Kurt Mayer made his living putting together real estate deals, but he loved dismantling poor arguments almost as much.
The Tacoma man survived the Holocaust and went on to build a successful home-building business. He was the first Jewish person to serve on the board of regents at Pacific Lutheran University and most recently he worked on a campaign to create an endowed professorship at the school’s Holocaust Studies program.
Mayer, 82, died Tuesday of heart failure at Tacoma General Hospital, surrounded by his family.
Mayer wouldn’t stand for criticism of the United States, or of capitalism, or of anything else that triggered his sense of injustice.
“He was born three years before Hitler came to power,” his son, Joe Mayer, said Wednesday. “By the time he was three, the world was starting to change and he was having his rights stripped away. His father had a business, and he ended up going bankrupt because the Nazis threatened his customers.”
Mayer’s family said he had a deep understanding of history and had no problem referencing his own.
“He was in a hotel where a German criticized what (the U.S. was doing) in Vietnam,” Joe Mayer said. His father reminded the man that Germany was a powerful example of where governments can go wrong.
While on a trip to Berlin during the Cold War, Kurt Mayer engaged the guard at the Berlin Wall in a debate about communism.
“I was just scared to death, but he was really curious to talk to people,” said his wife, Pam. “All the people were gathering to listen to this conversation. There were guards, there were dogs, there were guns. And I said, ‘We have to get out of here.’
“He got himself into those kind of arguments all over the world,” she said.
Kurtis Randolph Mayer was born Jan. 14, 1930, in Mainz, Germany. He was 10 years old when he and his parents escaped on one of the last cruise ships to leave Europe. He was an only child. His extended family, left behind, all died.
He grew up in San Francisco, went to college, then came to Tacoma with the Red Cross. He and a business partner saw a market in building homes for soldiers based at Fort Lewis. Several years later he formed Mayer Built Homes and operated it until 1981. Joe Mayer now runs the business.
In 1959, he called The Tacoma News Tribune to place a classified ad and liked the sound of the woman who answered the phone. He came to the paper’s offices to lay eyes on her, then decided he’d ask her to the opera after his date canceled.
They were married two years later.
He shared his stories with his children as they grew and has taken them on trips to the places of deepest memory. Joe Mayer recalled standing with his father at the boarding school where, as a barefoot child, Kurt Mayer said he marched in the snow at gunpoint to the police station and back, where he then watched Nazis burn the school’s Torah scrolls.
A person could be hardened by such a childhood, but Mayer’s daughter, Natalie, said it gave him strength.
“When you have a survivor as a dad, you become a survivor too,” she said. “He taught me about ethics and how to be the right type of person in the world.”
Mayer published his memoir, “My Personal Brush With History,” in 2009. Proceeds benefit the endowed professorship at PLU that bears his name.
He struggled with health issues for decades, starting with his first heart attack at age 51.
“He wanted to live,” Pam Mayer said. That desire didn’t fade, she said, even at his last moment. “That was the hard part to let go of: His brain was still going even though his body had failed.”
In addition to his wife of 51 years and their two children, Mayer is survived by three grandchildren: Elliott Mayer-Yeager, Ethan Mayer and Jonathan Mayer.
Graveside services are scheduled for 11 a.m. Friday at the Home of Peace cemetery in Lakewood, with a reception to follow at Temple Beth El.