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Home ILLINOIS Erich Himmel, leader in Chicago’s German American community, dies at 86

Erich Himmel, leader in Chicago’s German American community, dies at 86

With his bushy mustache and outgoing personality, Erich Himmel was a highly visible leader in Chicago’s German American community.

A native of Germany’s Bavarian state, Himmel was grand marshal of the annual Von Steuben Parade in Chicago for more than three decades. Himmel also was the former longtime president of the United German American Societies of Greater Chicago, an umbrella organization for about 35 groups that promote German culture in the Chicago area.

“He was so dedicated to the German culture, the German community,” said Joe Bradtke, current president of the United German American Societies of Greater Chicago. “He was so devoted. And he worked harder than men half his age.”

Himmel, 86, died of organ failure on Aug. 29 at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, said his daughter, Carol. He had been a Morton Grove resident for the past 15 years or so, and previously had lived in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood.

Born in Moosbach, Germany, Himmel grew up in Munich, where he met his wife of 65 years, Inge, in a dance hall. In postwar years, there was little housing to be found in Munich, so the couple lived for a year with Himmel’s mother.

In 1958, the couple moved to New Hampshire, where Himmel’s wife had relatives, and Himmel worked for a time as a night watchman in a gym shoe factory.

The couple soon moved to Chicago, where Himmel began working as a mechanic for Volkswagen dealerships. Himmel was drafted by the U.S. Army in 1960, and he and his wife wound up returning to Germany, where he served in the Army while the Berlin Wall was being erected.

Back in Chicago, Himmel resumed working as a mechanic at Volkswagen, and eventually moved into managing dealerships. In 1982, Himmel and his daughter opened up an auto body shop, Erich’s Lehigh Auto Body in Niles.

For 33 years, Himmel was president of the United German American Societies of Greater Chicago, which among other things sponsors the annual three-day German American Oktoberfest in Lincoln Square, as well as the Von Steuben Parade.

“He was someone who a lot of people came to for advice,” his daughter said. “He was really good at bringing people together.”

Himmel was the grand marshal of the annual Von Steuben Parade for 35 years, and he also helped organize events like the German American Fest in Lincoln Square. And, he was the longtime president of Rheinischer Verein von Chicago, a venerable club devoted to observing Mardi Gras in the German tradition.

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“It’s a crazy time,” Himmel told the Tribune in 1986, referring to Mardi Gras. “Rheinischer Verein translates to ‘Rhine River Club.’ And our charter dates back to 1890.”

In 1994, Himmel was awarded the highest civilian honor that a German can receive from the German government, the Bundesverdienstkreuz medal — also known as the federal cross of merit — for his promotion of German culture in the U.S.

Himmel never retired from his business, which his daughter and her nephew now run.

In addition to his wife and daughter, Himmel is survived by another daughter, Diana Himmel-Krewer; three grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Services were held.

Bob Goldsborough is a freelance reporter.

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