In remembrance: 30 notable deaths in Butler and Warren counties from 2019

The Butler County region lost prominent educators, students, veterans and coaches this year.

Here’s a look at some of those

Tom Alf

A longtime Butler County educator was remembered for the lives he impacted inside and outside the classroom.

Tom Alf, who was re-elected to the Hamilton Board of Education and worked in every Butler County public school district, died Nov. 13. He was 70.

MORE: Tom Alf, Hamilton school board member and longtime educator, dies at 70

He taught at Roosevelt, Garfield and Washington junior high schools and served as assistant principal and principal of Garfield Junior High and Hamilton High School.

After 32 years of service to the Hamilton City Schools, Alf retired as assistant superintendent for human resources. After retirement, he was principal of New Miami Middle/High School and an administrator for Cincinnati Life skills. Recently, Alf has been a support/substitute administrator in the Hamilton City Schools and Talawanda City Schools.

Hamilton Mayor Pat Moeller worked with Alf on the planning commission and he admired Alf for his work in education and throughout the Hamilton community.

“One of the finest gentlemen I’ve ever met,” Moeller said. “He loved this community, he loved the people in this community. He will be solely missed. It hurts.”

Martin “Marty” Ary

Marty Ary, who nearly drowned in a swimming pool accident 17 years ago and later attended Middletown’s Homecoming Dance, died Feb. 21. He was 19.

MORE: Middletown man who inspired for years after 2002 near-drowning dies at 19

On May 29, 2002, Ary had a near-drowning accident. In 2015, he was asked to his high school Homecoming dance by his friend, Alexis Taylor, then a sophomore.

After the story appeared in the Journal-News, a horse and carriage company donated its services so Alexis and Marty could ride to the dance in style.

Doug Braden

Doug Braden was described as “a quiet genius” who dedicated years of his life to improving a Middletown radio station.

Braden, who spent 40 years as the owner/operator of WPFB AM/FM in Middletown and WPAY AM/FM in Portsmouth, died April 19 at Mary Rutan Hospital in Bellefontaine. He was 85.

MORE: ‘Quiet genius’ remembered for moving home to run family’s Middletown radio station

Braden also was an honorary deputy sheriff with the Butler County Sheriff’s Office.

Larry Brandenburg

A former school administrator, teacher, athletic director and coach whose school named its football field died Aug. 14 at Hospice Care of Dayton.

Madison High School, where Larry Brandenburg spent his entire 30-year career, named its football stadium after him. He founded the school’s football program in 1960 and coached football until 1965.

MORE: Longtime Madison educator, namesake of school’s football field, dies at 82

But Brandenburg, who was 82 when he died, is best remembered for leading the boys basketball team to the State Class AA Final Four in 1972.

Brandenburg graduated from Gratis High School and started teaching at Madison in 1959. He taught physical education and biology and was director of the science department for 18 years, according to district records.

He coached cross country, track, football and boys basketball and served as assistant principal/athletic director for seven years, then principal for five years. He retired in 1989 after 30 years with the district.

Gregg Clark

Gregg Clark, who for decades played venues throughout Butler and Warren counties, especially if money needed to be raised for a worthy cause, died April 1 in his Middletown home of an apparent heart attack. He was 66.

“You could always count on Gregg if you needed help,” said Sam Ashworth, who played trombone in several bands with Clark.

MORE: Middletown mourns ‘a musical legend’ who gave time to aspiring players, fundraisers

Ashworth called Clark “a musical legend” in the region.

Clark, a 1971 Middletown High School graduate, was a staple at numerous musical festivals. It seemed he played every night of the week.

“There is a big hole in the music community,” said Sue Wittman, president of the Art Central Foundation in Middletown.

Clark was a Realtor for 10 years at Coldwell Banker Heritage in Middletown and was an active member at First Presbyterian Church.

Clark played in several bands, including the Royal Blues Band, Livin’ End and the Gregg Clark Group. He was a regular at the Lebanon Blues Festival.

Dan Cox

Dan Cox, a longtime freshman football coach at Badin High School, died suddenly of a heart attack Feb. 3 while exercising at his home. He was 57.

