In Celebration of a Life Well Lived

It’s very strange, thinking that the obituary you wrote for your Dad is one of your best pieces ever, but that’s where I’m at. While it’s always a challenge to try and capture someone’s essence in a few (okay, a lot of) paragraphs, I know I did a great job for him. I can hear him saying, “Way to go, Toots. I’m proud of you.”

Irving Howard Witcoff, 78, of Chicago, died on December 25, 2020 in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Irv was born on October 9, 1942 at Loretto Hospital in Chicago, Illinois and grew up on the west side. He attended Harper High School and was by all accounts a little bit of a troublemaker, wreaking havoc at the roller-skating rink and participating in shenanigans while out riding in his best friend Dave’s car. During that time, he was active in the Jewish youth group and activities at Lawn Manor Hebrew Congregation, and through that involvement met the love of his life, Sylvia Joy Taubman. Before long, Irv was hanging out at Sylvia’s house with her family much more than he was at his own home. Irv and Sylvia were married on June 7, 1964. Over the course of their fifty-six-year marriage, he treated her like a queen. Their 50th anniversary vow renewal was an inspiration to all who observed it. After temporarily rooting themselves in various states over the years, they finally settled in Knoxville, Tennessee where they enjoyed retirement together in the beautiful foothills of the Smoky Mountains.

Irv joined the army in 1966 and he and Sylvia lived in Germany while he was based in Baumholder. He was sent to Vietnam in 1968 and became a member of the 27th Land Clearing Team, 60th Land Clearing Company, also known as the “Jungle Eaters.” While he never talked much about his specific Vietnam War experiences with his family, he developed extremely tight-knit, brotherly relationships during his service, and those brothers remained a part of his inner circle until the very end. When reuniting every few years, this group of guys was a sight to see, their bond extremely evident and their raucous laughter echoing all around them. Irv was a proud Vietnam Veteran, often wearing a baseball cap identifying him as such and always stopping to chat with other veterans of the United States Military, thanking them for their service before they parted. He was fiercely patriotic.

For more than forty years after Irv first worked as the Front Desk Manager of the Ascot Hotel on South Michigan Avenue in Chicago, he built a successful career as the General Manager of various hotels (mostly Holiday Inn and La Quinta) in Texas, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Mississippi, and Tennessee. Irv was the epitome of hospitality and took his job very seriously. Everyone he met, whether they were a guest passing through the lobby or a lifelong friend, always left him feeling seen, heard, and in many cases, lifted in some way. He truly saw everything over the course of his forty-five-year career and for the past few years had been working on a book of true hotel stories that would make a reader’s chin drop to the floor. Please honor his life by not making up tall tales just to try and get a discounted or free hotel room. Also, do not microwave the hard-boiled eggs provided as a part of the free breakfast in the lobby. He hated when people did that.

Irv and Sylvia raised their two daughters in a secure and loving home where they constantly heard their father telling their mother how gorgeous she was. The girls grew up knowing that their parents would always be “stuck together like glue,” and while Irv lived to teasingly annoy Sylvia on a daily basis, their love was larger than life and such a great example to their daughters. He never left anything unsaid, always expressing his love and pride to his “three girls.” His high expectations made his daughters want to work harder and when they occasionally failed, he reminded them that as long as they tried their best, there was something to be learned and they should always try again. When something was out of their control, he would shrug and say, smiling, “It is what it is.” He always provided wise counsel to his son-in-law (who he loved like a son) and transferred many life lessons to his beloved grandsons as well, both of whom had their first stick shift driving practice in Grandpa’s electric blue MINI Cooper, a car he loved almost as much as he loved his family.

He was well-known for his wicked sense of humor (and often relentless teasing), and Irv kept the funniest family stories alive by regularly repeating them for laughs. His favorites included the 1970s family road trip to Canada during which his younger daughter hit his older daughter over the head with a wooden Fisher Price toy clock (one of us is still trying to figure out how that was funny), as well as that time he watched from the window when Sylvia actually got down on the ground with their dachshunds as she “introduced” them to their daughter’s beagle puppy. His perspective and presence were always the funniest in the room. He took pleasure in taking a bite of a Milk Bone dog treat as if it was a completely normal people snack just to get a reaction out of who he was with, whether it was his teenaged daughter’s friends or hotel guests who were checking in with a canine. He took any opportunity to place wooden skewers into his mouth to make himself look like a walrus, be it at home or in restaurants.

