Jim Witte

October 25, 1934 – April 2, 2021

by Holly Redell-Witte

One week ago today, looking out of our windows to the expanse of the golf course on which we live, we saw an eagle just standing there on the grass within walking distance.  I’ve seen them in trees and flying but never standing still so nearby.  It slowly lifted and flew very close to the ground and we realized it was weighed down by a duck clutched in its talons.  We all had time to note that this was nature…this is what happens…and then the duck wriggled free and got away.  We cheered for the duck but realized it had to be injured and, really, it probably had a short life ahead.

Five days later, on Good Friday at 2 PM in the afternoon, Jim could no longer fight his injured body and left this earth with me holding his hand.  Don’t be deceived, though; although it was my privilege to take care of him until his last moment and that will stay in my heart forever, there is nothing tv or movie beautiful about death and losing a great love.

We came together out of other loves and I said to Jim the night before our wedding how amazing the human capacity is to be able to love and love again.  I repeated that to him a few days ago.  He thought it was a great line.  My witness to my thoughts; my filter for my choices….I turned to Jim because he had an innate sense about the rhythm of words and the cycle of actions.  Clearly, from the notes from many people who worked with him decades ago, whose first jobs he provided and who still think about with gratitude, who appreciated his quiet mentoring and lesson by example, I was not the only one who recognized this man’s extraordinary impact.

I’ll never get the entire chronology of Jim’s trajectory right but the heart of his stories and achievements is what really matters anyway.  From the days he worked in advertising in Chicago to quickly move to the local TV station where, one day, he was thrust into the role of directing the news with no prep…to his astonishing career and reputation as The Myth in New York running TeleTape Productions and doing the groundbreaking work to take mobile unit studios to the streets so great events like Color Me Barbra and Ray Charles in Central Park and Easter Seal Telethons could be shot live, literally bringing them to the world, Jim made it possible for people around him to shine.  His foresight and leadership created the studio where Sesame Street and Electric Company debuted and were produced for years.  His canny mind took on the powerful theatrical unions and not only won disputes but gained the respect of union leaders.

When he left that gig and went up to farm his 500 acres in Afton, NY with his late wife Marilyn, he really headed back to the world he was meant for….farming and the land.  He told me many of the stories from those years – chasing run away pigs, a brilliant dog who always knew when the cows had gotten out somewhere over a hill, how his beloved dogs and horses brought him the simple pleasure nature provides.   We had a favorite story about his neighbor Fred and used its lesson many times over our years together.  Fred was a taciturn man whose words Jim always knew to listen to when Fred began to shuffle his feet and prepare to utter a pronouncement (although he probably didn’t think of his own words as pronouncements).  Fred and Jim went to a bull auction one day to buy a Charolais to service Jim’s herd….Jim was amazed at the amounts of money being spent, out of his league.  Fred began to shuffle and finally said, “Well, Jim, there are those who farm for money and those who farm with money.”   It hit home to my depression-baby husband who watched his nickels, understood finance and how money is a commodity not a goal and we repeated it many times over the years of building the vineyard and winery.

After that farmhouse burned down (I know….unbelievable that he was witness to two devastating fires in his lifetime), and his late wife Marilyn had been diagnosed with MS, Jim had to give up life on the land and go back to television to provide for his family.  The balance of his career was stellar, again leading from behind.  Maybe the most unlikely of his roles was as KISS’s Business Manager.  He had no idea who they were or what their style was and landed the spot because a director who had worked for him at TeleTape had gone on to take that unknown group to the KISS phenomenon and knew Jim was right for the job.  On an early tour with them, he said “So, Gene, tell me about your music.  Is it protest music?”  “Jim,” Simmons said….”it’s about sex….”.

Then he landed with Woody Fraser, a man he’d met back in the very early days in Chicago.  Woody is his own force of nature having created a great deal of what television still looks like today – America Live, The Mike Douglas Show, The Richard Simmons Show, Home…and Jim became the steady hand that translated Woody’s crazy genius into actual reality as Executive in Charge of Production.  Years they spent together on the set and, until Jim’s last moment, as deep and personal friends through many of the life cycle events.

