The many chapters of Irving Whitman’s life could fill a historical novel.
As a young man during World War II, Whitman stormed the beaches of Normandy, fought in the Battle of the Bulge and helped liberate a notorious German concentration camp.
Later, Whitman became the first Jewish Miami police officer, spending six years as a homicide detective and leading the investigation into the infamous murder of a 6-year-old girl found raped and strangled in Coconut Grove.
And as a longtime Miami lawyer, he arranged the “Super Fight” between Muhammad Ali and a retired Rocky Marciano. In 1969, the boxers sparred for a fictional fight that was decided by a ground-breaking computer simulation.
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Whitman died Monday of natural causes. He was 94. “What a life,” said his grandson, Miami publicist Aaron Gordon.
Said his granddaughter, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Stacy Glick: “He was just an amazing well-rounded hero.”
Whitman was born on June 22, 1921, in New York City, where he grew up and worked formulating ink for a commercial printing operation. As a young man, he served in the U.S. Army’s First and Third divisions, taking part in the invasion of France and later repulsing the Nazi counterattack at the Battle of the Bulge. But the most harrowing episode of the war was entering the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany, where tens of thousands of prisoners died.
“It was a living nightmare,” Whitman told West Kendall Today in 2010 for a story on the veterans at the Palace Suites retirement community.
“I saw walking skeletons only 40 or 50 pounds. One of them came over to me. He asked in broken English if I was American. He started crying and fell to his knees. I had to pick him up.”
Whitman returned home to his wife, Fay, and a baby daughter who was born while he was overseas. He returned to work the day after he returned from Europe.
The family soon moved to Miami, where he joined the police department and became a police officer while attending the University of Miami at night. His biggest case remains etched in South Florida crime lore: the murder of 6-year-old Judith Ann Roberts in July 1954.
An intruder broke into her family’s home late at night, kidnapping her. Her body — beaten, strangled and molested — was discovered in the mangroves along a desolate road at what is today Kennedy Park in Coconut Grove.
The case rocked Miami, then a small Southern town with little crime to speak of. The FBI was called in. Her father was initially arrested, but the charges were dropped when a key witness was found to be lying.
“'It was bizarre. It became a total circus. . . . I got calls from around the world,” Whitman told the Miami Herald in 2006. “Everybody had a theory.”
Whitman had an idea about who murdered the girl, but never revealed the identity to the public. That person, he admitted in 2011, had already died. The case remains technically unsolved.
“He would still tear up about that case, as much as when he would talk about World War II,” Judge Glick recalled. “He was never able to bring closure to her family.”
After he left the Miami police, Whitman practiced civil law for decades. His family recalls that he brokered the deal for the “Super Fight,” an idea cooked up by his friend, Miami radio producer Murray Woroner.
At the time, Ali had been stripped of his titles and boxing license because of his refusal to be drafted and serve in the Vietnam War. Marciano had retired 14 years earlier, and shed 50 pounds and wore a toupee to film the fights.
The two sparred more than 70 rounds at a North Miami film studio. Whitman and his daughter Ruth-Ellen spent the summer of 1969 on the set where the two boxers clashed for the cameras.
“My dad got to know them very, very well,” recalled his daughter Ruth-Ellen Gordon.
Filmmakers later spliced the footage together according to a computer program that predicted a Marciano victory — in the 13th round. The movie was played in theaters across the country in January 1970.
In his later years, Whitman continued to practice law, while fishing with his grandchildren and taking them on trips in his small plane to the Bahamas or the Keys. His grandson, Aaron Gordon, remembered flying with him for a day trip to Key West just before Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992.
On their way back, Whitman noticed the airport was packed with tourists trying to flee the island.
“Realizing he could help make a dent, my grandfather walked into the terminal, picked a group of people at random and offered them a flight back to Miami on his plane,” Aaron Gordon recalled.
Whitman also regularly spoke to students at the classes of his daughter Ruth-Ellen, a Miami-Dade school teacher. “He not only touched the lives of his family, but for the kids, it was a great opportunity to hear him speak,” she said. “He was a living history.”
His wife of 68 years, Fay, died in 2009, and his eldest daughter, Justine, passed in 2007. He is survived by daughters Dianne Glick and Ruth-Ellen Gordon, five grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.
A service for Whitman will be held at 2:30 p.m. Thursday at Riverside Gordon at Mount Nebo, 5900 SW 77th Ave., Miami. The family requests that donations be made in his honor to the American Diabetes Association, the Wounded Warrior Project or the Honor Flight Network.