George Steitz is sitting in his home office in Penfield. The walls are festooned from floor to ceiling with plaques, trophies, photographs and other mementos from an extraordinary life now in its 97th year.
“Take a look at that,” the high school coaching legend says, pointing to a framed letter next to the door. “You might recognize the name at the bottom of it.’’
The correspondence had been sent by none other than Dwight D. Eisenhower, and in it the former commander of the Allied Forces thanked Steitz and his fellow soldiers for their courage in pulling off the most monumental victory in the history of the free world.
“I was just 19 when I was drafted and like most others had no idea what we were getting into,” Steitz says, when asked about his involvement in the June 6, 1944 D-Day Invasion of Nazi-occupied France. “When you jumped out of that (amphibious boat) and into that cold water that was up to your arm pits, you were dodging German mortar shells. The only thing you were hoping to save at that point was yourself.”
Steitz pauses for a moment to collect his thoughts.
“You did a lot of praying, because it was out of your hands,” he continues. “There’s an old saying that during war there are no atheists in fox holes, and, boy-oh-boy, was that ever true during World War II.”
Fortunately, the prayers of Steitz and his comrades were answered. And after his 30-month stint in the Army, he returned to the States, thankful to be alive and anxious to get on with life. Intent on becoming a coach, he immediately enrolled at Ithaca College, where he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physical education.
In 1949, with diplomas in hand, Steitz began an amazing journey. It’s a trek that can be measured in wins, championships and accolades — of which there were many — and in the lives of students and athletes who’d been shaped and molded by this kindest of men.
The extent of our community’s love for Steitz has been underscored in recent days. Since appearing on “ABC’s World News with David Muir,” where he read aloud some of the heartfelt letters he wrote while serving, Steitz has been inundated with calls and letters from well-wishers. As of Monday afternoon, he estimates at least 500 people have contacted him, the overwhelming majority of them former students.
“It’s been overwhelming,” he says. “When you’re teaching and coaching, you just don’t understand the impact you are having on the students. It’s something you don’t realize until years later.”
A done-it-all career began with a do-it-all first job. His first five years out of college were spent in Macedon, where he taught phys-ed, coached a handful of sports teams, drove buses and even filled in as school nurse.
“I’d be dropping kids off, and their parents would come up to the bus and invite me to come back over for dinner,” he says. “It was great place to start my career. The people in that community really took care of me.”
And that caring would continue when he made the switch to Penfield High School in 1954. A native of Beacon, in the Hudson Valley, Steitz guided the varsity baseball, basketball and soccer teams to league titles in his first year, while also working as the rec director at the Penfield pool.
“I swear,” jokes John Butterworth, the acclaimed soccer coach who succeeded Steitz in 1985, “there was a 30-year period there when Coach taught just about every student in the town of Penfield how to swim.”
In 1984, Steitz was named National High School Soccer Coach of the Year, and later would be inducted in the New York State Soccer Hall of Fame, one of several halls that would wind up honoring him. His teams won 411 matches and recorded 43 consecutive winning seasons. He was just as proficient coaching baseball, where his squads won 469 games and strung together 35 consecutive winning seasons. Toss in his time as the head coach of boys basketball and girls softball, and you have a combined total of 1,233 coaching victories in 47 years.
Such long, lofty achievements prompted scores of former students and their parents to campaign for the renaming of the Penfield athletic fields in his honor. Unfortunately, a superintendent balked at the idea.
That spurred a Penfielder also known for excellence and longevity to spring into action. Don Alhart, the dean of all news anchors locally, nationally and globally, had played soccer for Steitz. He contacted his Penfield classmate, Peter Burrell, to brainstorm. Burrell had established himself as a Hollywood heavyweight, producing several hit television series, including “Boston Public,” which centered on the lives of students, teachers and administrators in a fictional high school. Burrell decided that if Penfield wouldn’t honor his former coach, then “Boston Public” would. In one of the episodes, he wrote dialogue to include a line telling students to report to “the George Steitz Gymnasium.” He even had a sign made up that was hung on the wall where the gym scenes were shot.
Alhart then asked Burrell if he could get his hands on the prop to give to Steitz. Burrell thought that was a great idea, and the sign now hangs in Steitz’s home office.
“I was blown away by their kindness,” Steitz says. “That was pretty cool.”
Steitz also would make a name for himself as an official, reffing and umping more than 7,000 events. Until two years ago, he was still officiating modified softball and baseball games, as well as basketball games and swim meets. His daughter, Sherrill, began doing some research in hopes of convincing the Guinness Book of World Records to recognize her father as the oldest sports official on the planet. The book’s editors had identified an 80-year-old official in Japan, but he was a spring chicken compared to Steitz, who officiated until he was 95.
Although he’s no longer calling fouls or balls and strikes, he continues to be involved with Section V sports as an assigner of officials.
Steitz’s wife, Julie, died in 2012, and that loss was extremely difficult because the couple had been married for 59 years. Keeping busy in the months following her death helped him focus on something other than grief.
“I miss her dearly and I’ll feel that loss for as long as I live,” he says. “But you reach a point when you have to realize that life must go on. You can’t just sit there and brood. They’re gone and you’re still here. You just have to try to make the best of it.”
Steitz says he’s been blessed with good genes. But he also works at remaining fit and active. He rides his stationary bike 30-to-45 minutes each day, and mixes in some light lifting. He also keeps an active social calendar.
“I believe that’s one of his secrets to a long life,” says Butterworth, who regards his mentor as a member of the family. “There are so many former students who care deeply for him, and want to spend time with him. He showed me his calendar recently, and I think he’d had dinner with different people on something like 36 of 44 days. It’s wonderful to see all the love he’s shown people through the years now being directed back at him.”
They say it’s not the years in your life, but the life in your years. In George Steitz’s case, it’s been both.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.