Sunday, February 8, 2015 12:30 am
Riverside native Budd Wentz’s colorful life recalled By Sean Patrick Murphy Staff Writer Burlington County Times
By all accounts, Budd Wentz lived a storied life, from beginning to end. “He was a bigger-than-life character,” said Wentz’s daughter, Karen Wentz-McCrary.
It was a life that took him from the small river towns of Riverside and Burlington City, where he grew up, to the battle-darkened skies over Nazi Germany, to cosmopolitan cities around the world as a well-known oncologist. He died in Shaker Heights, Ohio, on Jan. 10 at age 90.
William Budd Wentz was born in Philadelphia on Aug. 9, 1924. He was a precocious youngster, according to Wentz-McCrary. She recalled that, as a child, her father once climbed a tree and then watched as people below frantically searched for him.
Another time, he and some other underage friends purchased a Model T for $5 but got nabbed by the police during their joy ride. “I think he probably was a pain-in-the-ass kid to raise,” said Wentz-McCrary, of Shaker Heights.
Upon graduating from high school in 1941, Wentz worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad in Philadelphia. While commuting to work, he met the love of his life, Elizabeth Jane Moore — affectionately known as Bette — who also worked for the railroad. On their first date, they danced to the Tommy Dorsey Band, featuring Frank Sinatra, at the Earl Theater in Philadelphia. “They had a fairy-tale romance,” their daughter said.
Wentz also had a storied military career. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1942 during World War II and was assigned to the 8th Air Force, 487th Bombardment Group (Heavy), in Lavenham, England, where he piloted B-17s on 24 missions over Germany.
His final mission was chronicled in a dramatic retelling by the History Channel in the 2007 series “Dogfights.” In the program “The Luftwaffe’s Deadliest Mission,” Wentz appears numerous times to recount how, on April 7, 1945, his B-17 bomber was intentionally rammed by German pilot Klaus Hahn. “There was a big whump, and the plane rattled, and I immediately grabbed hold of the wheel real tight,” Wentz recalled on the show. Hahn miraculously survived the ramming and is interviewed as well. The 20-year-old Wentz was able to crash land his plane in an airfield in Wernershohe, Germany, that had been captured by American forces.
Wentz was honorably discharged with the rank of captain and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, among other citations. But more distinguishing events and honors were to come. Upon returning to Riverside, Budd and Bette married. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Pennsylvania.
The couple’s first child, Kurt, was born while Wentz was completing his undergraduate studies. Daughter Karen arrived five years later.
In 1954, while working at the U.S. Naval Air Development Center in Johnsville, Pennsylvania, conducting high-altitude stress and physiology research for the space program (later known as NASA) and nearing completion of his Ph.D. at Penn, Wentz was offered a scholarship to Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, allowing him to fulfill a boyhood dream of becoming a doctor — at age 34.
Wentz completed a rotating internship and five-year residency in obstetrics, gynecology and gynecologic Oncology at the Lankenau Hospital of Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. Thereafter, he joined the faculty of Hahnemann Medical College, also in Philadelphia. “He was a great father,” his daughter said. “What I remember most about him was you knew the moment he entered the house, because he was a very cheerful, optimistic person who had a great deal of energy.” She said he always bellowed “Hello!” when he arrived home.
After working all night during his residency, Wentz would put some music on when he got home early in the morning. Wentz-McCrary said her dad liked “all kinds” of music — Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Barbra Streisand, “My Fair Lady” and other musicals. “I feel like we got a really broad musical education as kids,” she said.
While Wentz was at Hahnemann, youngest son John Peter was born. “My father was always curious,” said Peter Wentz, of South Euclid, Ohio. “He always read several books at any given time on a wide variety of subjects. “He passed that love of books and that ‘books are friends’ as well as that love of learning onto me,” he said, “and for instilling that in me I will always be grateful.”
Wentz-McCrary said her dad always found time for his kids. “When Dad was there, you had his total attention,” she said.
In 1966, Wentz returned to his alma mater in Cleveland and became a tenured professor of reproductive biology. “Dr. Wentz and Dr. James Reagan were the pillars of gynecologic oncology at Case Western Reserve University,” said his former colleague, Dr. Fadi Abdul-Karim. “Together, they embodied the concepts of collaborative effort between gynecology and pathology to the betterment of patient care and scientific research. “Dr. Wentz co-edited the book ‘New Concepts in Gynecologic Oncology,’ which was the authoritative book on that topic,” Abdul-Karim said. “Dr. Wentz’s passion was his research into the pathogenesis of pre-cancerous and cancerous lesions of the uterine cervix. This innovative research was groundbreaking in the recognition of the role of human papilloma virus in the pathogenesis of this disease.”
Wentz also was a frequent lecturer who spoke at international conferences in London, Buenos Aires, Vienna and Denmark. He was a founding member of the Society of Gynecologic Oncology and one of the few non-pathologists to receive the Papanicolaou Award from the American Society of Cytopathology. He retired in 1989 as a professor emeritus.
In 2002, Wentz and his son-in-law, Tom McCrary, started crafting and documenting his military experiences to make them available on the Internet. Wentz lectured and/or recorded his wartime experiences for the Smithsonian Institute; the History Channel; the Cleveland Plain Dealer; the Mighty 8th Air Force Museum in Savannah, Georgia; the Military Aviation Preservation Society Museum in North Canton, Ohio; and the Escape and Evadees Society.
“He was very competitive in all things,” McCrary recalled. “On the other hand, he was extremely smart, compassionate, and loyal to family, friends, patients and his crew. “In later years, I gathered from Budd that he just wanted to go to school and make a career,” he said. “He felt his time in the Air Corps was a temporary and annoying distraction.”
Wentz also volunteered and contributed personal wartime artifacts to the Mighty 8th Air Force Museum and attended Air Force reunions with the 487th Bomb Group. In more recent years, he was involved with the Maps Air Museum, where an exhibit recounted his war service.
Wentz is survived by his wife of 69 years, his three children and two grandchildren. Even though Wentz spent his final years in Ohio, his final resting place is in Burlington County. On Jan. 31, he was buried at Monument Cemetery on Bridgeboro Road in Edgewater Park. The family held a ceremony Jan. 24 in Ohio and plans a memorial graveside service on May 1.
Wentz-McCrary said her father’s love of life reminded her of a quote from the movie “Auntie Mame”: “Life is a banquet and most poor bastards are starving to death.”
Sean Patrick Murphy: 609-871-8068; email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @SMurphyBCT