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"Ernest Wentcher, insurance exec who funded college scholarships, dies at 99"

by Maureen O'Donnell
Upd. October 25, 2013
Chicago Sun-Times

Insurance executive Ernest Wentcher started a foundation that awarded more than $3 million in scholarships to more than 200 college students.

His life swept from Siberia's Bolshevik era to working in U.S. Naval Intelligence in World War II, where he met Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower. He wound up a tennis-loving Chicago entrepreneuer, with a wife who excelled at the sport of curling.

Mr. Wentcher died Sept. 15 at Northwestern Memorial Hospital at 99.

In addition to his career at Equitable Insurance, he developed land in Burr Ridge and invested in a hotel and Christmas tree farms, said Brian Fitzpatrick, president of the Wentcher Foundation, which Mr. Wentcher established in 1997. The foundation distributes $7,500 in annual scholarships for four-year colleges and Oakton Community College, Fitzpatrick said.

Mr. Wentcher was born in Siberia, and he was about 4 years old when his family was caught up in the Russian Revolution of 1917. His father, Otto, a German immigrant, was on a posting to the Siberian capital of Novosibirsk for International Harvester. He met and married Pauline Nunan, an Irishwoman from Mallow, County Cork, who was teaching English there, Fitzpatrick said. Bolshevik revolutionaries had threatened Otto Wentcher and tried to shake him down for money because they perceived him as a symbol of a corrupt capitalistic system, according to a family history from Mr. Wentcher's sister, Celeste Chamberlin.

The family's cunning and resourcefulness helped engineer a tense escape. Pauline Wentcher talked her way onto the Trans-Siberian Railway, where she successfully bargained for scarce train seats by promising English lessons. Then she shouted to Otto Wentcher, who waited outside the train, to throw their daughter Celeste to her inside, according to the family history. Running alongside the moving train, Otto Wentcher tossed Ernest to Russian soldiers sitting in the boxcar, and he scrambled aboard as well.

They made their way back to the United States via Japan. Ernest Wentcher was sent to England to be educated at St. George's School, a Catholic prep school outside of London. He became "best boy," a designation bestowed on a trusted student with extra responsibilities. He graduated from the University of Brussels, where he was captain of the tennis team.

"I can't overemphasize the value of education on building your future," he said on the foundation's website.

When World War II erupted, Mr. Wentcher's gift for languages helped him become an officer in Naval Intelligence. He was fluent in French and knew some German and Russian.

He thought the world of Eisenhower, whom he met while stationed in France, Fitzpatrick said. "He said [Eisenhower] took off his coat -- his uniform jacket -- and he literally put his arms behind his back, and he said, 'Look, I don't know anything -- everything I get with any value is from you guys.'"

Most of the men were too cowed to speak, but Mr. Wentcher told the supreme commander that British and French forces were monopolizing communications cables, preventing the Americans from getting speedy directives from Washington.

"It took several days, but all of a sudden they had dedicated several hours a day to get instructions and information and orders back and forth from Washington to France," Fitzpatrick said.

Mr. Wentcher became a commanding officer of U.S. naval operations in the French port of Brest, receiving a commendation for his leadership, according to a video on the Wentcher Foundation from Picture Show, the family production company of retired NBC "Today" correspondent Mike Leonard. "You assisted the French to a great degree in the rehabilitation of the port," the commendation said, "rendering it valuable to the support of the Allied armies forging ahead on the continent of Europe."

In 1948, Mr. Wentcher wed Beatrice Lindsay of Winnetka. For most of their marriage, they lived in Glenview, Fitzpatrick said. She died in 1996.

A frugal man, he wasn't into status symbols. He never owned a brand-new car. The year after his wife died, Mr. Wentcher created the foundation. "He said he had no children, Bea had passed away, and he wanted to find something good to do with his money," Fitzpatrick said. "He never looked at it as a charity. He looked at it as an investment."

Mr. Wentcher's scholarship helped Jordan Bryant, a graduate of Whitney Young High School. She went on to Harvard and is now studying at Yale Law School. "I fell in the category of too poor to be rich, and too rich to be poor, so it was very refreshing to find a scholarship based on my own merit," she said. "I was able to graduate, partly through the help of Mr. Wentcher, with no loans."

"His scholarship was very helpful. Without it, I don't think I would have been able to experience everything I have done," said Jasmine Omeke, a senior at Harvard. "It has been very helpful to think of someone at home, a guardian angel of sorts, who was looking out for me when I was in school."

A memorial service is planned at 3:30 p.m. Friday at Winnetka Congregational Church, 725 Pine St., Winnetka.

Email: modonnell@suntimes.com
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