An impressive figure of a man with a booming voice and unlimited curiosity, Dr. Edward Stalzer lived with constant pain and battled that demon through multiple operations before his death Jan. 20 at the age of 93.
He spent 16 years serving patients in Lincoln County with his wife Gisela at his side. But his medical practice represents only a small portion of Edward's life, which began in the former Yugoslavia.
Never intimidated by new technology and mechanically inclined, Stalzer flew his first glider on July 27, 1937. Horses were used to hail the plane to a launch area, wife Gi said. She described the scene with Stalzer sitting at the glider's controls and other members of a government-sponsored club running down hill pulling the glider behind with long rubber cords, eventually launching the plane like a slingshot. Edward set a high altitude record of 18,000 feet without oxygen at age 16. His interest in gliders never waned and decades later influenced his decision to move to the Sacramento Mountains of New Mexico, which reminded him of his home and presented a perfect arrangement for glider flights.
In 1939, after completing his regular schooling, Edward left Yugoslavia to spend the summer with his uncle on the Adriatic Sea. But while he was gone, World War II erupted and he couldn't return home. He decided to attend medical school in Prague at a German university, scoring high enough on examinations to qualify for tuition waivers. He didn't know what happened to his parents until later. His brother was killed in the war and his father also died.
In 1945, Stalzer met Gisela and they were married the same year.
According to Stalzer in a 1997 interview, their first meeting was less than romantic as she walked in while he was teaching a class on autopsies and was surrounded by corpses. But Stalzer said he was smitten with the young woman who was studying archaeology and who also was separated from her parents.
Fleeing after World War II
After the war, the Russians controlled Prague and rounded up all of the doctors and 15 nurses, and loaded them into a cattle boxcar headed to Russia. Gisela luckily was with Stalzer, because during the upheaval after the war, he classified her as a nurse to keep her close to him.
They spent three weeks in that boxcar, but when they came to the Russian border, the cars had to be changed, because the Russian railroad tracks were wider and the Stalzers fled in the confusion.
"Everything was bombed out and there were Russians with machine guns everywhere," Edward said. "Then came one of those moments that change your life."
He spotted a steam engine conductor who was unsure in what direction his train would be ordered to head, but told Stalzer he would start slowly to give the couple time to jump aboard. When the engine began to move west, the hiding couple ran and jumped on the bumpers between two boxcars where they stayed all night in heavy rain.
"Edward was worried that I couldn't hang on," Gisela said.
Back on foot for the next four weeks they searched bombed-out villages for food before arriving at the house of a doctor, where Stalzer was given a job. But knowing their future was tied to reaching the Western Zone controlled by the British and Americans, they headed to Kissingen, Germany, to see one of Gisela's former professors. The trip was tough and dangerous, but when they came to a town called Schweinfurt, they were told a doctor was needed urgently. In exchange for his service, a place to stay and meals were provided. Stalzer was named town public health officer, but still focused on coming to America, he asked for a job with the U.S. Army in Nuremberg. He spent two years with the Army, then transferred to the signal corps, which needed someone who spoke several languages and Stalzer mastered German, Italian, Croatian, French, Russia, Spanish and several dialects. After seven years of trying, the couple finally emigrated to the United States in 1952.
A short stay in New York was followed by a job offer at a Catholic hospital in Chicago. Gisela stayed in the Windy City with a friend from Hungary and worked at a company that manufactured electrical parts until Stalzer opened his own practice in 1956.
Plane crash in Brazilian jungle
Eight years later, the Stalzers appeared in newspapers and on the Johnny Carson "Tonight" television show after they crashed in a plane near a tributary of the Amazon River in Brazil. Stalzer suffered a compressed and fractured spine that caused him pain and for which he underwent multiple operations.
The idea for the trip to South America came up while Stalzer was attending a recertification seminar as a medical examiner for the Federal Aviation Administration.
The Stalzers were passengers in a plane on March 29, 1965, flown by Dr. James Maly of Fullerton, Neb., along with his wife. A second plane was flying in tandem through heavy clouds following a tributary visually when the Maly craft ran out of gasoline.
In those days, the jungle was a real jungle, no runways or roads, Gisela said. "The maps had nothing but warnings that the were inaccurate. The other (plane's pilot) flew using a National Geographic map. The river was so meandering and by noontime, the clouds were moving in. Brazilians didn't allow single engine planes at the time, but for one reason or another, we received permission. It certainly was no tourist destination."
Mrs. Maly and Gisela were seated in the back of the plane on route to Manaus, Brazil, when Maly, the pilot announced the Cessna was out of gasoline and he was going down. The women covered their faces with blankets for protection. "You didn't think that you weren't going to make it," Gi said. "But when the military picked us up later, they said, 'You're the first ones who made it alive.'"
"It was the rainy season and everything was under water," she said. "In the dry season, you can land on the sandbanks of the river where the crocodiles sunbathe. But we had to learn the hard way. There were huts along the river and a very poor clearing with tree trunks sticking out." One large log tore into the cabin. Maly broke both legs. Besides Edward's back injuries, he broke an arm, but the women emerged relatively unscathed. The second plane also came down, landing hard.
As they exited the plane, Gi said she didn't know who was coming toward them. They could be headhunters. But when she saw one shabbily-dressed native arrive with a tray and demitasse cups, Gi said she knew they were safe. She later learned that the village previously was an outpost for a once-thriving rubber-extraction industry.
Aspirin and Coca Cola were all they could salvage from the planes for pain relief. Splints were applied to broken bones.
Because Edward was multilingual, he set off with the natives by river to a Franciscan mission. The American monk there sent their launch back to pick up the rest of the party. Three weeks later they were flown to Panama on a US Air Force plane.
But nearly two years later, Gisela and Edward, who was a surgeon at St. Joseph's Hospital, returned to thank the Mundurucu villagers living along the Cururu River and to found the Cururu Medical Mission Society Inc. at the Franciscan mission, providing vital vaccinations and other health care.
Stalzer wanted to do more gliding and he knew the Southwest was a good place for glider flying and that the state of New Mexico needed doctors and accepted licenses by reciprocity. The Stalzers flew to Santa Fe and filled out papers. He was accepted and as they were driving to Roswell, they came through Ruidoso. When he passed the Swiss Chalet, Stalzer stopped, captivated by the view.
"Standing there it reminded him of his home country and that was it," Gi said. "I said we need to check with the local doctor (Dr. Ronald L. Annala) to be sure another doctor was needed and wouldn't be competing."
Annala welcomed them and the couple flew back to Chicago and packed up. "Nobody understood how we could go from Chicago to this unknown area, even on the map only a well was there. It was the wild west," Gi said. "Nobody from Chicago could understand. Ed opened his office on Sudderth Drive near Eagle Drive in early 1970.
"We had a very comfortable life and everything went well."g artwork and artifacts, a free-standing fireplace and a sunken living room opening onto a deck with a view of Sierra Blanca. They also continued to sail and kept a boat at San Carlos, Mexico.
Edward retired in 1986 when back and leg spasms made working difficult. But the couple piled up miles exploring the world. They traveled 15,000 nautical miles on one 52-day trip, flew to glaciers in New Zealand, visited the Far East, stopped in Korea ad Hong Kong, and cruised to the Antarctic, where they walked among King Penguins and ate leisurely in a dining room while 40-foot waves crashed over deck of their ship, coating it in ice.
Edward Stalzer seems to have embodied the well-known quote from Marcus Tullius Cicero that states, "The best Armour of Old Age is a well spent life preceding it."