Every year around the holidays, Fred Wittner brought his mother a list of names. Then, Marilyn Wittner would head to the store, figure out how much she needed for all the baking she was about to do, come home and make loaf after loaf of pumpkin bread.
“And then he proudly would go to the store when they were ready,” said his aunt, Betty Tribble.
Fred Wittner, who worked at the Publix in Carrollwood for more than 25 years, made a tradition of giving colleagues and customers his mother’s pumpkin bread. Over the years, the list got longer, until Marilyn Wittner was baking for 40.
“Fred and mom were a team,” said Jay Wittner, the family’s oldest son. “And they were tied together by so many things.”
Those ties included the lifetime of support Fred Wittner needed after a brain tumor was removed when he was 2, but they also included Marilyn Wittner’s determination to see her middle son live a good life. And he did.
Marilyn Wittner died Aug. 10, 2022, at age 85. Fred Wittner died June 27 at 60 from an illness.
Marilyn Wittner had a drawer full of birthday cards, ready to send out to everyone she knew on their special day. Her husband, Harvey Wittner, was an optometrist who carried a penlight in his pocket to check people’s eyes. When they married, she converted to Judaism so the family would share one faith. The couple had Jay, then Timothy, who died after a premature birth.
Then came Fred.
By age 2, Fred Wittner was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Surgery at the time, in 1966, included the removal of part of his brain.
One April night, while the toddler was undergoing chemotherapy, Marilyn Wittner sat on her front porch and shook her hand at the sky and asked God how much more she could handle.
The next day, tornadoes tore through Tampa.
“The Wittner home received national newspaper, radio and television publicity after the house was blown down around Dr. Wittner, his wife and two little children,” the Tampa Tribune reported. “Also, the tornado picked up two cars and placed them on the roof — before they plummeted into the devastated living room.”
Marilyn Wittner’s faith was pretty strong before the tornado, her sister said.
“Her faith was very strong after that.”
It was clear, after Fred Wittner’s surgery, that he would function differently than his peers. The Wittners took on his recovery like they did the tornado.
“She stood up to it,” Tribble said. “I don’t think she ever let us see her cry. I’m sure she did. Harvey was very strong and would be with her. It was a tough time. But Fred came through it.”
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He’d come through it again and again in the years ahead with his mom right beside him.
Marilyn Wittner was a teacher in Hillsborough County Schools and later a principal at Gorrie and Essrig elementary schools. She was voted top principal three years in a row. She and her husband added a third son, Jon, to the family. Next, she worked for Hillsborough County Schools as general director for human resources. She became a grandmother and kept a closet of clothes and toys for her granddaughters.
“Mom was like the light for all of us,” said Jon Wittner.
Fred Wittner drove and worked, he loved science fiction and Harry Potter and inventing things.
“Fred’s magic was everyone liked him and wanted to take care of him,” said Jay Wittner.
And their mother’s magic was how she viewed the world. She saw the best in people and circumstances. It wasn’t from rose-colored glasses. It was faith and determination.
“This family faced so many challenges,” said Rabbi Marc Sack, who served at Tampa’s Congregation Rodeph Sholom from 1995 until 2013, “and gave him so much love.”
An irrepressibly positive force
Marilyn Wittner led the care for Fred Wittner, but many people helped out — his father, his aunt, his brothers and their families. After his father died in 2003, Marilyn Wittner and her sister moved with Fred from Lutz to Carrollwood Village.
In 2012, he was diagnosed with colon cancer. The treatment led to several strokes, which left him nonverbal and in a wheelchair. At the time, he was living with his mother and aunt.
“They rolled up their sleeves and cared for him,” Jay Wittner said.
“Mom made a very conscious decision that that’s how she wanted to spend her time,” Jon Wittner said. “She was, for Fred, a beacon. She was an irrepressibly positive force.”
“She was so good to Fred,” Tribble agreed. “With Fred. Not just to Fred. With Fred.”
He was one of the strongest people she knew, Marilyn Wittner’s sister said.
“And so was she. I think he learned it from her.”
Poynter news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.