On the Record with ... Pat Wirtz
McHENRY – The room is full of books, World War II histories, children’s books from the period, and collections of political and war-themed cartoons.
Models of tanks and planes are organized by country. Norman Rockwell prints are framed next to a map of Utah Beach, the code name for the one of the landing areas during the D-Day invasion.
The room has been coined “the museum downstairs” by Pat Wirtz’s friend. Wirtz just refers to it, in particular the room next to it – filled with stacks and stacks of newspapers and magazines – as “the firetrap.”
The collection started when Wirtz was exploring his grandparents’ basement as a kid and found a mouse-bitten issue of Life magazine from 1942. Since then he has collected every single issue of the weekly from 1939 to 1945, minus one.
A former special education teacher with McHenry High School in District 156, Wirtz helped found the McHenry High School Athletic Hall of Fame, is chairman of the city Landmark Commission and a board member for the McHenry Area Historical Society.
Wirtz sat down with reporter Emily Coleman to talk about his collection and volunteer work.
Coleman: Do you have a favorite item?
Wirtz: I think downstairs, the favorite item that I have is probably the World War II map from Utah Beach that was on the boat that my dad was on the morning of D-Day, June 6, ’44. That’s really personal and really sentimental to me.
Coleman: Did he talk about it?
Wirtz: He talked about a few things. He talked about [how] it was almost 24/7 job.
One [story I remember him telling] was D-Day or D-Day plus one – to speak in the military way of talking – a plane came in low. Somebody on board one of the boats started firing the anti-aircraft guns and then everybody opened up on him.
It was an American plane, and they shot it down. He said he remembered seeing the pilot to parachute to safety and everyone was relieved. The admiral in charge of Utah Beach gave strict orders not fire unless under direct attack.
He would talk to other soldiers and sailors, but he didn’t talk to us much about his experiences. I think like many soldiers of that time period, it was a very personal thing. If you were at VFW or American Legion, you would talk to somebody because you knew he had a similar experience.
Coleman: Why do you think you’ve gravitated toward World War II?
Wirtz: Probably because my dad was in that war was the main reason, but when I think back to what I was reading in junior high... Well, when I was like third or fourth grade, the first two books I read were Babe Ruth’s story and the Jackie Robinson story, but then after that, it was all World War II stuff.
The first book I ever checked out of the library in McHenry was “Willie and Joe” by Bill Mauldin, the cartoon World War II guys that slogged across Europe fighting the war. He brought to light in a fun kind of way what the U.S. soldier had to undergo. It was a way that people could relate.
Coleman: It seems like a lot of your collection is visual art, postcards, cartoons and visual histories.
Wirtz: About seven or eight years ago, my daughter gave me a camera for my birthday, and I started taking pictures. I’m the photographer for the historical society, so I take pictures when people come and talk and for our [public relations] stuff. I’ve taken pictures of the [Peterson] Farm.
I like to walk, even on a day like today. I don’t mind the cold so much unless the wind is really blowing. I’ll take pictures. I’ve taken hundreds and hundreds of pictures of the Riverwalk, and I always donate them. ... They blew them up to 5-by-4-foot pictures and they use them for Riverwalk kind of things. Then the city used two of my Riverwalk pictures. They’re up at City Hall, on either side of the Christmas tree. As you walk out, after you pay your bills there, you can see them.
Coleman: What’s the thing you’re most proud of?
Wirtz: I’m the chairman of the McHenry High School Athletic Hall of Fame. That’s very important because that’s something I helped to create. I didn’t just join it.
Coleman: Why is that important? Why do you think it’s important to have the Hall of Fame?
Wirtz: First of all, I was a coach. I announced football, basketball and baseball games. Just a few years ago, I did three years of baseball games. I was really involved in that. I went to Marian [Central Catholic High School]. I didn’t go to school here, but I’ve lived in McHenry for 65 years now.
To me, it just made sense. We need a hall of fame, and I wanted to recognize people. We have some very, very interesting fellows and women who were not only wonderful athletes but they did stuff with their lives.
Coleman: How did you end up deciding to be a teacher?
Wirtz: I was going to major in business, which I didn’t like. Then I went to math because I was always OK in math. I got as far as calculus, and I went, “Oh man, I do not like calculus.” I said, “Wait a second. What do I like? I like history.”
The fellow that I had teaching us history at Elgin [Community College] ... he was into decoding messages and all that kind of stuff [during World War II]. He was a character. I think he was color blind or something because he would wear different socks, mismatching socks almost every day to class.
But he had the most wonderful stories that he would tell. He was a wonderful storyteller. He made history come alive. I just went, “That’s what I want to do.”
Coleman: Tell me about your start with District 156.
Wirtz: A job opened up right around Easter time. It was a special funded program to find dropout-prone kids jobs. It was called the WECEP program, Work Experience and Career Exploration Program. I just went, “It’s a full-time job. I’ll take it.” They gave me 25 kids, and I had to find jobs for them. And these kids, oh my God, they were involved in stuff like you couldn’t imagine.
I had to go meet them and their parents at their homes. Now, I’ve lived in McHenry all my life, and some of the homes I went to ... There was one that had dirt floors out in Lakemoor.
There were houses that were half this size. There was one in Wonder Lake. It was so small I couldn’t believe it. The father was there, his girlfriend was there, the older brother was there, his unmarried girlfriend was there with a baby and the boy. They were all living out there in this little dinky place. It was like, “Where do you all sleep?” I couldn’t figure it out. There was one bedroom, one kitchen, one living room and a bathroom. That was it.
Coleman: What was it about special education that you decided to stay in that area?
Wirtz: I think it was the kids. It was at that time that we were seeing that things were not working for kids in school and what was the reason behind [it]. ... You began to learn that sometimes there’s reasons behind it. It was something new and different to me.