Feb. 12, 1921 – Sept. 13, 2017
As a teenager in Adolf Hitler's Germany, Gunter Paul Heinze grew up with great fear and apprehension about what the future would hold.
He and his parents, who lived in Berlin, had many Jewish friends. They did not support the Nazi dictator, his war efforts or his plans to exterminate the Jewish race.
"My father didn’t think he had a future," said Heinze's son, Bernie Heinze. "It was a scary time…His parents were not members of the Nazi party, or supporters in any way. In fact, they had a bunker behind their home where they would allow their Jewish friends to hide when the Gestapo came looking for them."
But things would work out for Gunter Heinze. He had an extraordinary life, which included a friendship with a famous Olympic athlete, helping America's space program land the first man on the moon, and spending nearly five decades in Western New York.
Mr. Heinze, an Amherst resident, died Wednesday in the hospice unit of Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital, following a short illness. He was 96. He was married for 71 years to the former Elfriede "Elfi" Bendler, now 94, who grew up with him in Berlin.
"As it turned out, he had a wonderful life," Bernie Heinze said. "You could say that my father truly out-kicked his punt coverage."
As a young boy, he built and flew radio controlled glider planes and launched rockets. He also enjoyed competing in tennis, ice skating, and track and field events. Because of an injury, he fell just short of making the 1936 German Olympic Team.
But because he had learned to speak French and English, Mr. Heinze was selected to serve as a translator for French and American athletes at the Olympics, which were held in Berlin. One of his duties was to serve as a goodwill ambassador to Jesse Owens, the black American sprinter who would win four gold medals and become one of the most celebrated Olympic athletes of all time.
Mr. Heinze essentially served as a personal assistant and guide to Owens during the Olympics, showing Owens around the city, taking him to restaurants and an opera, and celebrating his victories with him. Owens' success at the Olympics made worldwide news – in part because Hitler, who hated blacks, was watching the competition.
The Olympics began a friendship that lasted until Owens' death in 1980.
An accomplished student of science and rocketry, Mr. Heinze was spared from serving in the German Army during World War II because he was working at a weapons plant.
After the war ended in 1945, his scientific knowledge became his ticket to a better life. In 1946, he was recruited by the British government to move to England and work with the Royal Aircraft Establishment, an aviation research company that worked closely with the military.
Five years later, he and his wife – who had dreamed for years of a life in America – moved to Chicago, under a then-secret CIA program to recruit German scientists. Mr. Heinze began working on guidance systems, accelorometers and gyroscopes for American missiles and spacecraft. He worked in Chicago and Cleveland before moving to Western New York in 1970.
Before making that move, Mr. Heinze already was working with engineers at the Bell Aerospace Company in Wheatfield, where they developed instruments used in the lunar module that made the first landing on the moon in 1969.
"His was one small part of a massive project that many people participated in, but the guidance system was essential in helping an aircraft launched in America find its way to the moon, 250,000 miles away," Bernie Heinze said.
Fascinated for most of his life by space exploration, Mr. Heinze worked on numerous projects for the U.S. Armed Forces and NASA, including the Mercury, Voyager, Gemini, Apollo, SkyLab and Space Shuttle missions. He retired from Bell – now known as Calspan -- at the end of 1989, a year after winning the company's highest honor, the President's Award for Excellence.
He was inducted into the Niagara Aerospace Museum Hall of Fame in 2007 and was an active member of the Aero Club of Buffalo.
One of the great moments of Mr. Heinze's life came in 1977, when Owens visited Buffalo, his son said. Bernie Heinze arranged for his father to have lunch with the Olympic hero.
"We got off an elevator on the top floor of the M&T Bank building. We saw Jesse Owens in the hallway. He saw Jesse, Jesse saw him, and he and my father went running toward each other like excited kids…hugging, kissing each other and talking incessantly," Bernie Heinze said.
Mr. Heinze's hobbies included making jewelry, fixing clocks and watches. He enjoyed photography and playing the concertina for his two granddaughters.
He is survived by his wife and son. Family members will receive visitors at 10 a.m. Monday in the Perna, Dengler & Roberts Funeral Home, 1671 Maple Road, Williamsville, where a memorial service will begin at 11 a.m.
At age 80, Mr. Heinze wrote a book about his life. Family members were not surprised when he entitled it "To Da Moon."
"I am going to write the story of my life…it might even sound a bit like a fairytale," Mr. Heinze wrote in the introduction.