Roland Pitschel: 1942-2009

Roland Pitschel died on August 1, 2009, following a seven-month courageous battle with aggressive cancer.

Roland and Barbara Pitschel. Photo courtesy of Margo Bors and Barbara Pitschel.

Roland was born in Germany in 1942, and immigrated to Chicago with his mother and sister in 1950. The environmental wisdom and comfort with camping and studying in wild areas that followed him throughout his life were fostered by his youthful experiences in the Lake Michigan area as an Eagle Scout.

After high school, Roland worked at the University of Chicago bindery. His sister was a graduate student at the University of Chicago. During this period, the Chicago Review declined to publish some contemporary writing it deemed obscene. Roland and his sister, as well as many notable literary heroes, worked to create Big Table Magazine to ensure publication of William Burroughs' Naked Lunch and other important literature.

Roland was active producing beautiful silkscreen prints and posters. This period was the first public revelation of the brilliant woodworking, metalworking, graphic arts, book arts, mechanical, artistic, creative, and problem-solving skills (and also intelligence and humor) that defined his entire life.

In Chicago, Roland worked as stage manager and lighting coordinator at the Gate of Horn, noted folk club of the 1950s and 60s, which featured luminaries including Josh White, Odetta, Lenny Bruce, and Bob Gibson and Hamilton Camp.

Roland and his future wife, Barbara, worked as support staff at Second City, the legendary leader in the tradition of improvisational theater, founded by Paul Sills and his partners, during its early years in Chicago in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Roland and Barbara moved to San Francisco in 1963, where they were married in City Hall. Daughter Justine was born in 1965. In their early years in San Francisco, they worked as support staff for The Committee, Alan Myerson's successor to Second City and another leader in the improvisational theater movement. Because of Roland's amazing stage construction and creative carpentry work, the Pitschel Players, a successor group, adopted his name.

Roland worked for many years as a freelance carpenter, cabinetmaker, and creator of artistic wood carvings, jewelry, bird calls, bookbinding equipment, furniture, and much more.

In 1983, he joined the Facilities Department of the California College of Arts and Crafts (now California College of the Arts), where he continued to work until two weeks before his death. He was respected and beloved by his colleagues; his amazing skills provided great forward impetus to the work of the college; his nonconfrontational personality helped move initiatives forward. He is one of the few people we know who had no enemies! His co-workers have planted a native plant garden and cast a plaque in his memory, bearing his epitaph: "Sometimes the magic works; sometimes it doesn't." (Little Big Man, 1970)

Roland was an environmental leader in conservation of San Francisco natural areas since he moved to Bernal Heights in the 1960s. (See Carl Nolte's wonderful article about the Bernal aspect of his life.) He was also very active as a volunteer for the California Native Plant Society, Yerba Buena Chapter (San Francisco and northern San Mateo Counties), serving in many capacities including vice president from 1992 to 2009. Through his decades of support, he could always be counted on to serve, and contribute his skills, in whatever capacity a need existed. Roland was named CNPS Fellow in 2006.

Roland is survived by his wife of 45 years, Barbara Pitschel, librarian at San Francisco Botanical Garden; daughter, Justine Gorman; two granddaughters, Jennifer (Mrs. Chase) Medina and Julia Gorman; one great-grandson, Ayden Anthony Medina; one sister, noted poet and short-story writer Barbara Goldowsky; and two nephews, Alexander and Boris Goldowsky, and their families.

Roland bequeathed his body to the UCSF whole body donation program for scientific research. The family does not plan a formal memorial service at this time, but, health permitting, hopes to celebrate Roland's life and work with a joyful party, perhaps in the spring.

Roland expressed a preference that memorial gifts be directed to one of the following organizations or to a nonprofit of your choice: California Native Plant Society Yerba Buena Chapter; San Francisco Botanical Garden Society Library; California College of the Arts Facilities Department; or Kaiser Permanente Hospice.

Barbara Pitschel died in August 2010. Read an obituary for her by Terry Milne for the New Bernal Journal and a full obituary from her colleagues and friends at the San Francisco Botanical Garden.