Robert Spitzer speaks while his wife, Delores, looks on last July during an event at the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison. Spitzer, who died Tuesday, had his writings, papers and other memorabilia preserved for posterity by the Historical Society. (Photo by Ed Nadolski)

Spitzer recalled as a powerful force for good in business and community

By Ed Nadolski

Editor in Chief

Robert Spitzer rarely stopped thinking about ways to solve the world’s hunger.

The Burlington resident served as coordinator of the international Food for Peace program under President Gerald Ford in the 1970s and had written multiple books on the topic.

And Tuesday, when he died four days short of his 97th birthday, he was in the process of collaborating with an author on a book that, among other things, would espouse his optimistic view of society’s ability to provide sufficient nutrition for people in all corners of the globe, according to his wife, Delores.

“There is great power in individuals – especially if you’re from the Heartland,” Spitzer told those gathered at an event in his honor at the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison last July. “You have the knowledge to make the world free of hunger and full of peace.”

Bob Spitzer, as he was known to most, was hospitalized April 27 and returned to his Burlington home this week for hospice, according to his wife. Funeral and memorial service arrangements were pending as of Thursday morning.

Last summer’s gathering in Madison was to celebrate Spitzer’s donation to the state Historical Society of his collection of his books, scholarly papers and memorabilia chronicling a career that spanned industries, advanced education, cut across international boundaries, promoted his current hometown and above all else encouraged a positive outlook on life, according to those who knew him.

Spitzer, who grew up the son of Wisconsin tenant farmers, obtained a doctorate degree in animal nutrition and physiology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and went on to rub elbows with presidents and faith leaders like Billy Graham and Norman Vincent Peale.

During his career he served as a scientist and agribusiness leader for 28 years at Murphy Products of Burlington; spent 17 months as the coordinator of the U.S. State Department’s 50-nation Food for Peace; and devoted himself to 14 years as president of Milwaukee School of Engineering – a small urban university that today boasts some of the most highly-sought young engineers.

In recent years Spitzer served as a director and senior mentor for Kikkoman Foods, the Japanese maker of soy sauce and other food products.

“Wherever Dr. Spitzer went there was a path of footsteps that people remember,” said Susan Crane, of Bristol, a member of the board of the Wisconsin Historical Society Foundation.

Spitzer’s ability to effectively lead across a diverse list of industries paled only to his ability to encourage and mentor community leaders in his home state, said David Bretl, the Walworth County administrator.

“He made you think you were helping him when you were the one who benefitted,” Bretl said. “He was first and foremost a servant leader.”

His greatest trait, however, was his ability to connect with people from all walks of life. He had a profound respect for farmers and members of the military, according to Delores.

“Sometimes he’d rather stop and talk to the kitchen staff than to rub elbows with the big wigs,” she said.

Bretl said Spitzer was renown for his written correspondence – whether it was his annual Christmas greeting, or to congratulate someone on a promotion or encourage another person facing a difficult diagnosis.

“He was from a genteel era when people were ethical and fair,” Bretl said. “That had real meaning for me. His handwritten notes seemed to arrive just when I needed them.

“He was such a decent man and so sincere.”

      To read the full story, see the May 2 edition of the Burlington Standard Press.

Check back here in the coming days for a full obituary, including information on funeral arrangements. Additional coverage will also appear in the May 9 edition of the Standard Press.