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In memoriam: Mary Gerlitz, 68

by Susan Bell
Mary Gerlitz was a devoted staff member of the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences for 44 years. (Photo/courtesy of Cantori Domino)
Photo: Mary Gerlitz was a devoted staff member of the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences for 44 years. (Photo/courtesy of Cantori Domino)

Mary Gerlitz, an honors programs administrative coordinator at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, has died after 44 years of loyal service to the university. She was 68.

Gerlitz died on Aug. 1, at Keck Hospital of USC in Los Angeles from heart failure.

In 2009, Gerlitz received the USC Dornsife Outstanding Staff Achievement Award for her devoted service.

“Mary was a remarkable individual,” said Steven Lamy, professor of international relations and vice dean for academic programs. “She always made time for students, faculty and even administrators. She cared passionately for the arts and humanities, and music was such an important part of her life. Mary made every student in Thematic Option and the Resident Honors programs feel special.”

Associate Provost Robin Romans considered Gerlitz an academic mentor as well as a dear friend.

“Mary was deeply empathic and aware of others’ outlooks, trials and hopes,” he said. “She had a very generous and kind disposition and was always ready to help. Most importantly, Mary always saw the best in people — in us. This is what I’ve reflected on most since we lost her. ‘I want to try to be as good as the good she saw in me,’ is the way I put it in my tribute to her. We’ve lost her, yet in all these ways, she renews us.”

Born on Aug. 28, 1944, in Cottonwood, Idaho, Gerlitz grew up on her parents’ farm in Prosser, Wash. At Prosser High School, Gerlitz enjoyed cheerleading and accompanied many fellow students in recitals and competitions. She studied organ while earning a bachelor’s degree in music education from Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore., graduating in 1966.

That year she married Eugene Gerlitz Jr., who also became an integral part of USC Dornsife, serving on the staff for more than 30 years, and as associate dean of business affairs from 1986 to 1994. The couple was married for 38 years until Eugene’s death in 2004.

When they moved to Los Angeles shortly after graduation, Mary Gerlitz quickly found work at USC, where she served in a number of positions.

The following excerpt from her letter of recommendation for the Outstanding Staff Achievement Award shows how she was valued by colleagues and faculty alike:

“Her knowledge of university systems makes her indispensable. Whether you need to know how to file contracts, work with the bookstore, the print shop, or classroom scheduling, or if you need to order pizza, Mary picks up the phone and has it done in a heartbeat. There is no task that she will not help with. Her lightning fast typing skills have always been her trademark. She is the heart of our operation.”

Music was central to Gerlitz’s life. An accomplished organist, she served in Los Angeles churches for 47 years, full-time in two of them for more than 25 years and as a guest organist in several others. At the Bel Air Presbyterian Church, where Ronald Reagan was a member and where Gerlitz served full-time for almost 20 years, she was affectionately referred to as “Organist to the President.” It was also at Bel Air where she met Bunny Thornburgh, her close friend, with whom she co-founded the Cantori Domino, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based choral group, in 1990.

“Mary seemed to have limitless energy and was very demanding of herself as far as her work was concerned,” Thornburgh said. “She had a wonderful sense of humor and a very generous sense of caring. She had a delightful nature that brought out the best in most people.”

Cantori Domino focuses on the great choral works, with particular emphasis on Johann Sebastian Bach, Gerlitz’s favorite composer. The group started out with 35 singers, almost doubling in size under Gerlitz and Thornburgh’s direction. Gerlitz acted as administrative coordinator of the group as well as its primary organist and pianist, providing accompaniment during their three annual concerts at Saint Augustine by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in Santa Monica. Gerlitz also led concert tours with Thornburgh to the United Kingdom, Spain, Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic.

At USC, Gerlitz often rehearsed during her lunch hours at the USC Thornton School of Music. She shared her musical talents with the university, notably playing at the 2007 memorial service for Hayward Alker, holder of the John A. McCone Chair in International Relations at USC Dornsife. During a brief leave from USC, she also served as administrator for the Orange County Pacific Symphony. Before her death, Gerlitz was associate organist at First Methodist Church in Santa Monica.

“Of all the many kind, professional folks that I have worked with over the years at USC, Mary was the kindest,” said William Handley, associate professor of English at USC Dornsife. “She had to her a kind of natural grace and warmth that made me think she had some Bach cello suite or Brahms choral work playing in her head.”

Gerlitz loved traveling in the South West, particularly New Mexico. She was also a keen nature photographer.

Gerlitz’s brother Darrel Crouter remembers his sister as being “a craftsman with words.”

“They were important to her and she knew how to use the right ones,” he said. “USC became a family to Mary in many ways. She took her high school and college cheerleading attitudes and talents into her work life. Her attitude was always ‘up’ and she encouraged that in others.”

Crouter, his brother, Norman, and sister Pam Hill issued a joint statement: “Throughout all her life she approached changes and challenges with a courage and a willingness to step into the next moment of her life and existence — her music, her marriage, her relationships with colleagues, her journeys to places, even in her final illness and eventual death — she embraced her fears and her possibilities with touches of humor and acceptance. She was a beautiful woman with a beautiful spirit.”

Jim Kincaid, Aerol Arnold Professor Emeritus of English, remembered Gerlitz as someone who knew how to remain calm.

“She held out against the tumult with simple weapons: knowledge, wit, and kindness,” he said. “Mary could always find time to make things sweet, especially for students, but really for us all. The heart that, in the end, failed her, never, ever failed us.”

Gerlitz is survived by her sister, her brothers, and nine nieces and nephews.

A celebration of Gerlitz’s life will be held on Sept. 30 at 4 p.m. at the United University Church, 817 W. 34th St., on the University Park Campus.

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