalion, 5th Signal Command in Germany.
After commanding the battalion, he was re-designated as an Acquisition Corps officer and coordinated the purchase and logistical management of communication and electronic devices throughout the military. His military career culminated with a promotion to lieutenant general and duty as the Army’s first chief information officer at the Pentagon.
Mr. Guenther’s military career required him to move the family throughout the country, including to Alaska, California, Florida and Kansas. But Mrs. Guenther said the family grew accustomed to new destinations.
“That was just the way it was,” she said. “He was in the military, and I ran the homefront.”
When Mr. Guenther retired from the Army in 1997, he went to the private sector and worked with Computer Associates International and TRW/Northrup Grumman until 2006. Then he returned to McDaniel College to join the board of trustees.
Dr. Hobart recalled being tasked by president Dr. Roger Casey to form a presidential task force to review the alumni association. The panel needed a chair, and Dr. Hobart said the choice was a no-brainer.
“Otto was a retired three-star general. So he had evidently a lot of leadership skills,” Dr. Hobart said. “So I cornered him at a football game, and we chatted, and he agreed to head it.”
During his time at McDaniel, Mr. Guenther chaired the Building and Grounds and the Institutional Advancement committees, helped establish a Military Legacy Scholarship with a value of up to $100,000 over four years for all military veterans, active-duty personnel and their children, and contributed to a presidential search that led to Dr. Julia Jasken succeeding Dr. Casey on June 1. In 2019, he was elevated to chair of the board of trustees.
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“He wasn’t necessarily board chair for that long of a time, but he definitely had an impact,” Cheryl Knauer, director of public relations at McDaniel, said, noting that the school created a Lieutenant General Otto Guenther Leadership Award in May. “He was involved in executive-level searches, the presidential transition, the COVID-19 pandemic [response], all of those things. He helped to strategically lead in his time as board chair here.”
Dr. Hobart said Mr. Guenther lived to mentor others. Dr. Hobart said his 17-year-old grandson recalled a conversation he had with Mr. Guenther five years ago.
“He said, ‘We were at their house and by their pool, and Otto told me, ‘All you have to do is do well in school, respect and help others, and always try your best. Do these things, and you will live a great life,’” Dr. Hobart said. “This is a kid who remembered that, and that describes Otto to a T.”
In retirement, Mr. Guenther enjoyed vacationing at Smith Mountain Lake in Roanoke, Virginia, and Maine, touring small towns in Denmark, Norway and Sweden, and refining his golf game. He especially developed a prowess for shopping at the commissary at Fort Belvoir in Fairfax County, Virginia.
“I think he was pleased that he could do the shopping,” his wife said. “I wrote him copious notes about the brand names and things. Sometimes he would buy more things than were on the list just because he wanted them. But he was a very good shopper, and that helped filled his retirement days amongst the golf and taking care of fix-it jobs at the house.”
A celebration of life is scheduled for Nov. 15 at 11 a.m. at Christ Church in Fairfax Station, Virginia. A ceremony for his military service at Arlington National Cemetery will be announced at a later date.
Besides his wife and sister, Mr. Guenther is survived by two daughters, Tracy Ritch of Fairfax, Virginia, and Debbie Heard of Denver, Colorado, and six grandchildren.