Larry Cox said his brother coached football for more than 20 years at Badin and the CYO. His goal always was “to make people better. He was the best of the Cox brothers.”

MORE: Longtime Butler County football coach dies at 57

Since his brother’s death, Cox said he has heard from countless people who told stories about how Dan Cox touched their lives. He was a father figure to many of his players, his brother said.

“That shows how fragile life really is,” said Rick Kunkel, 70, who coached about 10 seasons at Badin with Cox. “It was a shock to me. I still don’t believe it.”

Steve Davidson

One of Middletown’s most accomplished bowlers, who also operated his family’s bowling alley and a trophy business, died Oct. 17.

Steve Davidson died at Kettering Medical Center, 10 days after he was involved in a car crash in Middletown, said his sister, Susan Childers. He was 68.

MORE: Legendary Middletown bowler, bowling alley operator dies after car crash

One of Davidson’s best friends, Nelson Hurte, 68, said he was “totally shocked” when he heard about Davidson’s death.

“He was so young and it’s amazing that he is gone,” Hurte said. “It shocked me.”

He said Davidson threw “countless” 300 games and 800 series.

“He was the best to ever come out of Middletown,” Hurte said. “He was at the top of the game.”

Davidson’s father, Richard “Davey” Davidson, operated Sports Bowl from 1971 until his death on Dec. 1, 2010. The bowling alley closed in 2011 and was sold in 2014.

After his father’s death, Davidson moved his trophy business next to Stefano’s Italian Cafe on Central Avenue. Then he sold the business that is operated inside Eastern Lanes.

Howard Dirksen

The list of Howard Dirksen’s contributions to the Fairfield community is long.

From being a 14-year City Council member to founding some of the city’s most prominent organizations — notably the Fairfield Community Foundation and Fairfield Food Pantry — Dirksen “he had a knack for bringing people together for a common goal, and that was helping others,” said Fairfield Community Foundation Executive Director Linda Yarger.

MORE: Howard Dirksen, a ‘community big brother’ for Fairfield, dies at 76

Dirksen, a Norwood native and graduate of Miami University and Michigan State, died Dec. 18 at Mercy Health-Fairfield Hospital after a lengthy illness. He was 76.

“Howard was a very good man. He was a very moral person and I’d think all the decisions he made were in the best interest of the community,” said Fairfield Mayor Steve Miller. “He definitely put the community before he put himself.”

Hugh DePew

Hugh DePew, a 35-year career firefighter who served as Franklin’s fire chief from 1992 to 2000, died Feb. 18. He was 82.

Wilburn DePew, 84, said his brother had been sick for a few days and was hospitalized.

“It’s hard to believe he’s gone,” Wilburn DePew said. “He was the best guy to work with and the easiest guy to get along with.”

MORE: ‘He was a fireman’s fireman’: Former Franklin fire chief dies at 82

He and his brother had always been close and worked at the local A&P grocery in the 1950s. Wilburn DePew said his brother went to work at a paper packaging plant in Middletown but later came back to work for the Franklin Street Department in 1968 and became a volunteer firefighter. In addition, Hugh DePew served in the Ohio National Guard for four years.

When Wilburn DePew became the city’s fire chief, in 1988, his brother became the assistant chief. Four years later, Hugh DePew became the fire chief.

Joe DeAngelo

Beloved Badin High School teacher Joe DeAngelo, who had taught 52 of 53 years of the Hamilton Catholic school’s existence, died Feb. 24 at Mercy Health Fairfield Hospital.

Though DeAngelo, who was 74, had battled a heart ailment in recent weeks, his passing was unexpected, school officials said.

MORE: Beloved teacher of more than 50 years is third Badin school community loss this month

“Joe DeAngelo was Badin and Badin was Joe,” said Badin High Principal Brian Pendergest. “He was dedicated to this building, to our mission and most of all to our students. He loved our students, and he was a genuine caring individual. He had a lot of pride in everything he did. There is a huge hole in the Badin family right now.”

DeAngelo was a marketing education teacher at Badin and was affectionately known as “Mr. D” by decades of students and school staffers.

He started teaching at the school in 1967.

Ercel Eaton

Ercel Eaton, a longtime newspaper columnist often called the “Queen of Butler County,” died June 20 at Woodlands in Hamilton. She was 89.

