Ryszard Brzozowski - Proud of His Polish Heritage
Published on June 20, 2022
55th Man of the Year selected by Pulaski Association of Business and Professional Men
The Pulaski Association of Business and Professional Men has chosen Ryszard Brzozowski as its Man of the Year. When 91-year-old Mr. Ryszard learned of his candidacy, he declined to accept the honorable title.
- I had already been chosen more than two years ago, but as you know, the pandemic thwarted the whole world - he says. - I told the members of the organization that I disagreed and they should choose someone younger, someone who is successful in business. I am already too old for such an award. But no one wanted to agree with me, and they finally convinced me.
- All in all, it could have all been postponed another five years or so, because then I would have at least known that I had to live to see the ceremony - adds the elderly man, who does not lack a sense of humor.
Ryszard Brzozowski always proudly emphasizes his Polish ancestry. This son of immigrants from Subcarpathia is a great patriot, activist and member of many Polish and American organizations. A book could be written about his long life.
- I am no hero, so a book about me would not be interesting - he replies modestly to such a suggestion, and his modesty, despite his great merits, is truly sincere.
They became a couple in America
Born in 1904, Ryszard's mother came from the village of Bieliny in Swietokrzyskie province, while his dad, born in 1898, came from the Subcarpathian village of Wólka Bielinska. Although they knew each other from Poland, they became a couple only in America.
- I never found out how my parents met in New York - says Mr. Brzozowski. - They came to America by ship, but not together. Mom in 1928, and Dad a year later. She stayed with family in New Jersey, and he stayed with his brother in Boston.
They met and married soon after arriving in the States, as Richard came into the world as early as 1931. The family lived in Manhattan. Richard was baptized at the local parish after St. Stanislaus the Bishop and Martyr on East 7th Street, and when the boy turned three, the Brzozowskis moved to Greenpoint. The parents remained in the neighborhood for the rest of their lives.
- Dad worked very hard, unfortunately he was not educated, and times were difficult - says Mr. Richard. - He was a metallurgist and this profession took a toll on his health. He died when he was 71 years old. I remember at the time we were waiting for roofers to patch the hole in the roof. But it started to rain and Dad wanted to at least temporarily secure the hole, through which water was dripping. He went upstairs and had a heart attack. It was no longer possible to save him. Mom, on the other hand, lived to be 86.
Both Ryszard and his younger sister were instilled with the spirit of Polishness by their parents from early childhood. Polish was spoken at home, and strong care was taken to preserve Polish traditions, which were to be passed on to future generations.
Even then, Greenpoint was a neighborhood populated by Poles. The spiritual leader of the community was the legendary parish priest of St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish, Father Józef Pieczka-Studzinski, who came from the vicinity of Pszczyna in Silesia. He was a remarkable figure, and Poland and Polonia were always closest to him in ministry. He had the parish under his care for 20 years, from 1934 to 1954, and taught patriotism to children and adults. He took care of their Polish language and sometimes taught Polish lessons himself. He explained the political complexities of Poland's situation. He placed great emphasis on spiritual life, which is why he cordially invited parishioners to all services or days of recollection.
Father Józef's good influence
And it was Father Józef who had a great influence on the life of little Ryszard, which he remembers throughout his life.
- There are only wonderful memories associated with Father Studzinski - says Mr. Richard. - In 1937, when I was six years old, I started elementary school at St. Stanislaus Kostka parish. And I was fortunate to be educated for eight years in a bilingual environment that made me proud of my Polish heritage. This was all thanks to the educational standards and high expectations of Father Józef. My first two lessons were always in Polish - religion and Polish language. I was also an altar boy and accompanied the priest on his caroling visits to parishioners' homes. He praised me for speaking my parents' language fluently. I vividly remember winning 50 cents in a grammar contest for correct variation by cases. Throughout my life, I have cherished the values he passed on to me: spirituality, sacrifice, patriotism.
It is worth mentioning at this point that after St. Stanislaus Kostka Catholic Academy was built in 1929, the parish was $350,000 in debt. These were the years of the Great Depression, and it took quite a bit of thinking to get out of such debts. Pastor Studzinski not only paid it all off by 1946, but still managed to build a convent for nuns, who also taught lessons at the school. The priest led the parish not only through hard times of financial crisis, but especially through the difficult war years. In 1941, on his initiative, the parish magazine "Patron" was established, to which young Richard wrote.
