Abner S. Ganet epitomized a life lived in service—to country, to community, and to posterity.
He was a trustee emeritus of Elmhurst College, a former mayor of the City of Elmhurst, a longtime civic leader, and a World War II veteran who spent the later part of his life ensuring that younger generations would never forget the lessons of the Holocaust. Mr. Ganet died on Saturday, March 31. He was 86.
One of the longest-serving members of the Elmhurst College Board of Trustees, Mr. Ganet was elected to the Board in 1976 and retired in 2010, when he became a trustee emeritus. He established the Abner S. Ganet Scholarship for Urban Studies and, along with Alan and Joy Baltz, the Julia P. House Endowed Scholarship, which honored his late sister-in-law.
Mr. Ganet was known on the Board for his outspokenness, and for raising questions that frequently inspired discussion and introspection.
“Abner always spoke his mind, and that’s rare today,” said Elmhurst College President S. Alan Ray. “Although I did not always agree with him, I have no doubt that he always spoke from his love for the College and our mission. He wanted us to succeed by facing reality on its own terms, not how we'd like the world to be. That's crucial to the success of any organization, and I appreciate that he consistently helped us become stronger through his close questioning. We will miss his candor and perspective.”
In 2010 Elmhurst College awarded one of its highest honors, the Founders Medal, to Mr. Ganet for his work for the College and years of service to the community. The College recently announced that it would award Mr. Ganet with a 2012 honorary degree. The degree will be conferred posthumously.
A longtime community and civic leader, Mr. Ganet was a two-term mayor of Elmhurst, serving from 1977 to 1985. A retired executive at the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, Mr. Ganet also owned Leonard’s Store for Men in downtown Elmhurst, and had served as president of the Elmhurst Rotary and the Elmhurst Chamber of Commerce, as well as board chairman of the Elmhurst YMCA, and as a member of the Elmhurst Memorial Hospital Board of Governors.
Kenne Bristol, chair of the Elmhurst College Board of Trustees, first met Mr. Ganet in 1975, shortly after Bristol and his family moved to Elmhurst. Bristol had been recruited by his new neighbors to run for city treasurer, sharing the ticket with Mr. Ganet, who was running for mayor.
“I learned about the issues by listening to Abner, who had lived here most of his life, owned a business in town, and was deeply involved in the community,” Bristol said. “He was for sound government, one that was reactive to the needs of the people. And he was the kind of person who wanted to move things forward, to make sure Elmhurst remained a successful, viable community.”
But the man known for his outspokenness had always been silent about one thing: his tour as an American soldier in World War II, and the day in 1945 when his 1st Infantry Division liberated the Buchenwald concentration camp. Mr. Ganet’s military service would earn him a Purple Heart and two Bronze Stars for bravery.
It wasn’t until 50 years later, in 1995, when Mr. Ganet realized he could no longer remain silent. That year, he met Nobel Peace Prize recipient, acclaimed author and death-camp survivor Elie Wiesel, who had come to Elmhurst College to speak during the College’s annual Holocaust Education Project.
“Wiesel asked if I had been in the war,” Mr. Ganet recalled in a 2004 interview for the College’s magazine, Prospect. “I said, Yes, Buchenwald.’ He said, ‘You liberated me.’”
Wiesel had been slated for the gas chamber on the day Ganet’s unit arrived and the camp’s guards fled.
“I was so overcome,” Mr. Ganet said. “[Wiesel] said, ‘You must talk about this. You witnessed it; there are people in the world who say it never happened; you must talk about it.’”
“Abner listened, and acted, and made it his new calling to go to high schools, middle schools, civic organizations, churches, synagogues, to anyone who would listen to him talk about the consequences of indifference, and man’s inhumanity to man,” said Wes Becton, a close friend of Mr. Ganet’s and a fellow trustee of the College. “I heard him give that talk a dozen times at schools and every time, once he starting talking, you could hear a pin drop – he captivated them, and he made a difference in their lives.”
President Ray believes Mr. Ganet’s greatest contribution to Elmhurst College was his association with the Holocaust Education Project—his personal story about helping to liberate Buchenwald, his life-changing meeting with Elie Wiesel, and his commitment to sharing his story with new generations of young people.
“I am honored that Abner would take such a strong interest in the Holocaust Project,” Ray said. “His firsthand account of liberating the infamous concentration camp was extraordinarily moving and has made him irreplaceable.”
Bristol saw great courage in Mr. Ganet’s willingness to speak repeatedly, and publicly, about what so many others would just as soon forget.
“What Abner had experienced during the war, what he must have seen, the injustice and inhumanity—you can’t witness what he did and not carry that with you mentally,” Bristol said. “So in his everyday life, he wanted to make sure those things did not occur again, at least not on his watch.”
Mr. Ganet is survived by his wife, Janet; his children, Marcey (Dr. Kenneth) Siegel, Fred (Martha) Ganet, Larry (Gale) Ganet and Edward (Cheryl) Ganet; his grandchildren, Jacob (Eryn) Siegel, Rachel (David) Kayser, Josh (Carli) Ganet, Jessica Ganet, Haviva Siegel, Max Ganet, Simon Ganet, Elliot Ganet, Nina Ganet, Eli Barr and Leah Barr; his great-grandchildren, Casia Siegel, Garrett Siegel, Benjamin Kayser and Lucy Ganet; and a brother, Leonore Leven.
A memorial service for Mr. Ganet will be held at 10:00 a.m. on Friday, April 6, at Congregation Etz Chaim, 1710 S. Highland Avenue, in Lombard.
The Ganet family has asked that in lieu of flowers or other donations, all contributions go to support the Elmhurst College Holocaust Guestship Lecture, part of the Holocaust Education Project. Contributions may be sent to: The Elmhurst College Holocaust Guestship, Office of Development, 190 Prospect Ave., Elmhurst, IL 60126.