In Memoriam: George Justicz

The Club is sad to inform members of the death of alumnus George Justicz, Olympians and father of CUBC oarsmen Max and Nicholas Justicz.

Born Jiří Karel Justicz, in Prague, Czechoslovakia, on December 27, 1931, George lived a remarkable and storied life, spanning decades, crossing continents, while creating indelible memories with his large family and sharing adventures with people from all walks of life. 

His thick Czech accent, strong personality, questioning mind, unusual ideas, philosophical soul, eccentric footwear, and eclectic food choices were some of the qualities that endeared George to many, while perhaps alienating a few. He frequently offered comfort and indeed brought home refugees, hitchhikers, stray dogs, and strangers looking for a place to stay. His was a big heart.

George was a businessman, a civil engineer, a health-food store owner, an Olympic athlete, and a real estate developer. Above all, he was a loyal and devoted husband to Susan Elizabeth (née Lett), his wife of almost 63 years, and a hands-on, engaged, and supportive father to his children. 

George spent his early years in Prague, living with his parents Alexander and Bozena Justicz, and his younger sister, Helen. In 1939, when his Jewish father fled the country to escape the encroaching war, George prematurely became the “man of the house,” and did his best to support his mother and sister. The trio remained in Prague throughout the occupation, enduring hunger, interrogation, and scenes of violence on the city streets, memories that would both define and haunt George throughout life. 
In 1946, a full year after the close of the war, George, Helen, and Bozena were able to locate Alexander in Birmingham, to where they emigrated from Prague.

Arriving without speaking a word of English, George was almost immediately enrolled at school in Canterbury, an austere change for a 14-year-old Czech schoolboy. With his quick mind and sensitive nature, he thrived academically but struggled with feelings of belonging and abandonment. Nonetheless, with his academic success, he secured admission to Sidney Sussex, where he read civil engineering.

The challenges of his youth shaped George’s character into that of a motivated and tenacious fighter for the causes in which he believed, and for many years he found no greater cause than rowing. Channeling his fierce competitive nature, a willingness to explore any-and-all novel training techniques, and a permanent-chip-on-his-shoulder underdog spirit, George trained and willed himself to great heights in a relatively short time.

In 1959, George was first paired with a rival rower, Nicholas J. Birkmyre in a double scull. The two not only forged a dynamic double-sculling tandem, Birkmyre became a lifelong friend, undoubtedly George’s closest friend.  Justicz & Birkmyre won Henley four times, earned a silver medal at the 1961 European Championship in Prague, represented Great Britain at the 1960 Rome Olympics, and much to their children’s amazement, briefly appeared in the Guinness Book of World Records. 

But it was a dance at Birmingham University in 1958 that began the most meaningful part of George’s story. Legend had it that he spotted Susan Lett across the dance floor and decided then and there that she was the one he would marry. Only 16 at the time, Susan was slightly frightened by the foreign gentleman who asked her to dance several times that night (though he clearly didn’t know how to dance.) After a whirlwind courtship, they wed in early 1960. Sue was able to travel to Rome to watch her new husband compete for Great Britain, cheering her celebrity rower all the way. George eventually put away his sculls in 1965, foregoing competitive rowing, as his family grew to eventually include seven children but stayed engaged in the rowing world as a mentor, coach, and enthusiast for years.

George remained an avid athlete and fitness buff throughout his life. He took up running and entered many local road races where he was a familiar site to regulars, due in no small part to his peculiar arms-by-his-side running style, and because he often pushed his youngest, disabled son Robert to remarkably competitive times. 

George’s legacy was also that of a hands-on, loving, and supportive father. Even when his temper sometimes got the best of him, he would come back with an apology and a hug to quickly begin rebuilding relationships and attempt to short-circuit familial disharmony. His children and grandchildren will forever remember his bedtime stories, kupty-kuptys, the Good Nitch and the Naughty Nitch, weekend walks (and runs) up the Clent and Malvern Hills, and fearsome hikes for the intrepid only up Cadair Idris and Mt. Snowden in Wales. 

George will be remembered for his big heart and attempts at strong human connection, something he craved from but never received from his own father but yearned to share with his own family. He is survived by his wife of 63 years, Susan Justicz, their children: Alexander Justicz (Kara); Nicholas Justicz (Elizabeth Siedek), Julie Justicz (Mary Rowland); Maximilian Justicz (Nancy); Daniel Justicz (Virginia). Two sons, Clive Muddeman and Robert Justicz predeceased him. Sixteen grandchildren will remember Grandpa Georgie fondly, and his two great grandchildren, including the youngest born on March 6, 2023, the day before George’s passing, will no doubt hear updated versions of his nightly bedtime stories.