Dear readers, this is Mary Ann Wittenberg, Harry’s wife. There may be a few readers out there that do not know that Harry lost his battle with ALS on October 16th, 2020. Today at his one year anniversary I would like to post a beautiful obituary written by his good friend Chris Mead. On behalf of myself and the family, we want to thank you for following Harry’s blog, for providing him with inspiration and support during his journey and for being there for his family. Please take a moment to think of him today and enjoy a Manhattan in his honor.
July 17,1955 – October 16, 2020
Harry departed peacefully after a three year struggle with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. He died at home surrounded by family and friends, blanketed in love, as befits a man who loved so well and so long.
Harry was born in the center of the known universe, Brooklyn, New York, to Edna and David Wittenberg, Holocaust survivors who immigrated to the US after WW II. Raised in a home rooted in Judaism, Harry attended Yeshiva, until his teens when he insisted on attending public school, ultimately graduating from Brooklyn’s Midwood High School in 1973. He then attended Brooklyn College to become a special education teacher and earned a graduate degree from Columbia University in instructional design.
During these early years, Harry’s lifelong commitment to helping the most vulnerable in society was evident in his work with the developmentally disabled at the Willowbrook facility and Camp Lymelight, where Harry started friendships that lasted his whole life. Harry never lost a friend, he just introduced his friends to each other, and made the group bigger. To Harry, friends were family.
Harry moved to California in 1981, where he met the love of his life, Mary Ann Staffieri when they were both teaching for Oakland Public Schools. They married in 1985 and became parents to Max, of Truckee, California, Lucia of Washington, D.C. and Ethan, of Oakland, California. Harry was incredibly proud of his children’s resilience, creativity and commitment to social justice. When he left the classroom he entered private industry, always remaining a life-long teacher, working in organizational development and training at Apple, Schwab, Genentech and Autodesk. His greatest achievement being able to help people bridge differences and begin to work cooperatively.
Harry was a person with many interests and gave freely of his time to others. He built his own basses and co-founded the Bay Bridge Beat funk band. He was a regular on charitable events like the Waves to Wine MS ride , the Aids Ride down the coast of California or the ALS walk where he was the top individual fund raiser last year. Harry traveled extensively and with purpose, seeking out experiences with locals to learn from and develop friendships with. He started the Men’s Weekend ski trip to Yosemite , which he organized and led for more than 30 years, involving a rotating crew of musicians, cross country and downhill skiers, good food, hot tubbing , cigars and, depending on his mood, his special Martinis with a bit of orange water, or a Manhattan. The Men’s Weekend creed, which Harry coined, was “Start slow and taper off.”
Always anchored by his Jewish values, Harry and Mary Ann hosted an annual “Blues Seder’ involving music, sunglasses, humor, a crowd of persons of different faiths and Harrys’ narration, grounded in the obligation to make the world a better place, and to care for those less fortunate than themselves. Harry and Mary Ann were members of Congregation B’nai Tikvah in Walnut Creek, where Harry served as President, held various committee and board positions and founded the house band, the Tikvah Tones. Harry also served on the board of Holden High School in Orinda and the Contra Costa Interfaith Council.
Life for Harry was a teachable moment. In January 2018, after he started having trouble walking, Harry was diagnosed with ALS, but he and Mary Ann looked forward. They moved from their hillside home in Orinda to a one story ranch in Walnut Creek, which they remodeled to accommodate Harry’s increasing mobility limitations. In January 2019, Harry realized a lifelong dream of traveling to Cuba with 5 other couples, meeting the Cuban people, listening to music, talking baseball with locals, smoking good cigars and meeting several Jewish congregations to talk about Jewish life in Cuba.
As his mobility decreased, Harry learned to use eye gaze technology to drive his wheelchair and blog on his continued zest for life. He composed his own eulogy, writing “Because of my condition, I feel a sense of urgency to remind others that life can change on a dime. Living one’s life should not be put off until one’s schedule allows for it…. We should all live our fullest purpose and joy…. Spend time with loved ones as much as possible. Do things that make you feel food and accomplished. Be political because it really matters. Don’t be hard on yourself, you’re doing the best you can. Do the things you want to do. Why? Because you are an adult and you can. Keep me in your hearts because I keep you in mine.” Harry’s blog is published in book form, entitled Out of Control: Reflections on Matters of Life and Death, available on Amazon.
Harry is predeceased by his parents Edna and David Wittenberg. In addition to his immediate family, he leaves his sister Anita Brent and brother in law Paul Brent, brother and sister-in-law Anthony and Anne Marie Staffieri, nephews David Brent, Stephen Staffieri and Matthew Staffieri, niece Karen Brent, beloved cousins in the US, Israel and Italy plus a circle of friends that spans the globe. Harry was buried in a private ceremony and a memorial will be held at a later time when allowed. The family requests memorial contributions to the Golden West Chapter of the ALS Association
It has been said that no one ever had anything bad or unflattering to say about Harry. That is not entirely true, as even Harry would admit he never understood the infield fly rule. Other than that? Nada. Harry was more that a mensch’s mensch. He was a human being’s human being.