On April 15, 2023, at 9 PM, surrounded by family and all their love, Richard Fritz Wilke (Dick to his friends, Opa to his family) was played out of this life and into the next by the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams” and Billy Joel’s “Piano Man:” songs which would cause him to turn up the volume and drive an extra block coming home. Who could ask for a more peaceful end?
Born to Richard and Elizabeth (Horstmann) Wilke on July 19, 1936, their second child, Dick was brother to Elizabeth Rivier (Tudy to her family), who survives him. In 1939, when the Wilkes visited family in Germany, Dick’s father died from complications of influenza. Escaping Nazi Germany, Dick’s mother booked passage from the Eastern side of Italy on a boat that took on an English pilot to navigate the Strait of Gibraltar for mine avoidance. Dick didn’t talk for a few years after his father’s death until he entered school. Generally quiet since, his dry sense of humor is best explained as “Dad Joke,” or “Opa Jokes” as they came to be known. Among the favorites were, “’I see,’ said the blind man as he picked up his hammer and saw,” and when told something was terrible, he typically responded, “like paper.”
Dick graduated West High School, which he attended with his cousins Ria, Bob and Ruthie - and traveled to the Adirondacks many years with them and their father, Uncle Fritz. That tradition was shared with his two girls, even climbing Algonquin on Joanne’s 10th birthday. Having a single mother, he and Tudy were raised alongside their cousins: celebrating family birthdays, attending baseball games at Redwing (later Silver) Stadium, and spending many Sunday afternoons with them playing soccer and baseball. Uncle Fritz was a character whose stories were legendary - including chasing off a bear with a flashlight and a porcupine with a hatchet - and clearly influenced Dick’s sense of humor. It wasn’t unusual for Dick to wear sunglasses each time a grandchild returned from a dental cleaning because their teeth were too bright. Quite often, he was confused about his colors, so the kids would need to teach him. After he had encouraged Barb’s children to get a free cat from the Verona St. shelter during Covid and discovered the kitten’s name of Oliver Fritz Nelson, he insisted the cat’s name was Fritz because “Fritz is dominant,” and he delighted in the tales of the cat’s naughty adventures!
Soon after starting his career at Kodak, Dick volunteered for the Army, where he served in peacetime between the Korean conflict and Vietnam war. Serving in San Fransisco, he enjoyed opportunities to drive officers from base to base, and during his down time, he would partake of the joys of the big city such as bowling, sightseeing (when the fog burned off), and even the occasional drag show - a topic of ENDLESS fascination for his grandchildren! (That adventuring spirit inspired by Uncle Fritz, who had taken Dick and Bob by train on a NYC trip that included a baseball game, a visit to the Bowery and Coney Island!) Returning to Rochester, he continued working at Kodak and found the time to woo Marcia (Jewell) of Livonia, who became his wife of 58 years. Growing up worshipping at Emmanuel Lutheran Church, upon marrying Marcia, he joined her at the United Methodist church, and after the birth of his first daughter, became a member of Asbury First United Methodist Church.
They had two daughters, Barbara Wilke Nelson (Jay), and Joanne Wilke (Mike Toscarelli). In the summer, he took them biking along the Erie canal, running laps at the Sutherland High School track, swimming and making sandcastles at Hamlin beach, riding the carousel at Charlotte (with side trips to Abbotts, of course), stopping to smell the flowers at the Lilac Festival, and walking the Cobb’s hill reservoir. In the winter, he took the girls cross-country skiing at Powder Mill Park and Mendon Ponds, ice skating at R.I.T., to musicals at N.T.I D., to watch (and maybe sleep at) the movies, to travelogues at Kodak, and on one magical occasion to the employee bowling alley at Kodak (which they fantasized he used daily). Relaxing at home, he played records, including “Pomp and Circumstance” while they practiced graduating. They watched anything with Bob Newhart (who shared his dry and quiet sense of humor - and his bald spot) on T.V. and a few times he woke them up to come to the basement to watch a particularly good episode of Taxi with him for an unexpected treat.
While working at Kodak during the mid-1970s, his most heroic act (according to his grandchildren) was working directly on the first Star Wars movie as part of the “Slitting” team. This group made sure all the square openings on either side of the pictures were properly aligned through all layers of film so the projectors would work properly. Retiring from Kodak during the “Big Buyout” in the early nineties, his family believed that would give him more time to relax and enjoy time with Marcia. Meticulous by nature, often to the point of OCD, he instead went through the house and sharpened every pencil and changed all the batteries in every flashlight. It was not unusual to find him making weekly trips to multiple Wegmans and Tops locations, Big M, and Swans Meat Market to find items like a favorite flavor of Jell-o, the preferred brand of dish detergent (for the right price and almost always with a coupon), or even the right brand of cocktail sauce for shrimp (Rollers, in case you were wondering). If there weren’t enough errands to run, he would put his encyclopedic knowledge of the Rochester area roads to good use and deliver for courier services and for florists.
