Vienna-born Americanophile claimed by COVID-19 was lifetime learner

Gerhardt Hoff was a man of many interests, a lover of music and a true Americanophile long before Ellis Island came into his view. He had an inquisitive mind, an entertaining manner and valued independent thinking for himself and everyone around him, said his family.

“He was very ambitious and always had goals,” said Elisabeth Hoff, 48, of Minneapolis. “My dad was always trying to become better at something.” He inspired his friends and family to do the same and often gave them the boost of confidence they needed to believe in their own abilities.

Hoff died April 22 of complications from COVID-19 just a few months before his 90th birthday on June 12. The Atlanta-area man’s health had been declining, and he had been hospitalized before contracting the virus, his family said.

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When he was transferred to a rehabilitation facility on March 16, his wife of 50 years was not allowed to go in with him. “I felt like I had to be there to help him get over it,” said Lisa Hoff, 78. But she could only visit with him a few times from the other side of a window.

The pandemic has prevented Hoff’s survivors — including Lisa, Elisabeth, daughter Anne-Christine, 46, of Mineola, Texas; son Michael, 64, of Hudson, New York, (from a prior marriage)and five grandchildren — from holding a memorial service though they hope to plan a celebration of life closer to Hoff’s birthday in June. Hoff was preceded in death by his parents and his older brother, Dr. Erich Klockenhoff.

Early on in his life, it was clear “Jerry” was destined for America’s shores. Born in 1930 in Vienna, Austria, Hoff, with his mother and grandparents, left their home for a farm in Bavaria just before the Russian occupation. His father and older brother had been serving in the German Army.

He wasn’t much for farm living — he was a poor stable boy — but he secretly enjoyed listening to radio broadcasts in English, teaching himself to speak the language without an accent. When American troops occupied Bavaria at the end of World War II and everyone wanted to learn to English, Hoff offered to give them lessons. He became an interpreter for locals, once negotiating with American officials on behalf of a miller who needed a new business license.

He later joined the U.S. Military Court for Bavaria as assistant to a judge who would sponsor his visa application to the U.S. Hoff arrived at Ellis Island in 1951, and in 1955 while serving two years in the Army, he became a naturalized citizen. He graduated from New York University in 1958 with a bachelor’s degree in law before embarking on a long career in the insurance industry.

A work trip to Munich and a winter coat would change his life. Hoff was sent on an errand to collect a winter coat for a friend back in New York. He called Lisa, the friend's former roommate, at 7 a.m. asking to pick up the coat. She was already late for work and brusquely told him she would leave it with the doorman at a set time. Hoff appeared 30 minutes early and rang her bell. She saw his startling blue eyes. He saw Sartre on her reading table. They married in 1970.

Hoff’s career would take his family from St. Louis to Baltimore until they moved with their two daughters to Atlanta in 1978. They often took road trips exploring every corner of the country in a Chevy. No matter what city they were in, Hoff would wake up each morning and run out to get the local newspaper.

Dinnertime always began with a question for his daughters about current events or politics. Lisa Hoff would pay the girls to read the newspaper so they would be prepared with answers. In recent years, Hoff would write his own news articles as a hobby. His interests shifted from examining the gross national product of different countries to comparing the sovereign states of Africa. The last thing he worked on before going to the hospital was an article about the planets, said Lisa Hoff.

After earning a master’s of law in taxation from Emory University in 1982, Hoff transitioned fully into the career he once aspired to as a young boy. As an independent consultant, he worked with a range of corporations, helping them with business planning. In the 1990s, Hoff also volunteered as a public defender for Fulton County courts. His spirit of generosity and his encouragement of free thinking endeared him to employees and clients throughout his career, his family said.

Hoff never lost his passion for learning. He learned how to play the piano, he taught himself to make sourdough bread, leaving lumps of dough scattered about the kitchen, and he long ago took up running and worked with a coach for the past 30 years to improve his form, only stopping last year for health reasons.

He pursued excellence in everything he did, and he was always his harshest critic, said Elisabeth Hoff. “We want him to know we were proud of him,” she said.