News Column

The inimitable Grete: German voice is at home on the radio

May 13, 2013


May 13--Editor's note: Staff write Bill Lohmann wrote this profile of Grete Dollitz in December 1992. Dollitz has died at age 88.

Grete Dollitz was a child of about 6 when her family fled Germany just before World War II and hopped a boat for the United States.

The family wound up in New York, arriving on a Friday. On Monday, Grete started school at P.S. 71.

On Grete's first day, the teacher looked her in the eye and said, "Put your coat in the closet." Grete, who spoke no English and had no clue what the teacher had said, did what any child would do in the same, strange situation.

She broke into tears.

Her pigtails braided and her tongue tied, Grete sat very quietly for the next few days and weeks. But gradually she became more comfortable, picking up a little English here and there. Finally, after a month, she was ready to open her mouth and see what might come out.

"I raised my hand, and my teacher, who was very surprised, called on me," Mrs. Dollitz said. "I stood up and said, 'I have no ink in my inkvell.' The whole class applauded. They thought it was marvelous that I had spoken my first sentence in English correctly."

Now, Mrs. Dollitz speaks her English into a microphone.

In fact, she owns one of Richmond's more distinctive radio voices. While she talks, she learns all sorts of things.

Such as . . .

"People call me and tell me I have an accent," Mrs. Dollitz said with a laugh and a shake of her head. "The things you find out."

Mrs. Dollitz and her accent have become holiday and weekend fixtures on WCVE-FM, the area's public radio station. If you tune in today from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., you can catch Mrs. Dollitz providing weather updates, musical details and priceless observations, in her inimitable style.

Why volunteer for holiday duty? The same reasons, she said, that she enjoys the sunrise shift on Saturdays and Sundays.

"The independence," she said. "I like solitude. It's not lonely. There is so much on us nowadays that solitude is a very hard-won situation.

"I also like the challenge behind it. In other words, if something goes wrong, I'm either to blame or I have to fix it. I enjoy having responsibility. It's very nice."

Mrs. Dollitz, a petite woman, is a bundle of energy -- until she scoots her chair up to the mike and the red "On Air" light flashes on. Then, she sits very still and speaks deliberately and deeply about the previous Vivaldi selection or about hanging on for dear life to the steering wheel of her 30- year-old Volkswagen bug (nickname: Fidelio) as she crossed the Huguenot Bridge before dawn on her windy drive to the studio.

Mrs. Dollitz came to be on the radio quite by accident.

She was a member of a local classical guitar group that decided more than 20 years ago to produce a weekly radio show featuring guitar music. Members rotated as hosts. However, attrition eventually reduced it to a rotation of one: Mrs. Dollitz.

That show, now called "An Hour With the Guitar," is in its third incarnation on WCVE.

About 10 years ago, Mrs. Dollitz was sitting home on a Sunday when a phone call came from station manager Jerry Glass. His Sunday announcer had quit and no one else was available. Mrs. Dollitz had never done a live show, but desperation has a way of making even the least-prepared candidates look perfectly qualified.

"I figured, 'Well, I'll jump in first, then I'll see if I can swim," she recalled. "Most of the time, I've been able to swim. Barely."

She ran into a few, as they say in the business, technical difficulties. She also discovered that reading from a script, as she did on her guitar show, is far different from ad-libbing.

"I was scared stiff," she said.

But she didn't blow up the station and performed, under the circumstances, quite respectably. Soon, she became a regular, working weekends and holidays, producing specials on local composers and serving as the station librarian.

Mrs. Dollitz's appreciation of music goes back to her early days in her hometown of Kaldenkirchen, a small town not more than a 15-minute walk from the Dutch border. (In recent years, the town's name has been changed to Nettetal.)

"My mother used to clamp earphones on my head to keep me quiet the way they put children in front of TV sets now," she said. "I'd sit there on the sofa and listen to whatever was on."

Her taste for serious classical music -- some listeners even call it "oddball," she says -- stems from those days.

