Celebration at the Center

Friday, April 20, 2007 will go down in the history of the Polish American Cultural Center in Cleveland as a very special day.  Judging from the number of cars in the parking lots and on the street, as well as the huge the number of people who packed the Center to capacity, it was evident that something extraordinary was a foot.

All of this traffic and the tremendous number of people pouring into the Center were for none other than cofounder, former President and current executive Director of the Polish American Cultural Center, Eugene Bak.  This time Mr. Bak wasn’t able to remain in the background, or with his customary modesty, play down his role in the organization.  This time he was front and center, singled out for recognition for the hard work, dedication and leadership he had displayed through the years.  He was to receive directly from the hands of Mr. Krzystof Kasprzyk, Consul General of the Republic of Poland  an extremely high honor, the Knights Cross of the order of merit of the Republic of Poland.

There was no shortage of  leaders of the Polish American community and other ethnic organizations, officials from the City of Cleveland as well as from the U.S. Congress in attendance.  Members of the Hungarian American organization, the clergy, his family and of course, many friends and fellow members of the Polish American Cultural Center, all  understood the importance of this event, and were there to congratulate Mr. Bak and recognize his many achievements.

Bishop Ryszard Karpinski began the ceremony with prayer.  He recalled Mr. Bak’s early years  and his family’s  life during and after WWII,  a life rich with adventure, yet with no small measure of hardship and tragedy. Unexpected happy turns of  fate along with  the qualities of courage, faith, resolve and achievement  carried them through and shaped Eugene Bak. He spoke of Mr. Bak’s character and determination, his superb talents and strengths and how he used his gifts to promote Polish culture, to bring together and lead members of the Polish American community to channel their ideas and hard work into an important and effective civic organization.  One by one, the evening’s speakers came forward and testified to Mr. Bak’s accomplishments and qualities.

In an eloquent and stirring speech, Dr. Jerzy Macziuszko expressed his regard and admiration for a man who did so much towards realizing a dream that had been an almost poetic vision:  a bridge between the Polonia of the past and Polonia of the future.  Mr. Ben Stefanski, the current President of the Polish American Cultural Center also paid tribute and gave thanks for Mr. Bak’s efforts, describing the Center’s achievements and many exciting plans for the future.  Sincere and moving tributes to Mr. Bak’s dedication and hard work recalling the early days of the Center were presented by Jolanta Stepien, Vice President and Bernadette Zubel, Director of the Polish Language School.  Dorota Sobieski,  Director of  the highly regarded Opera Circle which she runs with her husband, Jacek Sobieski, Ray Vargas, Director of the Polish dance troupe  “Syrena”, Stanislaw Kwiatkowski Editor in Chief of the Center’s monthly publication“Forum”,  thanked Mr. Bak for his support, leadership and dedication to their work.   Lukasz Waszczuk representing young Polonia, spoke of Mr. Bak’s openness, energy and positive outlook on life which aroused a storm of enthusiastic applause from the audience.

Mr. Bak’s son Marc paid homage to his dad in a moving speech, recalling times from his youth and life with his father.  An expression his dad often used became Marc’s motto in his own life :  “Don’t think about what you’ve done, think about what you’re going to do.”

The highlight of the evening was of course, the presentation of the medal:   the Knights Cross by Mr. Kasprzyk, Consul General of the Republic of Poland, and his speech recognizing Mr. Bak’s dedication and achievements as well as his wishes for a successful future.

Finally, Mr. Bak had an opportunity to speak.  I must confess I had been secretly observing him during all of the speeches made that evening.  I saw him laughing delightedly at the funny anecdotes and his eyes lighting up when the subject or person was dear to his heart.   But most of all, I saw about him an air of modesty that surrounds people of character who have lived well and achieved much.  At times it appeared that he hadn’t quite absorbed that all of this was about him and for him, and that perhaps he might have been thinking “why is everyone fussing about me?  What’s the big deal?”

Mr. Bak’s speech was humble, filled with gratitude to all who had volunteered so much time and effort to build the Center, and who upon this occasion honoring him, deserved just as much recognition and thanks.  He thanked his wife Barbara for her unflagging support, enthusiasm and efforts.  “Behind every successful man there is always a very smart wife”  he concluded with a warm smile.

Additionally I must mention the excellent musical program prepared and performed by Jacek and Dorota Sobieski as well as Agnieszka Bieniek, which gave the evening a special celebratory and elegant tone.
Also, the ladies of the Center’s kitchen, already known in the Polish American community for the excellence of the Sunday afternoon dinners at the Center, displayed their virtuosity once again with an amazing buffet of hors d’oeuvres  and desserts enjoyed by hundreds of attendees.

As I walked about the room, I could overhear the conversations of groups of people standing about enjoying the evening.  I heard the observations and opinions of the attendees and the dominant theme seemed to be one of happiness, pride and satisfaction that they witnessed an occasion of great significance for the Polish American community in Cleveland, honoring such a well liked and respected man.  Many were surprised to learn that Mr. Bak had such a remarkable past and so many accomplishments to his credit.

This occasion serves as an example of how important and beneficial  events such as this are to the Polish community.  They inspire pride and encourage cooperation and unity among its members.  No doubt, there is unity in strength.   Mr.  Bak recognized that essential truth long ago, and knowing him, he already has new ideas and new plans for tomorrow.

Malgorzata Oleksy

Transleted by Zofia Wisniewski

Forum, 5/2007