Think back on many of Miami’s iconic images and chances are Walter Etling had his fingerprints on them.
The Freedom Tower. The “U’ logo at the University of Miami. Miami’s Space Transit Planetarium. 700 Brickell Avenue.
Etling died at age 88 on April 25 in Gainesville where he lived near his son, Russell, as he battled complications from COPD.
Miami realtor Stephen Gaunt, who went to work for Etling a day after Gaunt graduated from the University of Miami on June 4, 1973, recalled a warm and enduring relationship with Etling.
For the next 40 years, Gaunt called his old pal on the anniversary of that date to thank him and to catch up.
“One of the things I remember about Walter is he always had a saying: ‘There’s always a way to structure a deal,’ ” said Gaunt, who spent the first six years of his career with the Walter Etling Company. “He showed me creativity and how to structure transactions and study situations and to come up with a way to make it work out.”
Raised in Nutley, New Jersey, Etling enlisted in the U. S. Navy at age 17. He landed at UM during World War II while he was enrolled in the Navy’s V-12 program for officers. He later attended Georgia Tech for a period while in the Navy, but later used the GI Bill after the war to return to “that university with the palm trees,” his friend William Butler said.
Etling did return to UM and earned an economics degree in 1948, but he delayed graduation as long as possible. He was drum major of the UM Band of the Hour and played saxophone.
“He loved the life of being a student,” said Butler who served as president of UM Student Affairs from 1965 to 1997, the longest tenure in the school’s history.
The two would work together for years as Etling served on the UM Board of Trustees as an alumnus trustee from 1971 to 1974 and another 3-year period from 1977 to 1980. He was named Alumnus of the Year for 1971.
Etling and Butler, along with former UM swimming coach Bill Diaz, proved instrumental in approving varsity athletic status for women athletes and successfully fighting to award intercollegiate scholarships for female athletes in 1973 at a time when they were awared only to men. This feat was before Title IX in 1980 which mandated enforcement of equality in scholarships for men and women athletes.
“UM was ahead of itself and proud of what we could do and did do. Walter always wanted to improve the lot of student life,” Butler said.
Etling also was instrumental in developing the controversial “U” logo for the school along with his friend, graphic artist Bill Bodenheimer, who designed the logo and publicist Julian Cole, who came up with the orange and green split U mark in 1973.
The U was used in slogans like, “U gotta believe.” But not everyone believed in the U. In 1979, then UM President Henry Stanford set up a committee to find a replacement for the logo. The chair of the graphics department felt the single letter didn’t properly symbolize or clearly distinguish Miami. Students protested, launching a “Save the U” campaign. They had an ally in Etling.
“My father was very verbal about keeping it. He was clever with branding and marketing,” Russell Etling said.
Thirty years later, U still gotta believe.
“I considered him to have been one of UM’s outstanding alums who deserved to be recognized for his love of his university as well as his many leadership contributions as a student and after graduation,” Butler said in an email addressed to Etling’s son — Russell, who was named director of the Miami Museum of Science and Space Transit Planetarium in 1988, a position he held for 14 years.
Walter Etling helped spearhead funding to build that museum in the 1960s, his son said.
“He had a little saying: ‘If you can give your son anything, give him the gift of enthusiasm,’ ” Russell Etling, now manager of Cultural Affairs for Gainesville, said. “He was a great mentor and he had a real sense of integrity about how to live your life, particularly in business.”
Walter Etling built a real estate career that led to the rise of one of the first mega buildings on Brickell in 1971 with the opening of Northern Trust Bank at 700 Brickell Avenue. He helped Joe Robbie with the site plan for what would become the Dolphins’ stadium on the Miami-Dade county line. He brokered the deal that gave President Richard Nixon his “Winter White House” compound on Key Biscayne, Gaunt said.
From his father’s files, Russell Etling came upon the paperwork that led to the renaming of the old Miami News Tower. Etling had the listing. On the paperwork of the initial lease in 1962 to the federal government, who took over the building as a processing center for Cuban exiles, are words scrawled in the senior Etling’s handwriting:
“Call it Freedom Tower,” his son reads from the decades-old lease. Etling managed the tower for years. “He was helpful in finding many of the exiles places to work,” his son said.
He was also on committees including Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Greater Miami, the Orange Bowl Committee, president of Miami Club and a member of Riviera Country Club.
“He was a very positive, enthusiastic type of person,” said historian Arva Moore Parks who first met Etling in the early days of the Museum of Science. “People used to see him as a bigger than life presence. I don’t want people to forget people like Walter.”
Etling is also survived by daughter Tina Banner, his ex-wife Ann, granddaughter Jennifer Cassisi and two great grandchildren. The family asks that contributions be made in Etling’s memory to Haven Hospice, 4200 NW 90th Blvd., Gainesville, Fl., 32606.