Philip Christian Renatus Gelzer was born October 4th 1927 in Basel, Switzerland. He was the son of the Reverend, Dr. Heinrich Gelzer-Luedecke and Charlotte Margarete Elisabeth Gelzer-Luedecke. Gelzer was the seventh of eight children: four boys and four girls, known as the “Mission House Kinder” because they grew up on the campus of the Theological Seminary of the Basel Mission Society, where his father served as the Dean of the Seminary.
Gelzer first attended the grammar school affiliated with the seminary, alongside the children of missionaries stationed overseas. In the 5th grade, he entered the Humanistisches Gymnasium for Classical Studies. During World War II, as a school boy, he served as a courier of air defense efforts in the service of protecting the Swiss border during bombing attacks on German ammunition factories built along the Rhine river. In addition, his parents housed fleeing Jewish refugees and facilitated their emigration to the United Kingdom and United States.
He attended “Ecole Superieure de Commerce”, in French-speaking Neuchatel, Switzerland, and graduated with a degree in commerce in 1948 followed by a three year work-study program at the Swiss Society Commerce Association in Basel. This period included mandatory basic training and three years of military service in the Swiss Army. Gelzer served first as a corporal and then attended Officer Training School in Bern, where he was promoted to Lieutenant. As he awaited a visa in order to gain business experience in the United States, Gelzer spent a summer washing dishes in Paris hoping to strengthen his French and witnessing first-hand the devastating impact of the war.
In 1949, Gelzer arrived in New York City on the French liner S.S. De Grasse. Upon arrival, he took a job as a runner for American Express, delivering checks to banks while seeking other employment. Four weeks later, he accepted a position at J. Henry Schroder Bank working for one year in their exports division, before being hired at Geigy Corporation, a Swiss company, in the dyestuff and chemical division in 1951. In 1954, Gelzer was drafted into the U.S. Army late in the Korean War. He made the pivotal decision to accept this assignment rather than returning to Switzerland, which enabled him to remain in the U.S. long-term by competing basic training in Montgomery, AL, and receiving U.S. citizenship upon his honorable discharge in 1956. During his military service, Gelzer was assigned as an Army security police officer in Germany and ultimately promoted to the rank of sergeant.
In 1956, Gelzer returned to Geigy, which became the Ciba-Geigy Corporation in 1973, where he worked in the dye-stuff and agricultural divisions. In 1968, he completed the Executive Program in Business Administration at Columbia University. In 1973, with the move of his division from New York to North Carolina, he assumed the role of Vice President, Director of North Carolina Operations, in Greensboro, N.C., and remained there until his retirement in 1989 after a successful and stimulating 38-year career.
In 1958, he married his first wife, Lorayne Gelzer, with whom he raised three daughters in New York and North Carolina. They were happily married until her death in 1982. In 1984, he married Joe (Padgette) Gelzer, who he met at the church.
For Gelzer, community service was an essential part of life. He had a lifelong commitment to Early Childhood Development and Public Transportation in Greensboro. He served as the Chairperson of the Greensboro and Guilford County Commission for Strategic Planning (Visions), and Chairman of the Greensboro Transit Authority. Gelzer was president of the Foundation of Greater Greensboro, a board member of Cone Hospital, and the Moravian Music Foundation. He served as President of the Board of Visitors of Guilford College, as well as on the Board of Visitors of NC A&T University, and the Wake Forest Babcock Graduate School of Management. He was an active member of the Swiss American Historical Society. In 1992, Gelzer was inducted into the Junior Achievement Hall of Fame of Central Greensboro. During his later years, as a resident of the independent living community at Wellspring, he helped with weekly worship services for Assisted Living residents, led a Bible study and was often requested to give lectures on Switzerland.
Throughout his life, Gelzer was active in many capacities, including as an officer of the church at Rye Presbyterian Church in Rye, NY, New Philadelphia Moravian Church in Winston-Salem and for many years at First Presbyterian Church of Greensboro. Coming from a long line of ministers on both sides of his family, his faith informed every aspect of his life and inspired others.
A proud and devoted American, Gelzer always stayed connected to his rich history and beloved family and life-long friends in Switzerland through extensive correspondence and travel. Gelzer was interested and a dedicated scholar of religious history, Swiss-American History, both sides of American politics, and always intensely interested in his many friends and family members who surrounded him. He was an active mentor with a gift for recognizing the potential in young professionals, was a lively conversationalist and masterful debater and was known for his dry “Basel-style” sense of humor.
Gelzer is survived by his wife Joe, Greensboro, NC, his three daughters, Naomi Kettler, and husband, Jim, of Chevy Chase, MD, Gabrielle McCree and husband, Don, of Rye, NY, Claudia Gelzer, and wife, Wendy, of Boston, MA, 7 grandchildren, Lorayne, Charlotte, Christopher, Philip, Andrea, Nicholas, and Alex, and one great-granddaughter, Madeline. He is survived by his sister Priscilla Grob-Gelzer of Solothurn, Switzerland and dozens of nieces and nephews. He is survived by 3 step-daughters, Susan Starr, and husband, Frank, Sandy Smith, and husband, Roy, Page Weethee, and husband, Chip. He was predeceased in death by his step-daughter Catherine Maxwell. He is survived by 11 step-grandchildren and four step-great grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at First Presbyterian Church in Greensboro, NC, on Tuesday, September 17th at 2:30 p.m. In lieu of flowers, the family requests contributions be made to: First Presbyterian Church at www.fpcgreensboro.org, Hospice and Palliative Care of Greensboro at www.hospicegso.org, Well Spring Retirement Community at www.well-spring.org, or the Moravian Music/Heritage Foundation at www.moravianmusic.org.
Online condolences may be made through www.haneslineberryfuneralhomes.com.