Tribute For Tito Vértiz, Prison Therapist, Novelist and Painter, Dies at 80

This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

The last months of Tito Vértiz’s life were marked by the harsh realities of the pandemic, yet he remained until the end “a writer, painter, bon vivant, uncle and much-loved friend with a zest for life,” said one of those friends, Lucrecia Briceno, a theater lighting designer whom he had met at college in Florida.

Mr. Vértiz died on May 29 in Lima, Peru, of Covid-19, friends said. He was 80.

José Ernesto Vértiz was born on Dec. 12, 1939, in Lima. He had a job as a flight attendant and left Peru in the 1960s to attend college in the United States. He eventually acquired U.S. citizenship; friends said he was also an Italian citizen through his Italian mother.

Mr. Vértiz was as restless in his academic career as he was in the rest of his life. He studied architecture at New York University and therapy at the University of Nebraska, and he eventually earned a master’s degree from the University of Florida, also in therapy.

He found work as a therapist in Alachua County jails, in the Gainesville, Fla., area, mostly working as a counselor for women prisoners, whom he called his angels. After retirement, he spent time writing novels, partly based on his experiences counseling prisoners, four of which he published himself, in Spanish; two of them were translated into English. He had finished writing another novel shortly before his death.

He also painted, filling his home in Gainesville with his works, including landscapes, self-portraits and portraits of his friends and loved ones.

“He had so much energy for the rest of his life,” Ms. Briceno said. He played guitar as well, and he could converse brilliantly on almost any subject, she said, one of the reasons he acquired a large group of friends all over the world.

Mr. Vértiz returned to Peru in 2005 to take care of his beloved younger sister, Elena, his only sibling, who was stricken by Alzheimer’s disease. After she died, Mr. Vértiz planned to return to the United States. He had reserved space in a care home in Atlanta, but before he could leave, Peru imposed a lockdown because of the pandemic, which included closing its international airports.

He stayed with family, including his sister’s husband, in a family-owned building. Both became ill with Covid-19, family members said.

When he got sick, Mr. Vértiz decided to remain home surrounded by his numerous nieces and nephews rather than go to a hospital. Family members told friends that his brother-in-law died a few weeks after he did.

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