It was unusually sunny this day. More often than not in January in Chicago, the skies are cloudy, and the threat of a storm is more likely than the look of the beginning of spring. But what a fortunate glow to celebrate and pay homage to one of the Titans of Tobacco – Diana Silvius Gits, who passed away last week at the age of 81.
For those of you who live in the world of tobacco, especially those who live in Chicago, her name is synonymous with cigars. For those of you who are not familiar with this Legend, Diana Silvius Gits was “the” lady in the cigar industry.
If I were to sum up the contribution Diana gave to the cigar industry, it was that no matter what your passion – you can make it. Diana loved two businesses one was art (An award winner and later an art instructor.), the other the tobacco business.
She and her then husband, Gerald Gits, opened an art gallery in 1963 in the Old Town section of Chicago. The gallery sold work by local artists, a variety of merchandise, and tobacco products. The name UpDown came from the fact that the art was downstairs and the cigars etc. were located upstairs. As her interest in cigars grew so did her desire to be a cigar specialty shop. She moved to the present location in 1976. She also renamed the business UpDown Cigar and the rest is history. Many believed that a woman couldn’t survive in an industry that was predominately run by men for men – but she did.
I was never close to her in business, but anytime I would meet her (usually at the conventions), she always remembered my name and greeted me with her eyes sparkling behind her signature over-sized glasses and what I would call her bright smile.
The industry has indeed lost a Tough Titan of Tobacco. But she was able to push doors that were difficult to open, accomplish things that were never done before, and lasted longer in a competitive business – again, dare I say – run by men.
I was at the memorial service and the crowd that gathered in the back of St. Michael Church in Old Town was all buzzing with stories, moments of memories that led to laughter, and much hugging as any pre-service memorial would inspire.
As I paid my last respects to Diana, I couldn’t help but think that the world of cigars will go on without her. While I was driving to the church, the streets of Chicago’s Loop were teeming with cars as they continued to swerve for position and then sped right along down La Salle. I passed the White Palace Grill at 1159 S. Canal – busy as usual – one of Chicago’s landmark diners. A food truck was waiting for the lunch hour crowd and the movement of buses, taxis and people never stopped unaware that a local legend had passed and would never be heard from again.
So when I arrived at the church, the first person I see is Phil Ledbetter, the current owner of UpDown Cigar. He shook my hand and said he appreciated that I could make it. I greeted many other reps, and people I know in the business, and then I slowly moved to the casket on my left to pay my respects.
Afterwards I sat down in a back pew and began to admire the magnificent beauty of St. Michael Church where the service took place. With the sun bursting through the ornate stained-glass windows, it turned the towering altar into a stunning array of hues and colors. I sat there motionless and began to think of the business. It’s not always so beautiful, it’s not always so sunny, it’s not always so happy – but I began to think of all the changes that have taken place in the cigar industry and how changes will continue – with or without Diana.
Then I got up and left my pew and walked outside. I took a photo of the church and walked back to my car. Then I drove to 1550 N. Wells St. and parked. I got out, and at the best angle I could find, considering the blazing rays of the sun, took a shot of one of the most famous cigar shops in the city of Chicago, created by the most famous cigar woman in the city of Chicago – and perhaps the cigar industry.