Family was always the center of his life - whether it was visiting Tudy and her family, including nephew David Rivier (Ann) and Beth Meuser (Tom) in California, two separate trips to Germany to see extended family (including many who had been cut off by the Berlin Wall), looking after his mother until her own death, visiting his mom’s sister Tante Ria, caring for his mother-in-law Mary Jewell, or even calling on shut-ins he knew from Asbury First United Methodist Church, his primary interest was caring. He felt it was important to create personal connections - even when paying bills or taxes or doing his banking - always in person. This has inspired a dedication to family and service that has deeply impacted his children and grandchildren (Connor, Trevor, Harper, and Audrey Nelson).
Whether it was a choral concert for Barb at Allegheny College, a trip to NYC to pick up Joanne from The New School (and even a detour to a train show), music recital, karate belt ceremony or gymnastics competition, Dick always made it his priority to show his family his love. Though he was often uncomfortable with shows of emotion, when his first grandchild was born, he told Marcia he needed to relieve Barb so she could take a shower. Thirty minutes later, when Marcia called and asked Barb about the shower she didn’t know she was supposed to be taking, Barb figured out the old man had stooped to subterfuge to spend time with his grandchild.
Dick disliked being the center of attention, often taking weeks to open his Christmas and birthday presents with a little pen knife so he wouldn’t rip the paper. . . . until his grandchildren came along and INSISTED that he open his presents - particularly if they helped to pick them out or make them. He always deferred to his grandchildren - even going so far as to cheat at Monopoly by giving “interest free loans” that never got repaid or insisting that he needed to pay special increases when landing on an owned property. He was mysteriously bad at checkers, forgetting to King himself or missing obvious opportunities to take his opponents’ pieces, but he loved to play the game. But there was no cheating at chess. If they wanted to beat him at chess, they needed to learn the game and outplay him.
Dick never considered himself an academic, having only taken some college courses at R.I.T. and the U of R that directly related to his work at Kodak, but he had a lifelong love of classical music, trains, and the Civil War. On any one of these topics, he could have given university lecturers runs for their money. He shared these loves with his grandchildren as well - particularly of trains. They looked forward to special trips with Opa to see the Edgerton Recreation Center or the Garden Factory at Christmas, where he would explain the various gages or layouts as they watched the trains steam along. If the kids were lucky (and they usually were), they could talk him into a side trip to Schutts for apple cider and fried cakes or perhaps a Frosty from Wendy’s.
After Covid shut down the world, Dick discovered he needed to pay much more attention to his health than he had in the past. The doctors and nurses and aids in the Rochester Regional Health Care (particularly the Heart Failure team and kidney team) endeavored to maintain what health he had. The Rochester Regional Hospice group helped him die with dignity at home. Everyone who worked with him through at-home dialysis, at the cardiac care unit at Rochester General Hospital, and his own doctor’s office would comment on how gracious and helpful he was when it was they who were designated to help him. Endlessly polite and diligent in his attempts to understand the complicated medical decisions, he charmed everyone tasked to help him. Weeks before his passing when he spent time at the Cardiac Unit at Rochester General, the family would occasionally hear nurses good-naturedly arguing over who would get to work with Mr. Wilke for their shift.
Though his health and reliance on medicine to help to maintain his health forced him to stop driving (Lord knows his daughter and grandchildren could not wrest the keys from his hands - as hard as they tried), he still found ways to get his trips around Rochester in. Not able to get to as many stores as he once did on his own, he still managed to squeeze multiple stops to Wegmans, Tops, ESL, the post office, Walgreens and maybe a stop for lunch if there was time. . . . Though Jay and Barb were no longer worried about what possible vehicular collision report might be on the other end of a phone call, they found themselves playing “Opa’s taxi” multiple times a week, whether it was an increasingly regular doctor’s appointment or just one more errand that needed to be done in person (of course he did not believe in purchasing online!). All of this possibly in repayment for all the activities he served as transport for in his daughters’ youth!
At their insistence, his grandchildren wanted to learn to make Rouladen and kuchen. The first few times, he would methodically prep every ingredient and walk them through the process step-by-step. During his final years, Opa would simply buy the ingredients and then supervise as they did the work. He took joy in the knowledge that he had passed on family secrets to the next generation. The chocolate roll on the other hand. . . . Well, that’s a secret he took to his grave.
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