Why Eugene Bak?

The government of the Republic of Poland has honored Eugene Bak, cofounder and long time President and Executive Director of the Polish-American Cultural Center in Cleveland, with the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland. We can read the following about such orders and distinctions in a law of the Sejm from October 16, 1992:

„Article 13. The Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland is an award for distinguished merit in the field of cooperation between nations. The Order is presented to a foreigner or Polish citizen living abroad whose activities have made a significant contribution to international cooperation and cooperation linking Poland with other states and nations.”

Anyone who knows Gene knows that he is deserving of this distinction. His contribution in promoting Polish culture in the United States has been invaluable, and his participation in forming the image of Polonia has been immense. His tact, bearing, composure, management skills, financial abilities, talent to inspire others, dedication, and work ethic – these are traits characterizing people with charisma, people of an above average caliber. Without Gene, of course, the Center would not be where it is today.

The Bak family lived in the Tarnopol district before the Second World War. After the start of the war and the Soviet invasion of Poland, the entire family – parents, his two-year-old sister, and six-year-old Gene, were deported to Siberia as „uncertain elements”. This was part of the cleansing of Poles from this region.

The fate of the Bak family in Siberia did not differ much from that of the millions of other Poles deported in those times: hunger, sickness, and hard labor. Gene described in his autobiographical book, Life’s Journey, that the family owed its survival in many moments to providence; only in this way could he explain the combination of circumstances by which the family in its entirety made it to the Polish army forming under the leadership of General Anders in the Soviet Union. The father entered the army, and the children, remaining behind with their mother, were sent to a camp for military families in India.

The family reunited after the war in England, where Gene finished middle school. After several years, the Bak family immigrated to the United States. Here the young Gene studied chemical engineering at Ohio State University in Columbus and after his studies began work in a small chemical factory, employing just a few dozen employees, in Franklin, Pennsylvania. Gene studied further and obtained a master’s degree in management. After several years of work, the owner of the factory offered the young engineer a position as director of the company. Under Gene’s leadership, OMG began to grow, expanding its production, specializing, and increasing its market share. The company transformed itself from a private enterprise into a corporation traded on the New York stock market. Branches were opened in Germany and Finland. The director’s patriotism also took him to Poland, with the intent of opening a new department. He returned disappointed. There was still no atmosphere for the undertaking of such an initiative in Poland at that time and the chance to raise the production of catalysts used in the creation of colors and tires to a world level was lost.

After the introduction of martial law, Gene knew that Poland needed help, and he made contact with the charitable organization Americares. Through this organization, together with the well-known businessmen Edward Piszek and Jan Wydro, he collected medicines and indispensable funds for their transport to Poland. After several weeks, the flight with medicines worth millions of dollars landed at the airport in Warsaw. A group from the organization Americares, including Gene, personally escorted the transport and oversaw the proper distribution of the medicines.

At the end of the 1990s, Gene went into retirement, but he soon came to the understanding that his energy and immense experience could be beneficial in the field of community service. He established contact with a group of Poles and people of Polish origin who saw a need to promote Polish culture in this country. They hoped, through the promotion of Poland’s culture and achievements, to have an influence on the image of Poland and Poles, and they resolved to promote their homeland as a modern country with a rich culture and history.

The idea to create the Polish-American Cultural Center in Cleveland was the actual moment of the beginning of Gene’s titanic work. Step by step, in spite of the disbelief and doubts of many people, the idea of creating the Center became a reality. Gene concentrated around himself many others in favor of the idea. Among them were those who understood the need to serve the common good through this kind of work, including men and women in business, science, and culture – Poles who had left their country only recently, those in Polonia who had settled here much earlier, and those who barely remembered their own Polish roots.

At the first official  meeting of the Polish-American Cultural Center, there was no doubt that only Gene Bak could be the President. The new President realized  his potential in full – he organized funds for the purchase of the building that would become the Center and during the renovation he cleaned and took out the garbage. He collected funds for the renovation of the building and new equipment and organized fundraisers and cultural events. The Center became the home of Opera Circle and we began to publish our Forum. The Center also began a Polish school for children, a Polish language school for adults, and a English language school for Poles. There is also a discussion club and seminars on cultural themes.

Each Sunday the hall of the Center is a popular meeting place for Polonia. During lunches one can meet friends and acquaintances to chat; after lunch, there is often some kind of meeting or event with interesting people highlighting different cultural issues.

The Center quickly became a place for the performances of artists from Poland, theater performances, and concerts of Polish music. We have hosted Lech Walesa, who spoke before a full auditorium on the theme of the place of Poland in the modern world. Krzysztof Penderecki, who came to Cleveland to receive an honorary doctorate from Baldwin Wallace College, was also our guest. The Center pulses with Polish life and radiates Polish culture throughout all of the greater Cleveland area. Behind all of these achievements stands Eugene Bak, who organizes, inspires, advises, calms, encourages, works, raises money, and often contributes out of his own pocket.

The Center purchased the building next door with the intent of opening a Center for Polish Heritage, which includes a library, museum, and space for special exhibits. The renovation of the building lasted almost an entire year. And, again, the driving force was Gene Bak. He raised money for the purchase and renovation, cooperated with the architect, supervised the construction, all while directing the daily activities of the Center. The grand opening of the new Center for Polish Heritage took place on September 22, 2005, with the participation of many distinguished figures. Among others at the celebration were Dr. Zbigniew Brzeziński; Jane Campbell, the mayor of Cleveland; Bishop Anthony Pilla, of the Cleveland diocese; and Prof. Dr. Andrzej Rabczenko, the  representative of the Polish ambassador.

Gene’s next goal is to expand the Center – more parking, an outdoor garden with tables, remodeling…

Other organizations in Polonia have recognized Gene’s achievements. In 2001, he received the Polish Heritage Award from the Polonia Foundation of Ohio, and in 2002, the Cleveland Society of Poles honored him with the title of „Good Joe”.

The Consul General of the Republic of Poland, Krzysztof Kasprzyk, will present Gene with the Order of Merit during a special reception on April 20th in the Center, starting at 7 pm. The reception is free and all are invited. Please join us.

Stanisław Kwiatkowski
Translated by Sean Martin

Forum, 4/2007