She wrote for the Hamilton JournalNews for 43 years and authored many books.

MORE: Columnist known as the ‘Queen of Butler County’ dies at 89

She was born Leslie County, Ky., and spent a large part of her journalism career writing about the mountain culture and history that she loved so dearly, her family said.

“She wanted to show those people as kinder, gentler and how they were hard workers,” said one of her daughters, Bridget Ossmann. “To her, they weren’t hillbillies or rednecks. They were people first.”

Homer Fink Jr.

Homer D. Fink, Jr. protected and served the city of Fairfield for 27 years until he retired in 1989.

He then worked as a deputy sheriff for the Butler County Sheriff’s Office from 1989 until 2004. Fink, who was known to many as “Bud,” died Sept. 30. He was 81.

MORE: Former Fairfield police officer, Butler County sheriff’s deputy dies at 81

Fink was born on June 10, 1938 in Wellston, Ohio, nearly 150 miles east of Butler County. He graduated from Hamilton High School in 1956 and started with the Fairfield Police Department in 1962.

Dr. Louis Gaker

Middletown’s medical history came a few feet from being rewritten.

When Louis Gaker was drafted into the U.S. Navy, where he served one year aboard the Mine Sweeper USS Knight, the ship nearly was “blown up” by a mine. Later, Gaker’s ship came with an “arm’s length” of crashing into the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, his family said.

MORE: Longtime Middletown doctor, 92, dies just months after his wife’s death

After those close calls during World War II, Gaker returned to the University of Cincinnati, where he entered medical school in 1947.

Eight years later, Gaker and his wife, Carolyn, settled in Middletown, where he practiced urology for 41 years.

Dr. Louis Gaker died Aug. 7. He was 92.

After his son, Dr. Doug Gaker, took over the family’s urology practice, Gaker served as a physician with the Clipper Cruise Ship Co. This allowed the Gakers to take many cruises during their retirement, said his daughter Lisa Gaker Wilson.

Robert Gerhardt Jr.

Robert J. Gerhardt Jr. was Fairfield’s city manager during a critical point in the city’s history, leading the burgeoning city through flooding problems and laying a foundation that eventually averted a potential economic setback.

Gerhardt, who served the city as a police officer, clerk of council, assistant city manager, city manager and council member, died March 29 at his Hamilton home. He was 73.

MORE: Bob Gerhardt led Fairfield through time of critical issues, former councilman says

“Bob was a good man,” said former Fairfield City Council member Mark Scharringhausen. “He just worked very hard, and he led the city during a difficult time.”

G. Riley Griffiths

A Monroe businessman who was so remarkable he “left an immense void” in his family’s heart “that words can not articulate” died July 19.

G. Riley Griffiths, who owned Riley’s Furniture and Mattress in Monroe, died after battling pancreatic cancer for nine months. He was 75.

MORE: Monroe businessman who ran store for 49 years ‘lived and loved with such generosity’

“We are grateful to have known, loved, and been loved by him,” wrote Shannon Bannerman, the oldest of his three daughters.

Griffiths was born in Huntington, W.Va., and raised in Springfield. This spring, he was inducted in the “Wall of Fame” at Shawnee High School honoring him and his doubles partner for their 1961 state championship.

He worked at GE from 1967-1970, then in 1970 he and his former business partner opened Furniture Depot in Middletown. Four years later, a building was constructed in Monroe and called Gracious Living before it was renamed Riley’s Furniture.

Dr. David Hirsch

The daughter of a World War II veteran and longtime Butler County dentist called him “a brave warrior” because of the resiliency he displayed after his mother and wife died.

“He was an inspiration to so many, many people,” Paula “Gigi” Hirsch said. “He was such an incredibly genuine, kind and loving person.”

MORE: Longtime ‘beloved’ Hamilton dentist, WWII veteran dies at 98

Her father, Dr. David Hirsch, of Oxford, died Aug. 17. He was 98.

Hirsch, a resident of Oxford since 1982 and formerly a resident of Hamilton, was born in Cincinnati on Oct. 8, 1920. The family moved to Hamilton when he was an infant. He graduated from Hamilton High School in 1938, attended Miami University and then graduated from the Ohio State University School of Dentistry in 1943.

