Ask Ernest Wetzig the capital of any country in the world and he can tell you. The geography whiz can also explain the finer points of classical music, play the harmonica and speak many languages.
“He is like a walking encyclopedia,” said his daughter, Marge Tommasini of Winston.
Wetzig doesn’t have a college degree. His wealth of knowledge mostly comes from decades of traveling the world as a businessman, pursuing dreams when other young men were at battle in World War II and finding the love of his life, who was up for any adventure her husband planned.
“I wish I had a second century to live,” Wetzig said. “The way I feel right now, I can go on for another two to three years, but you never know.”
Talking with Wetzig, it’s hard to believe he celebrated his 100th birthday on Nov. 27. He’s sharp and can hold a conversation about anything.
“I have a very long, rich interesting life,” he proudly said in an interview Thursday.
Wetzig celebrated the milestone birthday with family and friends at Riverview Terrace in Roseburg, where he lives.
His other daughter, Ingrid Renee Real of Englewood, Colo., documented Wetzig’s adventurous life in a short film shown at the party.
Ernest Karl Wetzig was born eight months before World War I began. Born in Berlin, Germany, he was orphaned by his first birthday. His father, Karl Wetzig, was killed on the front lines. Six months later, his mother, Dora, died in a car crash.
Foster parents Harry and Tosca Schillow raised Wetzig in Leipzig, Germany. The upper middle-class couple never officially adopted the boy because their son had objections. Still, the family treated Wetzig like he was their own.
Interested in South America, Wetzig learned Spanish at age 24. He soon traveled by boat to Uruguay to work for an import company.
He planned to live abroad for a year but extended his stay with a second world war looming. He also didn’t want to return to Germany with Adolf Hitler at the helm.
He got war updates from BBC news on the radio. He can still recite the newscast introduction, “Live from London …. .”
“They had a report every hour on the hour, and it was good, accurate,” he said.
His foster family was placed in Nazi concentration camps. They were released at the end of the war but died shortly after. Wetzig never saw them again.
He gave up his German citizenship and became a citizen of Uruguay. After nine years and a marriage, Wetzig was on the move again, landing in New York City in 1946. His wife, Dora, didn’t want to leave her country and family. The couple later divorced.
Wetzig was working as a purchasing agent for four South American companies in the U.S. The work contracts ended when WWII did and the economy changed. So he took a leisure trip cross-country to Reno, Nev. There, he met a woman named Nancy.
The two spent the next four weeks driving along the West Coast. Wetzig fell in love with the area.
“I was so impressed by the scenery with the Western states and the quality of life compared to Uruguay,” he said.
Nancy’s Jewish family forbade her from marrying Wetzig, a gentile. The two parted ways.
Back in New York by 1948, Wetzig became an export manager for a company in the silk trade.
Always the adventurer, he joined a local Swiss ski club. There, he met Helga Hirzel, a Swiss immigrant.
Wetzig persuaded his new love to drive to the West Coast with him in 1950. Along the way, they stopped in Las Vegas.
“We liked each other so much we decided to get married,” he said with a smile.
While returning to New York, the couple stopped in Peoria, Ill., to visit Wetzig’s clergyman friend. At the urging of his friend, Wetzig and his new bride agreed to a proper church wedding with his friend officiating.
The couple decided they wanted to raise a family in the West and moved to California. They purchased their first home in the Hollywood Hills for $18,500.
Wetzig continued his international business work, which took him away from his family for weeks at a time.
“He was away a lot because he traveled so much, but we knew he loved traveling,” Tommasini said. “It was always exciting thinking about him being in different places.”
Tommasini recalled a few family trips, including visits to family in Switzerland.
Wetzig has been to more than 60 countries and has made four round-the-world trips. Along the way, he became fluent in German, Dutch, Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, French and English.
His favorite destination was Tahiti in the 1950s.
“The climate is ideal. People are happy-go-lucky there,” Wetzig said. “It’s such a romantic place.”
He holds citizenship in the United States, Uruguay and Switzerland.
Wetzig retired at age 70, and in 2004, he and Helga sold their Hollywood home and moved to Roseburg to be closer to their daughter. Helga died in 2008.
Tommasini said the family worried her father wouldn’t live much longer because he missed his wife.
“When she passed, he was quite lonesome,” Tommasini said.
Wetzig said he believes he’s made it to 100 because he remained faithful to a “Swiss woman who knew how to cook healthy meals for me.”
Tommasini said her father also has a zest to live, unlike her mother, who was ready to go when her health rapidly deteriorated.
“His attitude, unlike my mother’s, is he just wants to keep living,” Tommasini said. “And when his doctor, Tim Powell, told him he might make it to 100, boy, he just grabbed onto that.
“He just has a really strong will to live,” she said.
•You can reach reporter Christina George at 541-957-4202 or at email@example.com.
I wish I had a second century to live. The way I feel right now, I can go on for another two to three years, but you never know.
100-year-old Roseburg man