MOLINE — Art Pitz didn't grow up in a religious home, but he has made religion and serving others central to his life.
The 76-year-old Boston native and his wife, Suzanne, have done a lot of volunteer work in their 50 years in the Quad-Cities, but now they are moving to the Chicago area to be close to their grandkids – 11-year-old Sam and 13-year-old Sophie.
Both are retired from Black Hawk College, where she taught psychology and he taught history.
The Pitzes will be honored by the Jewish Federation of the Quad Cities at a reception from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 15, at the Tri-City Jewish Center, 2715 30th St., Rock Island.
“Both Art and Suzanne have been incredible assets to the Quad-Cities communities in so many ways and for so many decades,” Allan Ross, the federation's executive director, said recently. “Their accomplishments would fill a book.”
“We see our marriage of 50-plus years to be our greatest accomplishment, by His grace and mercy,” Art said. “We managed to raise three children into responsible adulthood.”
“Suzanne and I are not anything special. It's just what you do,” he said.
In addition to raising their own kids, Art and Suzanne became licensed foster parents for several troubled teens from 1991 to 2001, when they retired from BHC.
“We have committed our lives to the service of others outside of our family,” Art said. “As an example, we’ve hosted quite a few international students and visitors in our home. We’ve also volunteered for World Relief to help refugees get settled here while I taught ESL (English as a second language) for adult refugees and immigrants at Black Hawk College.”
Art's father, a research chemist for the U.S. military, was conservative, and his mother was a liberal who was deeply involved in the Democratic Party.
Art said he ended up being a moderate. He met Suzanne, who grew up on a farm in central Illinois, at Northern Illinois University, where he earned his doctorate in history. They married in January 1969, and have attended Methodist church services.
“I had a hole inside that wasn't being met,” Art said of deciding to commit himself to Christ. “That undergirded our marriage. We've been interested in social justice for a long time.”
His mother admired Jewish values of social justice. “She was thrilled when eventually she learned that Suzanne and I had chosen to be of service for our local Jewish community,” Art said, noting he was profoundly influenced by working with Jewish children in the summer of 1965 at a camp in Pennsylvania.
“Anti-Semitism was right here. The civil-rights movement wasn't just for blacks; it was also for Jews, for Catholics, for women,” he said of the period. “I grew up in a segregated society. I knew enough to know as a historian, I understood when I made that commitment to the Jewish Federation, as a Christian, I'm not there to convert them, I'm there to serve them, period.”
In 1981, the Pitzes saw a documentary about the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II.
“We were shocked and appalled,” Art said. “For me, it was especially poignant since I had a Ph.D. in history and yet knew so little about the Holocaust. It just wasn’t taught then. Very few survivors had yet come forward with their testimonies."
It was then that he and his wife offered to help the Jewish Federation. “They were so welcoming that I was honestly just blown away,” he recalled.
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He got involved in the new Yom Hashoah committee, which annually presents an emotional Holocaust remembrance ceremony.
Art helped bring Holocaust education to Quad-Cities schools in the early '80s. The federation helped finance his first visit to Israel, in 1983, when he studied at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and education center in Jerusalem.
“Suzanne, I and our three young children (Margaret, then 11, Emily, then 7, and Don, then 3) were thus on one of the greatest adventures of our lives and wound up living in Jerusalem for the summer months of 1983,” he said. “Studying the Holocaust was a searing experience from dawn to dusk six days a week. I soon found I couldn’t talk about it as Emily had nightmares.”
“The purpose was to know enough to come back and interview local Holocaust survivors for the record,” he said, crediting BHC and local public television station WQPT, which spent countless hours filming those interviews. “Suzanne and I have been to some of the darkest places you can ever find,” he said of Nazi concentration camps. “I've been to Auschwitz three times.”
“I had experiences, thanks to this relationship,” Art said of JFQC, which also works with evangelical Christians on the annual “Night to Honor Israel” celebrations. The 16th event is scheduled for Oct. 17 at MGT New Hope Church, Moline.
Another vital cause he was involved with in the '80s, when unemployment in the area hovered at 18%, was bringing Western Illinois University to the Quad-Cities, first based at the BHC Moline campus.
The Pitzes also wrote and helped administer a Rotary International Foundation grant in Sierra Leone, an impoverished West African country.
“We worked with an orphanage and a school there, along with the surrounding community,” Art said, noting they lived at the orphanage. “The grant enabled them to have safe water wells, which they learned to maintain, and a food security program.”
“If you want to represent Christ in a mostly Muslim country, just preaching to them ain't going to do it,” he said. “You have to live it.”
At BHC, Suzanne was the first director of the Teaching Learning Center, leading the college into the distance-learning world, and she developed a new faculty mentoring program. Art was one of the first to develop an online course, for Modern Middle East history, drawing students from all over the world.
He worked as a dean at BHC for 12 years before retiring at 58, with an early-retirement buyout. He also coached the tennis team and served two terms on the college's Faculty Senate, including as vice president and president.
For JFQC, he's been a frequent lecturer on Middle Eastern topics, offering them free at local libraries.
The Palestinians are so internally divided, between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas (which wants to wipe out Israel), and Israel's government is so divided, it's nearly impossible to broker peace, Art said. He said the chances of a “two-state solution” are zero.
“That's my purpose, to help people understand the complexity of this, that there aren't any simple answers,” he said of his lectures. He may periodically return to offer them. “There's a need for it; it's a public service,” he said.
One of his areas of expertise is international terrorism, and Art said since 9/11, “we've had more acts of terrorism from the extreme right than jihadists, but no one wants to talk about that.”
“Suzanne and I feel so privileged to have been of service and do not plan on stopping any time soon,” Art said. “We have been supporters of the QC Fed for years and are pleased to be able to do that.”