Jim Irwin

Jim Irwin, a well-known area attorney who prosecuted one of the highest-profile cases in Butler County memory and who helped preserve local history, died Sept. 15. He was 85.

He was instrumental in getting a 2009 historical marker at High Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s speech in Hamilton on Sept. 17, 1859.

MORE: Prosecutor in notorious Butler County murder case, passionate historian dies at 85

“It was an honor to know him,” said Butler County Prosecutor Michael Gmoser. “He was sensible and was a good mentor for young lawyers coming up. He set an excellent example, not only for courtroom ability but personal and professional ethics.”

In 1975, then-Butler County Prosecutor John Holcomb asked Irwin to be a special assistant prosecutor in the second James Ruppert murder trial after the first ended in a mistrial. Ruppert was convicted of killing 11 members of his family on Easter in 1975. Irwin’s work on that case remained a source of professional, and personal, pride.

Lt. George Jeffery

A retired lieutenant in the Middletown Division of Police died May 30

Lt. George Jeffery died after battling cancer, according to a post on the police department’s Facebook page. He was 76.

In the post, Chief Rodney Muterspaw wrote that “our hearts are heavy” after the passing of Jeffery.

MORE: Middletown police chief after officer’s death: ‘Heaven welcomed a legend’

He wrote Jeffery served his community for decades and was a “mentor and friend to all of us.” Even after retirement, he would come in for coffee and just to sit and chat with the officers, Muterspaw wrote.

“He truly loved MPD and the Middletown community,” the chief wrote. “Heaven welcomed a legend today. God Bless you George.”

Jeffery joined the Middletown police department in 1972 and retired in 2006 after a 34-year career.

Dr. William Krall

Dr. William Krall, an advocate for hospice care, died Feb. 5. He was 70.

In a 2013 interview, Krall said there were misconceptions about hospice care, including that it is morbid, depressing and heartbreaking.

Instead, he said, hospice care — a relatively new concept to many at the time — can bring great comfort to the dying, their families and friends.

MORE: Dr. William Krall, who comforted countless in Butler County with hospice care, dies 70

“If they’ve reassured their family that it’s okay, my time has come, that’s a warm and satisfying feeling,” Krall told this media outlet. “Certainly the family is going to be sad at the passing of a loved one, but they do it with dignity, surrounded by friends and family.”

Board certified in Internal Medicine and Pulmonary Disease, he practiced in the Hamilton-Fairfield area since July, 1979.

He became an assistant director of Hospice of Cincinnati and then medical director of the inpatient unit in Hamilton.

Roy Lucas

Roy Lucas, who coached football for more than 40 years at Lloyd High School, Miami Trace High School, Morehead State University, West Virginia Technical College, Greenup County High School, Washington Courthouse High School, Newport High School, and Thomas More College, died Aug. 26 at St. Elizabeth Hospice in Edgewood, Ky. He was 77.

MORE: Roy Lucas, former Middletown great and member of legendary athletic family, dies 77

It would have been easy for Roy Lucas to be dwarfed by his brother’s shadow.

“He was proud of my accomplishments and I was very proud of what he did,” said his older brother, Jerry Lucas, who is regarded as one of the greatest high school, college and professional basketball players in history. “We were very, very close. He influenced thousands of lives. He really did.”

He was an Associated Press Class AA second-team all-state end for the Middletown Middies in 1958, the same year he caught a 75-yard touchdown pass. His brother said that was the first touchdown pass ever completed in the spread offense run under legendary Coach Glenn “Tiger” Ellison.

Janet Niederman

Janet Niederman, the matriarch of the family behind Niederman Family Farm, was remembered for her generosity that she passed down to her children.

“You never replace someone with a heart like Janet’s,” said Christine Matacic, a Liberty Twp. trustee. “And you know how the saying goes, ‘And it doesn’t fall far from the tree.’”

MORE: Matriarch of Liberty Twp.’s Niederman Farm had ‘wonderful, caring heart’

Niederman died Jan. 11 at home. She was 84.

