Written by several of his surviving family including Robyn Sturk, Bruce Wittrig, Charles McPhail, Thomas McPhail, and the WEquil family.
Dr. John Jr. Wittrig April 9, 1930 ~ January 9, 2021 (age 90)
John Wittrig dedicated his life to serving those less fortunate and healing the planet. He grew up on a Mennonite farm in Iowa where he learned to live simply, work hard, love family, and give back to his community. We, his family, are honored by his memory, and the example he has set for how to live a good life. A life so full that at his end he had peace, knowing he had lived the principles upon which he stood.
John was born on April 9, 1930, in a tiny little town outside of Wayland, Iowa, to Emerson and Ruth Wittrig. He grew up on a farm, where he attended a one room school and graduated from high school in Wyman. John was a Mennonite...which allowed him to avoid the draft as a conscientious objector. But John dropped his status while studying agriculture at Iowa State University and enlisted in the Army Medical Corps during the Korean War. He was proud to serve, but the war ended shortly after he finished basic training and so he went to San Antonio and trained as a psychology technician.
While in the Army John met Betty Saddler. He was “immediately smitten by this southern belle” as he put it. They were married at Hinshaw Memorial Methodist Church, Greensboro, NC, on June 17, 1953. Together they went back to Iowa State University with the help of the GI Bill, where John earned his degree in rural sociology before earning a doctorate in clinical psychology from Vanderbilt University.
Dr. John Wittrig’s research helped treat veterans for stress and PTSD, and helped discover early treatments for bipolar disorder. He also took a leadership role in the union. His son, Bruce, recalls, “He always wanted to stick up for the little guy and make sure that the little guy had protection.” John was not afraid to stick up for his fellow government employees, even if that meant confronting his own leadership at the VA hospital in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and later Danville, Illinois. His courage saved the careers of many who would have otherwise been the victims of racism and bigotry.
John and Betty did a lot of “thinking and figuring” on how to live a good life. Their conscious and reflective approach began early in their marriage at St. James United Methodist Church in Danville, IL where they taught a Sunday school class for young couples at. For over 10 years, they helped hundreds of young adults build a foundation of faith and principles for navigating life’s inevitable challenges. They encouraged critical thinking, but also embraced spirituality and a concept of God as the love that binds all people and life together.
John’s service to others did not end with his retirement in 1988. In many ways it was just getting started....
John and Betty dedicated the last three decades of their lives to helping save the planet. Before just anyone had ever heard of global warming...they moved back to Iowa and started planting trees...to sequester carbon, increase biodiversity in Iowa, and stem the tide of climate change. Dr. John Wittrig became an outspoken advocate for protecting our soil, teaming with other farmers and environmental activists across Iowa to build wetlands and plant prairie grass. What they lived became known as the environmental movement.
J&B Chestnuts set the gold standard for sustainable and just farming in Iowa. John continued to serve “the little Guy” … paying above market wages helped bring J&B Chestnuts to market. Many people that John employed would have had trouble finding work to feed their families, but John believed strongly in protecting the rights of labor and giving all people the opportunity to succeed. He accomplished all this, and turned a higher profit per acre by growing organic chestnuts than traditional corn and soybean farming...proving to himself and the world that there is no false choice between doing right by ourselves, our planet and our fellow man. We do best when we are all working together in harmony.
The marriage of the late John and Betty Wittrig will forever be cherished by their family as the high water mark for what two people can accomplish together. To those they called family, they were Momow and Popow, and their home was the closest their was to heaven on earth.
Their home was always wholesome. Their food was always healthy. They made beautiful fires on the back porch that warmed our toes while we rocked in Amish rocking chairs. They didn’t drink alcohol and encouraged us to play outside instead of watch TV or play video games. No one stared at their phones while eating dinner. Everyone helped prepare the food and wash the dishes.
Popow and Momow never talked about fancy cars, brand clothes, or thought of buying a bigger house. They loved us … mostly just by listening ... often for hours without interruption to our stories, successes and struggles. From their example we learned that love is an action, the act of giving time and attention to help us have the courage to become better versions of ourselves. We are forever grateful...and while we mourn, we know you live on in the trees and lives you touched.
John and Betty had five children: identical twin daughters, Sandra and Sally, who only lived until shortly after birth; Thomas Stephen (residing in Winfield); Bruce Evan (married to Mary Alice Rich, living in Dallas, TX); and Laura Joann of Winfield. John would often say that although “we don’t make music, we make musicians.” And not only their children, but many of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren are participants in the fine arts.
John is survived also by six grandchildren: Robyn, Aaron, Joe, Rachel, Tom, and Melanie. John also has five great-grandchildren: Sumay, Aila, Elijah, Isaac, and Lily.
He is preceded on this final journey by his parents, wife, and twin daughters.