By: Jim Smith and Marchelle Odom
When asked who his dad was, we received an entire background on this man of distinction. Matt Gerharz exclaimed, “I never got to give my dad’s eulogy, so this is harder than I thought”. The “this” is his recollection of who his dad was as a person who consistently hoped.
He reminded us that his dad would be touched by the sentiments of having his story told, before he began to tell the story. So, here it goes…
George Gerharz spent his entire life helping the disadvantaged, the underprivileged, the “little guy.” He was a man who focused on doing good deeds rather than speaking of his own accomplishments. As his son, my father instilled in me (and many around him) the core belief that it is a privilege and honor to help others, and I am deeply grateful for this life’s lesson.
Dad was born in 1939 and raised in the small southwestern Chicago suburb of Lemont, IL. His family ran the local furniture store and funeral home; driving through town our family’s name can still be seen on the buildings today.
His father was a worker at the Union Oil refinery and his mother was a bookkeeper.
As early as grade school, Dad believed in equality and fairness. One of the few times he found himself in trouble was when getting into a fight after presenting a report he wrote on Brown vs the Board of Education; his belief that this decision was the right decision. After class, he and his friend were confronted by several classmates with hateful names and hurtful accusations, but Dad would not back down on his beliefs.
Dad was a kind child and an excellent student who played varsity all four years of high school in 4 sports. He was also captain of the football team, prom king, editor of the school newspaper, and valedictorian of his class.
From Lemont, he went on to play football at Beloit College, and continued studying social causes and philosophy at several universities including Marquette and UNC Chapel Hill, (acquiring several masters’ degrees along the way). He then joined the seminary and became a Catholic priest in his desire to help the poor and underprivileged, but parted ways with the church early on to focus on social justice.
After the priesthood and prior to joining Social Development Commission (SDC), dad took on several interesting jobs, including founding a company that hired ex-cons to build playground equipment. Those of you old enough may remember many Milwaukee schools having these “Tire Toys” as a part of their schools’ playgrounds. Dad spent the next 25 years working at SDC in Milwaukee; tirelessly advocating for those in need alongside his dear friend, Don Sykes. Former director of the SDC Child and Adult Care Food Program and Summer Feeding Program, Jim Smith is quoted as saying, “George helped develop these non-profit catering programs into some of the best in the country. The program was invited to the White House by Hilary R. Clinton. George was an angel sent from heaven to serve low-income communities.”
Dad also served as a consultant for the National Community Action Agencies in Washington, D.C, the Low-Income Energy Coalition, Allied Community Solutions, and with Milwaukee’s Council on Urban Life. His work focused on Milwaukee, Native American communities, and national welfare policies. He often consulted for nonprofits on a pro-bono basis, including the Innocence Project New Orleans.
He never really retired from his work. While he loved fishing, golf, softball and football, helping others and advocating for underprivileged communities and people was his passion. Up until the last days of his life, even when he was bedridden and could no longer speak, he would ask for his laptop and seek out help for the people of Milwaukee, especially projects for North Division High School families. Mr. Stanley W. McWilliams, former principal at North Division was quoted as saying, “George was the foundation of many of the flourishing programs at North (nursing, welding, NAF, and health and human services)”.
Dad wrote two books, Show Me The Cash: Engaging Families To Help Very Poor Children Succeed was published in 2018. His second book Break the Caste: Inequality, Immobility and Poverty in America, was completed shortly before his death and will be published this fall.
Whew! I knew my dad was a busy guy. I guess until I placed his contributions on paper, his many accomplishments, I did not realize exactly how much of his time he dedicated to others. My dad, a man of distinction, I could not be more proud. My synopsis of my dad’s life is in itself a tribute to his legacy. In the words of William A. Clay, “George was a good spirit who LOVED people and committed his life to them. He was generous, humble and a pleasure to be with. He made the world a better place.” I concur!