A life guided by weight of history

Fritz Ermarth’s rise from Springfield High School to the chairmanship of the National Security Council wasn’t inevitable.

Nor was his presence in the Oval Office as special assistant when Ronald Reagan debated Mikhail Gorbachev about freedom.

But it may have been inevitable that Ermarth emerge from childhood feeling the weight of history.

Springfielders of a certain age remember Ermarth’s mother, Margaret, a beloved professor of history at Wittenberg University, where Ermarth returned last weekend for his class’s 50-year reunion.

He sums up her influence on him in a terse trinity: When he was 3, she put a book in his hand to encourage his education; when he was 6, she gave him a guitar to develop a sense of arts and culture; when he was 12, she gave him a gun to learn responsibility.

In 1944, shortly after he had a book put in his hand, he was given a more difficult lesson when his father, also Fritz, was ushered out of their home to a German and German-American internment camp in Bismarck, N.D.

A man with a classical German education, “he mastered Italian, French and English ... and wrote English as well as you and I do,” Ermarth said.

Having traveled the world working on a book, he was teaching in the United States when he met Margaret Sittler, a 1930 graduate of Wittenberg University, who their son said “spoke and wrote German as well as he did.”

They married in 1935.

Amid the wartime suspicion of Germans in the 1940s, “all our family was very conscious” of world events, Ermarth said.

The day government agents came was the last time Ermarth saw his father.

Taken to the internment camp, then deported to Germany after the war, his father committed suicide in 1948, beset by personal problems and depression.

However young Fritz had recovered, by 1953, when his mother relocated to Wittenberg, the world hadn’t lightened.

“The comic books alone made it clear another war was going on, the Korean War,” Ermarth said.

Seeing serious conflict was ongoing, “I decided I was going to be part of that scene,” Ermarth said.

At Wittenberg, his comic book understanding of the world deepened under his mother’s tutelage.

“My mother had long since instructed me that, unless you’re going into the physical sciences, history is the most powerful discipline, certainly at the undergraduate level, to enter into all the social sciences,” Ermarth said.

Events continued contributed to his education, too: “We matriculated a month before Sputnik went up and were just finishing up our junior year” when Francis Gary Powers was shot down over Russia in a spy plane.

After graduate years (enter the Cuban Missile Crisis and instructor Henry Kissinger), Ermarth joined the organization to which his mother had directed other promising Wittenberg students: the CIA.

(John McLaughlin, Class of ’64, served as deputy director of the CIA, then as acting director in 2004.)

Semi-retired now after an award winning career, Ermarth lives in Wyoming, still dabbles in what he calls “spooky things” and can be seen on YouTube videos addressing the dangers of the electromagnetic pulse weaponry — videos in which the weight of history can be heard in his voice.

Contact this reporter at (937) 328-0368.

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