- Every week my colleague Mr. Popielarski and I wrote articles about sports activities in Greenpoint, such as baseball games and other competitions - he recalls, adding that in his class all the students were of Polish descent, except for one boy. - He was Peter Rago, the son of a shoemaker popular among Greenpoint residents. I mention him because Peter was the founder of Evergreen Funeral Home, which still operates today. After his death, Peter's daughter Leslie took over the running of the business.
Marine Corps and dreams of a military career
By the end of elementary school, Richard knew he wanted to further his education. He wanted to become an engineer. He got into a high school in Manhattan that no longer exists today, which prepared him for both higher education and a profession. But that wasn't enough for him. He dreamed of the United States Military Academy at West Point.
- To get into military school, you needed recommendations from a senator or congressman, and I couldn't get them - he says. - Therefore, I went to a city university.
When Richard turned 18 he decided to join the United States Marine Corps. The athletic boy excelled in his grueling training, began his service and continued his education.
- What made me happiest was the day I found out that I could continue my education at the United States Naval Academy - he says. - Education was very important to me, because I didn't want to work as hard as my dad. He didn't quite understand it, he came from a generation that had lived through two world wars and all he knew was just hard work. Sometimes he even teased me that I only wanted to study. "You should work. What will come to you from this study? - he used to say. "Dad, I'm not afraid of hard work, and I've never shied away from it, I've always helped you, but I need to educate myself, because I won't toil like you". - I answered him. Dad simply believed that you have to work for your bread from an early age.
Love changes his plans
When Richard turned 19 he had a clearly established goal. To graduate from the Naval Academy in Annapolis, and immediately afterwards to tie his professional life to the military. But his dreams of a military career were interrupted by ...love. The family organized a farewell party for Ryszard before he left for school. A lot of relatives, friends, acquaintances gathered. Everyone wanted to wish the future officer luck. Among the assembled guests was SHE, 17-year-old Marion Saloky.
- I was shy and afraid of girls - says Mr. Richard, laughing. - But we exchanged addresses and for the next four years, during my schooling and then service, we wrote letters to each other. You could say that we got to know each other through this correspondence. During this period we had a very rare opportunity to meet, because only when I came for Christmas, or a short military pass. And even then I began to call her Marysia. And she was Marysia only to me.
Ryszard admits that he had no experience when it came to women.
- I had only been on two dates before - he recalls. - But I didn't know girls at all. It seemed to me that they only wanted to go out and have fun, and you should always pay for them. And I was very frugal. I didn't have much myself and just had to save money. Luckily, Marysia wasn't interested in any shallow fun. We were happiest going to concerts or museums. That's what I really liked about her. And the fact that she didn't demand anything from me. Therefore, after returning to New York, I decided to ask her to marry me. The only condition she gave me was to give up my military career. She couldn't imagine us wandering from base to base, constantly changing apartments. She wanted a permanent place, stability and a home that she would decorate her own way.
A difficult crossing with his future mother-in-law
Confident that Marysia would not reject his proposal, Ryszard prepared to talk to the girl's parents. When he asked for permission to get engaged and married, Marion's father, who was running a fur salon in Manhattan, did not object. He told his future son-in-law that he liked him very much and liked the kind of man he was. The conversation went a little differently with future mother-in-law.
- She told me that I was nice and handsome, but added that before she agreed to the engagement, I should first show her what my bank balance was - shares Mr. Richard's memories of his youth. - Marysia was an only child. Her parents took careful care of her and made sure that no harm came to her. Unfortunately, Mrs. Saloky was not satisfied with his little savings and the young officer was not accepted.
- She told me that I didn't have enough money and that we had to wait at least another year - Mr. Ryszard continues his story, smiling from distant memories. - "Did you really think I would let you marry my only daughter when you are not ready for it?" she asked me. But this refusal did not upset him. He was already a tough marine by then, and all he did was clench his teeth and get to work hard.
- I put aside every cent and when next time I showed her the balance of my account, I had more on it than Yolanda demanded - he says. - I was very proud of this fact.
When the young couple finally stood at the altar, Mary was 23 years old and Ryszard was 25. They lived together for 60 years. They raised three children and lived to see four grandchildren.
It should also be added that, despite the not-so-pleasant beginning for the young man, he had a great relationship with his mother-in-law throughout his life.
- She was a very good woman, kind and non-confrontational. After her husband's death, she lived alone in Ridgewood, Queens - Richard recounts. - One day her apartment was broken into. She was 81 years old at the time and the event scared her badly. She agreed to live with us. Our children were already grown up and living their own lives and we had a lot of space in the house. She lived with us for 17 years. Until her death she was independent, we didn't have to do anything near her, until the very end she helped us and thus made our life easier. She was a great cook and every day after work we had a delicious dinner waiting for us. She not only cooked deliciously, but also baked fantastic cakes and pies.