Matacic said Niederman possessed a “wonderful, caring heart and a positive attitude.” She always put her family first, loved helping others and had a strong faith, Matacic said.

Craig Ruppert

Craig V. Ruppert, who served as a Hamilton police officer from 1950 to 1979, died June 23 in his Hamilton home. He was 93.

He served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and was stationed at Pearl Harbor. When he got out of the Navy he became a Hamilton police officer. He also was a Kentucky Colonel and belonged to the American Legion Post No. 104 in Sevierville, Tenn.

MORE: Hamilton’s oldest retired officer, World War II veteran dies at 93

Ruppert’s father was a Cincinnati police officer and he always said he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps, said Don Ruppert, 68.

Ruppert’s first day on the job was memorable, his son said. A pedestrian was struck and killed by a stream train at Fourth and High streets and Ruppert’s job was collecting the body parts.

“Welcome to the Hamilton Police Department,” his son said.

Don Shollenbarger

Don Shollenbarger, who served for 16 years as senior curator of the Soldiers, Sailors, and Pioneers Monument in Hamilton, died Feb. 13 at Fort Hamilton Hospital. He was 72.

After Shollenbarger retired in 2015, the monument closed for repairs. During Shollenbarger’s time there, he cared for the myriad of uniforms, artifacts of wars like cannons and bayonets, documents, books and other memorabilia dating back to the Civil War.

MORE: Former curator of Butler County war monument who ‘loved history’ dies at 72

He had such a wealth of knowledge, the county created a documentary featuring Shollenbarger giving a tour of the monument.

“He loved everything about that monument,” said his wife, Princess, 72. “He loved history.”

Shollenbarger graduated from Hamilton High School, attended Miami University, and was a Vietnam veteran of the U. S. Army from 1969-75. He was honored with a Purple Heart during his military career.

He later was an Ohio National Guardsman, retiring after 22 years of military service. He also was employed by Butler County as maintenance supervisor for buildings and grounds. When he retired as curator, he had 43 years of county service.

Delbert Sharrett

Delbert Sharrett, a World War II veteran who served as grand marshal of Middletown’s Memorial Day Parade, died Nov. 17. He was 96.

In 1941, Sharrett, then a junior at Washington Court House High School, enlisted in the U.S. Navy so he wouldn’t have to finish school. He served a few weeks in Michigan, patrolling a lake shore with a rifle and no ammunition.

MORE: WWII veteran, 96, called the ‘kindest man,’ dies

Sharrett was shipped to Pearl Harbor on Dec. 2, 1941, five days before the attack.

On that day, Sharrett was aboard the USS Sea Gull about 80 miles from Pearl Harbor. They were practicing what Sharrett called “war games,” meaning they shot blank torpedoes at targets, retrieved them, and scored their accuracy.

Sharrett remembered a radio announcement urging the sailors to “take cover because Pearl Harbor was bombed.” The world changed forever when more than 2,400 Americans were killed.

After the war, Sharrett returned to Washington Court House and finished his senior year. He then planned to enroll in Ohio State’s veterinarian program, but his wife got pregnant with their first child. So the family moved to Middletown, Sharrett applied at Armco Steel and started working later that afternoon. He retired from there in 1978, 30 years and 20 days later.

Ruth E. Slade

One of the oldest Butler County residents died March 8.

Ruth E. Slade, who spent 37 years as a first- and second-grade teacher in Poasttown Elementary, died at Otterbein Lebanon SeniorLife Community. She was 105.

MORE: Longtime elementary school teacher and a ‘true survivor’ dies at 105

“She always had a smile on her face,” said Chuck Veidt, 61, who cared for Slade in his West Alexandria Road residence for years. “She never complained.”

He said Slade’s health remained strong “right up to the end.”

Slade beat breast cancer twice and persevered after her leg was pinned under a patio door for 18 hours as her body temperatures fell to dangerous levels.

Born in a farmhouse in Madison Twp. in 1914, Slade graduated from Middletown High School in 1932.

The library in the Madison elementary school is named the Ruth E. Slade Media Center for her 37 years of service to the district.

Madison Smallwood

Madison Smallwood, whose fight inspired a community, lost her battle against cancer on June 25. She as 12.