"It surprises me that people call me up about things they've never heard and say they're strange or different," she said. "Like a harmonica concerto or a concerto for an accordion. Well, to me, they're not so unusual."

Her first instrument was a harmonium. Her second was a harmonica, and it became her best friend -- next to her younger brother -- during her first days in New York.

"We would sit on the stoop and play sad, doleful songs because we were so lonesome," she said. "Neighborhood kids would come over and say, 'Hey, let me try,' and before long they were talking . . . and we were learning English."

Singing was big in her family. Her father was a tenor, her mother an alto and her brother a boy soprano. Her deep voice -- now, she sings bass -- was somewhat out of place.

"I used to accompany myself on guitar," she said. "I'd haul it out and sing cowboy songs and stuff like that. Suddenly, my father would disappear into the basement, my mother would disappear upstairs and my brother would leave the house. Mine is just not a beautiful voice."

Mrs. Dollitz learned to play piano, but a horseback-riding incident -- the horse got spooked and threw her -- left her with a broken arm that, to this day, limits her reach on the keyboard.

So, guitar became her instrument by choice and necessity.

She loved music and wanted to major in it at Hunter College in New York. Her dream was to stand before one of the world's great symphonies as a conductor.

But women simply were not conductors at that time. Besides, her parents did not think music was a way to become gainfully employed.

She majored in Spanish, instead. After college, she got a job as an interpreter for an international pharmaceutical company. She made good money, but, proving music was not out of her system, she spent a portion of it on guitar lessons.

She married Hans Dollitz, a piano technician. The two decided to leave New York and set out on their own. After some correspondence with chambers of commerce, they landed in Bluefield, W.Va. From New York, they might as well have gone to Mars.

The culture shock was devastating. Mrs. Dollitz said she compensated by immersing herself in nature. She took walks in the mountains. She went to the library. She learned the name of every wildflower she saw.

"I made it my business to know what I live with," she said.

After about four years, though, the coalfield economy was souring and the Dollitzes were ready for a change of scenery. Hans was offered a job by Walter D. Moses Co. and the couple came to Richmond, where they've lived for more than 30 years.

Mrs. Dollitz comes across as outgoing and shy, bubbly and reserved. She exhibits a sharp wit and a self-deprecating humor.

She plays guitar for small groups. She grows her own vegetables. She loves birds ("don't forget our winged friends," she often reminds listeners in the winter), dogs and cats (a stray she rescued has rewarded her with kittens). She thinks nothing of walking six miles on an errand.

She sees dandelions and calls them wildflowers.

She looks into the trees at winter and sees not bare limbs but arboreal "architecture."

In general, she espouses a cheerful view of life, which, in part, comes from knowing what she escaped by leaving Germany.

She visited her homeland shortly after World War II. What she found was physical devastation and, perhaps more gripping, mental anguish.

"I could see it in my cousins, who never really were able to lead happy, complete lives," she said. "I could see it in my grandmother, a 90-year-old lady, who had been through three wars. She sat there and said, 'I . . . am . . . so . . . sick . . . of . . . it.'

She also told me, 'You cannot imagine how good grass tastes when you're hungry.' My hair rose when I listened to her."

So, being on the radio and hearing occasional complaints that she speaks too slowly, well, that's pretty small potatoes.

"The reason I speak slowly is, in part, because I translate everything," she said. "Sometimes I think in German. Sometimes I think in English. Sometimes in Spanish.

"Occasionally, I get short-circuits and only the German will come to me. Or only the Spanish will come to me. When that happens in front of an open mike, I have to use a circuitous sentence to get me out of that hole. But there's nothing I can do about it."

There are plenty of compliments for her radio work, she was quick to add. But sometimes, she said, the reward for working in radio is not what you hear or say, but what you see.

"A high point is when I can watch the sun rise as I cross the James River on my way to the station," she said. "When I see that, I always feel like I'm some kind of a privileged character."


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