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A 'towering historical figure' who settled near Tacoma: The epic life of Sidney Rittenberg

Personal Collection of Sidney Rittenberg, via Stourwater Pictures
Sidney Rittenberg having his copy of Mao Zedong's Little Red Book signed by the author..


This story originally aired on January 25, 2020.


Sidney Rittenberg was a singular figure — an American who was a close associate of Mao Zedong, who held high-ranking positions in the Chinese Communist Party, who was on the inside during some of the most important events of the 20th century. 


And Gregory Youtz was meeting him for lunch. 


“Well I was quite nervous,” said Youtz, a professor of music and a China scholar at Pacific Lutheran University. “Here’s this historical figure. I had read his book before I’d met him. So I was aware of what a huge, towering figure he was both in China and the United States.”


Rittenberg suggested they dine at a nearby Italian restaurant. 


“I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it, but he ordered spaghetti and meatballs. That was his favorite thing!” said Youtz. “And that kind of brought him right down to earth.”


Sidney Rittenberg was into his 80s by then and, by all accounts, warm, approachable and often hilarious. 


“He just loved puns and jokes and sarcasm. He’s just a funny, funny man,” Youtz said. 


Rittenberg’s gregarious manner was all the more extraordinary once you know more details of his story. He went through experiences that would break most people. He was twice imprisoned and spent nearly 16 years in solitary confinement. He was tortured and denounced. 


In the riptide of revolutionary politics, Rittenberg ricocheted back and forth between the highest echelons of power and the most harsh persecution. 


And yet somehow, he emerged not only intact, but still full of vigor, humor and idealism — still a guy who liked to joke over a plate of meatballs. 


“So inside this humorous, compassionate, lovely man is this backbone of steel that I, frankly, don’t understand,” Youtz said. 


Sidney Rittenberg died in 2019 at the age of 98. To better understand his extraordinary life story, we talked with close friends of his from the Tacoma area, where he spent his last several decades, including a regular guest stint teaching at PLU. And we draw on the documentary film "The Revolutionary," from Stourwater Pictures, which gathered many hours of interviews with Rittenberg before his death.
Watch the trailer for The Revolutionary. Special thanks to Lucy Ostrander, Don Sellers and Irv Drasnin for use of audio from their film. 

Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.