I always wondered about the relationship because Jim had a reverence for Woody but also the kind of dynamic that does burble up in a family with competing genius on several levels.  Woody is Jim’s age – a couple of weeks older – but the relationship had something within it I could not grasp until just a few weeks ago when someone referred to Jim’s own father, Howard, by his nickname…Woody.  Jim was one of four children, he was the second oldest.  When he was eight years old, his mother tragically died of peritonitis and, six months later, his dad died of a heart attack.  They were children themselves and, in fact, still known at the cemetery where they are buried in Michigan as the Young Couple.   Woody.  Jim did not see Woody Fraser as a father figure but, rather, as family and that was what was at the heart of the relationship – Jim loved family.

How lucky was I to come back into Jim’s life in the early days of his fulfillment of his dream to plant a vineyard and make wine.  Doubly lucky, really, because all of those years running the household through the sad progress of the Marilyn’s MS, Jim learned to cook and keep a proper home.  All those glorious meals he cooked from instinct.  And how lucky was I that both my late husband and I worked for Jim at TeleTape and he got to know our son so well.  We were a full circle with compassion and empathy for each other’s lives before our own together, becoming our own family.

How lucky was I that he embraced me instantly – once we knew it was love! – as a full and equal helpmate and partner.  How we worked and with what endless joy and love and wonder.  Oh, and you all know that the original name was Blooming Hill Vineyard but Jim’s marketing mind kicked in and he said…let’s call it A Blooming Hill Vineyard.  That popped us right to the top of every listing!  We had a dream together that we wanted people to feel as if they were friends and guests – family – and I think we achieved it.

We were constant witnesses to each other sharing not only the deep friendship and love but a history having worked together lo so many years ago and insight we brought to this marriage from our individual experiences that guided how we chose to live together.  We loved, we laughed and, sometimes, we agonized. Mostly we laughed!  We were attached.   Before Jim, I always lamented that I spent most of my day in an office when all I really wanted was to live and work in the same place and have the gift of conversation with someone I loved.  It eluded me for over three decades until Jim.  These fifteen years gave us 24/7 of each other.  My whole soul felt that connection every day and its loss is the first thing I understood in my heart as I held his hand and he passed from me into his mother’s arms and the arms of God.

We will arrange for people to gather to recall him after the pandemic danger has subsided – I’m hoping in May or June.  We both chose an ecological end to our bodies so Jim is resting at a place called Recompose in Seattle where his earthly body goes through natural organic reduction to return to the earth as soil.  Most will be sprinkled in a forest on Bells Mountain, a protected natural wilderness in southern Washington.  Some will be returned to the earth in the sweet cemetery in Cornelius that Jim helped to restore and across the road from his vineyard.  I’ll plant something he loved there…maybe roses, maybe peonies.

I’d like to have us gather in Cornelius and also in this beautiful home in Washington that he so looked forward to enjoying.  I think I’ll also travel to Chicago when it’s safe to gather with Jim’s family there.  I’m hoping those three moments will give people who have loved and admired him, who have shared lives with him in the many iterations of his life a chance to celebrate him.

While Jim could not escape the Eagle’s talons that had such a hold on his body, I can celebrate him with every thought and every breath and believe that he is free, at peace and embraced by joyous love.

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Recompose acknowledges we make our lives and livelihoods on the lands of the Coast Salish People, specifically the Duwamish People. We honor with gratitude the Duwamish People past and present, the land itself, and the Duwamish Tribe. Colonization is an active, persistent process. Indigenous communities continue to be resilient in protecting their ecological and cultural lifeways and deathways despite ongoing oppression. Recompose respects, shares, and supports this commitment to climate healing and environmental justice. Join Recompose in contributing to Real Rent Duwamish.