Madison had long wished to experience a high school graduation and prom. The entire Monroe community rallied to make her dreams come true.

MORE: Monroe girl who inspired community with cancer fight dies

In 2015, she was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a bone cancer.

Last year, Madison served as honorary mayor of the city. She was appointed honorary mayor by Mayor Robert Routson during a City Council meeting.

In his proclamation, Routson said mayors must be good leaders in the communities they serve, know it’s difficult to bring an entire community together and agree on any subject, and “must have the ability to inspire, motivate and have compassion for others during the ups and downs life brings to us all.”

A few weeks later, Madison served as grand marshal of Monroe’s Fourth of July parade.

Lowell Stewart

Longtime Butler County Veterans Service Commissioner Lowell Stewart died May 18. He was 80.

Stewart retired from the commission in December 2017 after 22 years. During a celebration in his honor, Executive Director Caroline Bier presented Stewart with a plaque and Board President Chuck Weber thanked him for his service.

“Lowell, you’re a champ, we appreciate it, we’re going to miss you,” Weber said.

MORE: Lowell Stewart, who served Butler County’s veterans for decades, dies at 80

Stewart served in the United States Air Force from 1959 to 1963, and he was a retiree of Champion Paper Company after 30 years of service.

Dominic Watkins

Dominic Watkins, 19, a 2018 Monroe High School graduate, lost his battle against osteosarcoma, a bone cancer, March 1 at Cincinnati Children’s Liberty Campus.

On Nov. 21, 2017, his 18th birthday, his left leg was amputated to eliminate the chance of the cancer spreading to other organs.

MORE: How schools honored a former Monroe star athlete who inspired with his cancer battle

After his death, Monroe students were encouraged to wear gold, and in Middletown, students were asked to wear yellow in support of Watkins. Hundreds of Monroe students, many of them who never met Watkins, wore gold shirts, said Principal Tom Prohaska.

“He had such a wonderful and infectious smile,” Prohaska said. “A heart of gold, really.”

One Middletown elementary school teacher used Watkins’ death as a learning tool for her students. Anedra Million, a second-grade teacher at Wildwood, had her students make yellow wristbands and hats in support of Watkins. She knew Watkins because he was her daughter’s friend.

The students wrote notes on a poster and placed the items in a time capsule, she said. She talked to her students about cancer and many of them said they knew someone with the disease.

Even as he battled bone cancer, Watkins lived to make life better for others, his sister Aaliyha Johnson said.

“He just wanted people to be happy,” Johnson said. “Even when things were the worst, he had a way to smile and be happy.”

Charlie Wiedenmann

Charlie Wiedenmann, 69, a retired Fairfield Schools superintendent, died April 26 after a long illness.

Wiedenmann was a superintendent for 25 years in the Greater Cincinnati area and was instrumental in overseeing the growth of the Fairfield school district before he retired from that school system in 2000 having held the job there since 1992.

MORE: Former Fairfield superintendent dies at 69

Former Fairfield Schools Superintendent Paul Otten, who was hired by Wiedenmann, remained close after Wiedenmann after he retired.

“Charlie was so incredibly smart in everything that he did for the district and his dedication to making the district succeed and thrive was unparalleled,” he said.

Wiedenmann, who was a awarded Ohio Superintendent of the Year while at Fairfield, helped campaign for school tax issues in the late 1990s that led to the construction of Fairfield Senior High School and East Elementary schools.

Margaret Winkeljohn Hickle

Margaret Winkeljohn Hickle, one of the leaders who helped create Badin High School’s legacy of academic quality and caring, died Feb. 5. She was 77.

MORE: Former Butler County principal who pushed students to ‘change the world’ dies at 77

She joined the Badin staff as an English teacher in 1974 and subsequently served as principal for the Hamilton Catholic school from 1992 through her retirement in June 2003.

“She truly cared about the students,” said Badin High School Principal Brian Pendergest, who is a 1990 Badin graduate. “She was always willing to give students a second chance and help them move forward with their lives.”

During her Badin career, Winkeljohn served as an English teacher, media specialist, dean of girls and subsequently the principal, while also handling duties as the swim coach and cheerleading moderator over the years.

About the Author