Thomas R. Ottenstein – Colonel, United States Army

Tower builder Thomas Ottenstein dies

Thomas R. Ottenstein, died Tuesday in Washington, D.C. His death came a month after National Park Service officials demolished the tower under controversial eminent domain proceedings.

Thomas R. Ottenstein, the entrepreneur who persevered in his vision to build a tower that afforded millions a sweeping view of the Gettysburg battlefield, died late Tuesday.

The 70-year-old resident of Delray Beach, Florida, died at his home in Washington, D.C., after a long bout with cancer, a family member said Wednesday.

“He was a wonderful man. He was just a great person all the way around, as a friend, as an employer,” said Bonnie Jacoby of Gettysburg, an employee at Overview Limited Partnership’s tower for 21 years until the National Park Service seized the structure under eminent domain and knocked it down with explosive charges on July 3.

Ottenstein was born in Washington, the son of the late Joseph and Mabel Kaufman Ottenstein. He is survived by his wife Nina, daughters Marla Ottenstein and Doria Reese, and sons Grant and Todd Ottenstein.

A graduate of Syracuse University and Georgetown Law School and a U.S. Army veteran, Ottenstein found success as an entrepreneur in real estate, book and magazine distribution, and other ventures.

Yet, the tall, raspy-voiced businessman became a figure of a national attention amid a controversy that arose when he pursued plans to build the 307-foot galvanized steel National Gettysburg Battlefield Tower in 1970.

Calling the tower a “classroom in the sky,” he believed it was an educational venue for the many schoolchildren and adults to understand the size and scope of the pivotal battle between Union and Confederate forces in July 1863.

Overcoming legal challenges that stretched over more than three years, and once halted construction at midpoint, Ottenstein completed the structure and opened for business in 1974.

Thomas Craig, an electrical contractor in Littlestown, was among the construction crew that worked for Ottenstein on the strength of a handshake.

“We shook hands and that was it. He shook hands with a lot of people,” Craig recalled.

“I don’t think he had a contract with anybody there. He was a gentleman, and his word was as good as gold,” he said.

Craig, who continued to work for Ottenstein until the Park Service demolished the tower a month ago in a move that drew local and national criticism, was a kind man whose disposition never matched words of villification from people who despised the
tower because it loomed over the battlefield.

“He was a good businessman. He was aggressive, but nicely agressive. But he would give you the shirt off your back. He was a fighter, he would not back down from anything,” he said.

The contractor said Ottenstein showed tremendous poise and composure in facing the legal challenges aimed at blocking the tower construction.

“I saw him under tremendous pressure that would have broke most men. I admired him very much,” Craig said.

Irwin Aronson, the Camp Hill attorney who represents Overview Limited Partnership based in Baltimore, Maryland, called Ottenstein a “renaissance man” who possessed an exceptional range of knowledge on topics of history, science, arts and culture.

“He had a series of quite wonderful traits, any one of which would have made him quite the distinctive human being. But all of them together in a package made him among the most extraordinarly special people that I’ve come in contact in the course of a lifetime,” Aronson said.

The attorney recalled his client as an entrepreneur who was extraordinarily principled and equally tenacious, a person of deep passions and compassion.

“He was a man who feared nothing, and who with verve and zeal, and often a great deal of panache, took on unpopular causes and unpopular battles because of his principled nature,” Aronson said.

The attorney said Ottenstein showed great compassion for people and an appreciation of the world around him. He said the tower was not the single focus of his client’s business affairs and interests.

“The special thing he did in his life was live. And for everyone he touched in his life, he made us live better,” Aronson said.

He expressed regret that the eminent domain case under which the tower was seized was not resolved before his client died. A federal court in Harrisburg is reviewing the case to determine how much compensation the government must pay.

A memorial service is set for 11 a.m. Friday at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, with private graveside services at Arlington National Cemetery scheduled next week.

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