Irv’s schtick included impressions of Muppets like Grover, Kermit, and The Count: he developed a habit of exclaiming “TWO! A-HA-HAAA!” any time that number was mentioned and after a while the family would remind him if he missed one. Other pastimes included asking his grandsons and his wife to pull his finger (she always strongly declined), making a funny face that cannot be adequately described but brought the laughs every single time, and randomly producing a horn noise out of the side of his mouth while others were speaking. He predictably looked at the back of every greeting card, smiling as he determined just how much you loved him according to what you paid for it. While he had everyone around him in hysterics much of the time, he was also his own best audience, patting himself on the back after he made a good joke. In his funniest moments he would say, “I love myself; I’m so wonderful!” and then kiss his own arm from the top of his hand to his forearm and back again.

He loved nothing more than grilling a prime rib dinner for his family and then playing card games or board games afterwards. It wasn’t a Family Game Night until he teased his wife by accusing her of keeping score dishonestly to benefit herself (for the record, she never did that), shouting out the word he was actually supposed to get others to guess, or laughing until he almost fell out of his chair while playing “Uno Attack” each time a handful of cards sprayed in someone’s direction.

Irv was hospitalized on the same day he tested positive for COVID-19 in mid-December. He kept his sense of humor throughout and was able to make his own decisions until the very end nine days later. After his wife, daughters, son-in-law, and grandsons had final interactions with him, he peacefully passed on December 25. He would want you to remember that the family is Jewish and doesn’t celebrate Christmas. They will, however, spend each December 25 from now on enjoying prime rib, a glass of good Scotch whisky, and a game of Uno Attack, to celebrate his memory and his life well lived. While he often referred to himself as a legend…in his own mind, everyone who loved him knew that he was simply legendary.

He is survived by his gorgeous wife Sylvia Joy, daughters Julie Witcoff and Melisa (Jim) Wells, and grandsons Dylan and Jason Wells, along with brother-in-law Chuck Taubman, four nephews, Richard (Robin), Eric (Karen), Brian (Kristen), and Aaron (Sarah), and nine great-nephews and nieces.

A memorial service will be held later next year when it is once again safe to gather. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made in Irv’s honor to The Wounded Warrior Project and Hidden Heroes.

10 Comments

  • Lisa Arch

    Oh, Melisa. What a lucky daughter you are to have had a man like Irv to raise you. And what a lucky dad to have a daughter like you to raise. This is beautiful and I feel like I met him. I think it goes without saying, I’m profoundly sorry for your loss. And I love you, friend.

  • Deb

    So very beautiful and poignant, with your love, admiration and sheer delight shining through. My heart aches for you and your family and you all are in my thoughts. May the memory of such a wonderful man be a blessing to you all.

  • Margaret

    I never met your father but this was a palpable, concrete and lovely description of him. Beautiful piece indeed. Thank you for giving us a vivid glimpse into what he was like.

  • San

    I am so sorry to hear about your Dad, Melissa. 2020 was a hard year in so many ways. You wrote a lovely tribute. I can paint a very vivid picture of your Dad in my head.

  • JTF

    Melisa, I truly hate to hear this. I never met your dad but you frequently told me stories about his antics and I always chuckled when I read about the ones you’d share online. He sounds like a truly lovely person and I’m so thankful for that and for his most wonderful gift that he ever gave the world: my Pitbull-loving, Zumba-dancing, fellow cheeseburger enthusiast friend who’s every bit as legendary and is one of the funniest people I’ve ever known (I’m talking about you, dork).

    I love the idea of keeping December 25 as a day to celebrate his memory; For as long as you’re celebrating his memory, whether that’s chowing down on prime rib on December 25 or telling family stories throughout the year … or developing your own Count impression (you may have one already, I don’t know) … then he’s never truly gone and his reach, influence and love will continue to be eternal.

    I love you guys <3

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