Obituary: Nicholas Rittenhouse Criss III / Navy commander knew how to live life large
Nick Criss was larger than life.
At 6 feet 5 inches tall, he thrived on adventure, spending 21 years in the U.S. Navy and making 278 combat flights in Vietnam.
He visited deserts all over the world and loved hiking and climbing.
"Anything that could get your adrenaline going," said his sister, Sally Allan of Hampton. "It would make most of us shudder, but it made him feel alive."
Mr. Criss died Sunday at The Remington Club retirement home in San Diego. He had been diagnosed with stomach cancer in November. He was 67.
Mr. Criss grew up in Squirrel Hill and graduated from Taylor Allderdice High School. He attended Princeton University, graduating magna cum laude in 1967, as a member of the Naval ROTC.
He joined the Navy during the Vietnam War and served two tours, flying in air battles over Hanoi and Haiphong in 1972.
Following the war, he flew the F-14 Tomcat and was later selected to command the Pacific Fleet Adversary Squadron.
He spent most of his career stationed at what is now the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego, where he and his wife, Cheryl, settled. He retired as a commander in 1988.
Rick Smith remained close friends with Mr. Criss, who he met in flight school in Pensacola, Fla., in 1967.
Although they were assigned to different squadrons -- Mr. Criss was in the Black Lions, Mr. Smith part of the Aardvarks -- both were stationed on the USS Kitty Hawk and flew the F-4 Phantom.
Mr. Smith attributed their lifetime friendship to the circumstances in which he and Mr. Criss spent their early years together.
"That shared experience of shipmates and squadronmates," he said. "We all shared the risk and exposure, but we had a great time doing it."
Mr. Smith called Mr. Criss his favorite person, saying it was because the man always had a good story to tell. "Sometimes, there was a lesson, but mostly it was belly-busting laughter and camaraderie."
Mr. Criss was also a history buff, with a special emphasis on World War II, he said.
Following his military career, Mr. Criss went into commercial real estate, with a focus on helping international companies locate factories in the border areas of Mexico. He started Mexican operations for the Staubach Company in Mexico City.
Mr. Criss was called before Congress during the Clinton administration to testify about the North American Free Trade Agreement, Mr. Smith said.
He also served as executive vice president of Cushman & Wakefield Mexico until his death.
Nick and Cheryl Criss went on safaris to the deserts of North Africa and built a vacation home several years ago in Anza-Borrego Desert in Southern California. He worked as a ranger giving tours in the state park there.
"He had a mission to go to every desert in the world before he died," Ms. Allan said. "He loved everything outdoors."
"A year ago, Nick was climbing a mountain out near Death Valley," Mr. Smith said.
Mr. Smith said Mrs. Criss enjoyed visiting the desert, as well. She is an artist -- specializing in watercolor landscapes.
"The thing of it was the stark beauty and immenseness of it," he said.
Mr. Criss was a tall man, with a deep, baritone voice and commanding presence, Mr. Smith said. "Nick walked into a room, everyone looked. He always had a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye because he was up to something."
"He was about as outgoing as you could imagine," Ms. Allan said.
In addition to his wife and sister, Mr. Criss is survived by his son, Nicholas IV, and his mother, Louise Criss of Oakmont. He was preceded in death by a brother, Russell Criss of O'Hara.
Arrangements have not yet been made. They will be held in San Diego.
First Published September 4, 2012 12:00 am