The woman of his life
Talking about his wife, now deceased, Mr. Ryszard, the tough Marine, does not hide his tears - She was the woman of my life - he says with emotion. - She passed away six years ago. She was a wonderful wife and mother. We did well, we had a good life. It is thanks to her that I became the man I am today.
Marion Saloky was born in America, but like Ryszard she was the daughter of immigrants who came to America in the second half of the 1920s. Her dad was Hungarian and her mom was a Slovak with Hungarian roots, originally from Kosice. Hungarian was spoken in their home.
- Marysia and I spoke English, although she learned a little Polish, but I didn't learn any Hungarian. It's a very difficult language - laughs Mr. Brzozowski. - We also communicated with our children in English. They were raised rather in Polish traditions, but also Slovak traditions, because they are similar. They retain many of them to this day, but speak neither Polish nor Hungarian.
Marion was a highly regarded history teacher at Floral Park Memorial High School, where she founded the successful and award-winning Model United Nations club (this is a student initiative involving multi-topic civic education by simulating the deliberations of the United Nations - author's note).
She became heavily involved in the life of both the school and the neighborhood.
Mr. and Mrs. Brzozowski settled in the Floral Park neighborhood in 1957, when they bought a spacious house there, where Mr. Ryszard still lives today. A year later, their first son Paul was born, followed by two more each year - Cynthia and Mark. Mark died of a heart attack at the age of just 60.
- I think the stress killed him - Mr. Brzozowski says sadly. - He worked as a lawyer and moved from Philadelphia to New Orleans, where he had to start everything from scratch. Loosing him was very hard for me.
First visit to Poland
The Brzozowskis' house is filled with books, albums full of photographs, and family mementos. Hanging on the walls are framed countless diplomas, honors, awards. A piece of history of both the world, America and Poland can be found here, because although already born in America, Mr. Brzozowski feels a great bond with the country of his parents.
Throughout his adult life, Ryszard has maintained contact with his family in Poland. This was quite difficult especially during the communist era. Back then he helped as much as conditions allowed. Times fortunately changed and Mr. Brzozowski decided to visit the homeland of his ancestors for the first time. This happened right at the beginning of the transition, in 1990, and the Kosciuszko Foundation, in cooperation with the Catholic University of Lublin, was organizing 5-week courses in Polish business language.
- I took the opportunity without hesitation, because I wanted to learn Polish business terminology - he recalls. - I was the oldest student there at the time.
This trip also became an opportunity to meet relatives he knew only from letters and photos. He visited the Mroczek family on his mom's side and the Brzozowski family on his dad's side.
- They were surprised that I speak Polish so well, oriented to Polish culture, traditions and the current situation in the country - he says. - They admitted that they didn't believe that I was the one who wrote letters to them in Polish. They thought someone was doing it for me. I have very fond memories of these cordial meetings.
In total, he has visited Poland five times, most recently shortly before the pandemic. He went once only with his wife. They also went to Kosice to meet Marysia's family.
- Of Polish cities, I like Cracow the best - Mr. Brzozowski admits. - We were once walking around this city with Marysia and suddenly we came across Brzozowa Street. As if that wasn't enough, we came across an artist who had a sketch of this street among his sketches. Of course, we bought it and it still hangs in our house today.
An interesting career path
Not only Mr. Brzozowski's personal and family life was successful. His professional career was also going his way. Although, because of Marysia, he did not dedicate his life to the military, he never regretted it.
While he was still serving in the Marine Corps the Korean War broke out.
- I consider myself lucky, because I wasn't exactly sent to Korea, but I took part in many exercises and maneuvers, for example, in the Mediterranean - he recalls. - I was trained in defending embassies, taught how to land unobserved in enemy territory. I also went through a lot of different training in communications and intelligence. Unfortunately, about the intelligence service I can't actually say anything, in order not to break secrets that I am obliged to keep to myself, but these were undoubtedly very interesting times.
Already in civilian life, he earned an MBA in Industrial Management from Baruch College. His master's thesis on management control to optimize quality costs was recognized as a challenge to the aerospace industry.
During his career, Ryszard was employed as an industrial quality control engineer at Bell Telephone Laboratories, Sperry Gyroscope Corporation and Grumman Aerospace Corporation (one of the most important aerospace companies in the United States in the 20th century - author's note).
