No one seems to know if George Weitz and Florence Govern were a couple or just friends, having met at Schoharie State School of Agriculture in the 1930s. But a painting by Weitz – discovered in Govern’s basement – brought descendants of both families together for a ceremony and talk for the first time on Thursday.
Much has changed at the former agricultural college, now SUNY Cobleskill, since Weitz became a student in 1935. At that time the campus consisted of four buildings on a quad. On one side was the headquarters of the agricultural program. Opposite was the utility building, with the canteen in the basement. The teacher training classes were located on the north side of the quad, according to a story on the college website.
It may have been one of these buildings where Weitz and Govern met. He was 21 and taking farming classes. She was 18, studying to be a teacher and working in the college library.
Weitz graduated and became a Schoharie County dairy inspector, his son Gary Weitz said during a May 26 interview as he stood in front of the painting and alongside Rob Nixon, the man who found it. When World War II began, Weitz attended 90 days of officer training and was then shipped to Europe. He landed at Utah Beach five days after D-Day and spent the war in France and Belgium.
Eventually Weitz had his portrait painted and sent it back to Govern. “It was common for soldiers when they arrived in Europe to have these paintings made and send them home to friends and family,” said Kate Weaver of the SUNY Cobleskill Office of Advancement during the May 26 event. Weaver was the one who managed to track down Gary Weitz after Nixon and his wife Kay brought the painting to campus in 2020 and asked for help.
In December 1945, three months after the end of the war, Weitz returned home to upstate New York.
He came to see Govern – there is a photo of the two of them dressed up and standing in the snow. It is the last known evidence of an interaction between them. Seven months later, Weitz married another woman. Despite this, Govern kept this painting hidden for 70 years.
Nixon spoke about Govern’s life. He has known her most of his life because he is married to Govern’s niece. (His wife wanted to meet the Weitzes but couldn’t travel from Florida for the event.)
Govern was from Stamford. After studying at Cobleskill, she worked as a physical education teacher. She never married and lived independently for most of her life until she was 96 years old.
“Aunt Flo, she’s had her heart broken a few times,” Nixon said. “She coached all the girls — basketball, baseball, she did everything. In a man’s world. She did well, I mean, but she lived a lonely life. she was alone She kind of gave up I think and went on her own.”
Govern moved into the Robinson Terrace nursing home in Stamford and asked the Nixons to clean up their house. They sold or gave away a lot, including their dog, but kept the painting.
“But that wasn’t the only painting I found in the basement,” Nixon said Thursday. He and his wife found two paintings of World War II soldiers wrapped in one another. They took her to Govern who immediately told them one was George Weitz but she wasn’t sure about the other.
Nixon contacted Weaver and told her she had another job to do: the second painting is still in her cabin on Lake Canadarago. “And it’s staring at me, like ‘help me.’ And I don’t know where to take it from here.”
After Govern’s death in 2017, Kay and Rob Nixon spent several years trying to figure out what happened to Weitz. They just hit dead ends until they asked SUNY Cobleskill for help. Weaver conducted archival research, learned that Weitz was from Pine Island in Orange County, and eventually found Gary Weitz.
Weitz got emotional Thursday as he described seeing the painting for the first time.
“I knew my father years later when life had beaten him up. I don’t remember him like that as a young man,” he said. Donna Weitz, standing next to him, wiped a tear from her cheek. “I have so many traits of my father, both good and bad,” he said.
Weitz thanked the Nixons and SUNY Cobleskill for the work they did to find him. “To me, the efforts that have been made along the way are an important part of the story of this painting and why it has so much meaning and will always remain in my home for the rest of our lives,” he said.
After the event ended, Nixon and the Weitzes sat at a table and exchanged notes. Nixon texted a friend at home and asked him to take a picture of the second painting of the mysterious soldier. He passed his phone around to show others. The soldier looked older and thinner than the Weitz painting.
But Gary Weitz broke off in mid-sentence as he looked at the picture. “Just a minute,” he said quietly. “This is my father. This is definitely my father.” If the first painting showed him as he looked when he arrived in France, the second painting could be how he looked after three years of war, Weitz said.
Mike Forster Rothbart, staff writer, can be reached at [email protected] or 607-441-7213.