- I worked at Bell Labs for 10 years - he says. - I moved to Sperry for a similar position, and I liked working there because the office was a walking distance from my home. Unfortunately, after a year and a half they started laying people off because the company didn't win a major contract. On Friday I worked my last day, but thanks to good recommendations I started working at Grumman Aerospace already on Monday.
In the 1970s, Mr. Brzozowski moved into the banking sector and played a key role in implementing industrial quality control techniques in banking operations. Over the next twenty-five years, he held senior management positions as an internal consultant for European American Bank and Israel Discount Bank. In addition, he taught statistical quality control at the State University of New York.
Social activist from the heart
In 1999, Richard retired from active employment. That same year, Mrs. Brzozowska also retired. The couple then became heavily involved in community affairs. They were active together on the scholarship committees of the Polish & Slavic Center, the Polish & Slavic Federal Credit Union and the Pulaski Association.
- Marysia and I served on the Credit Union's Scholarship Committee for five years - he recalls. - It was hard work, because just reading and grading essays took a lot of time. Besides, these young people wrote really wonderfully, and if it weren't for the fact that we had to stick to clearly defined criteria, it would have been difficult to decide which essay was the best and its author deserved the scholarship. It was worth it, because thanks to it we knew how many fantastic young people with Polish roots we have among Polonia.
Mr. Brzozowski is still active today in many organizations such as the Polish American Congress (he was the founder of the Polish American Congress Long Island Division and has been its president for 12 years now, although, as he says himself, his position should be taken by someone else), the Kosciuszko Foundation, the Polish Institute of Arts and Science of America, the Polish American Museum, the Pilsudski Institute, the Pulaski Association of Business and Professional Men. As a member of the Polish American Congress Committee, he has filed petitions for compensation for Poles forced into slave labor by Nazi Germany, and is currently co-chairman of the Polish-Jewish Dialogue Committee.
- My social activities come from the need of my heart - he admits. - I want to give back, to give something to society from myself, because I had a good, comfortable life. I always helped where I could help. I became fully involved in social activities once my children were grown. Raising and educating three kids and having a full time job at the same time is not so easy. Not only did I have a lot of responsibilities, but also expenses.
Mr. Brzozowski is also a lifetime member of the American Society for Quality (this is an international association of quality assessment professionals who share their knowledge with thousands of individuals, organizations and associations around the world about quality products, principles and practices in their workplaces and communities - author's note).
He is also active on the board of directors of PSC Community Services and its subordinate organization Blue Parasol Home Care, which is dedicated to providing dignified home health care to residents in need in all five boroughs of New York City.
He has received countless awards and honors for his work. He continues to be active in the life of Polonia and his community. He is most proud of the "Golden Cross of Merit of the Republic of Poland" he received from President Lech Kaczynski.
- I have two versions of the medal - a smaller one and a larger one - he says. - I always wear it to Polish celebrations.
No time for boredom
Despite his age, Mr. Brzozowski lives a very active life.
- A lot has changed because of the pandemic - he says. - All meetings of the organization's boards are now held via zoom or skype. So several times a week I sit in front of the computer and we discuss. My days are heavily filled. My children and grandchildren also visit me. At least once a week I go out to a restaurant with a friend. I don't complain about boredom.
Richard also observes the changes going on around him.
- This is a very different world than in the days of my youth - he says with nostalgia. - I know that change is inevitable. I look at how much Greenpoint has changed, it is no longer a small Poland. There are fewer and fewer Poles among the new residents. I'm a little saddened by this, because old times are gone. The parishes of St. Stanislaus Kostka and St. Cyril and Methodius have a much smaller Polish among the parishioners than they used to. I realize that the younger generation doesn't go to church much. I blame the priests a bit here. The sermon should be interesting, the priest should have energy that will attract parishioners. I go to church, I am a Catholic, but I think priests should get more involved in the Polish community.
Mr. Brzozowski praises the changes that have taken place in the Pulaski Association.
- A few decades ago it looked a little different - he says. - People who had their own interests came together, but in my opinion they actually met mostly socially. The organization didn't help as much as it does now. They were active just among themselves, helping each other, sharing some news from the business world. In my opinion, now cooperation between members is much closer, relations are more cordial, and help goes beyond the organization's circles.
Mr. Richard is still working hard. His insight, advice and solutions are still needed by many people and organizations.
Photo: archives of Mr. Ryszard Brzozowski photographed by IH