When I got into work last Tuesday morning, there was a telephone message on our answering machine. My former fellow Kankakee Community College trustee, Dick Frey, had left me a message. Wally was in very bad shape. I had been gone for a long weekend and did not know. I quickly jumped in my car and made my way to Butterfield Senior Care Center. When I got to Wally’s room, I saw his son, great-niece, and friend Terry Weakly all looking exhausted in his room.
I walked to his bedside and heard his raspy breathing. His eyes were closed. As I often did, I took his hand and would like to believe he squeezed mine most gently. He did not appear conscious, so after a while, I excused myself and went back to work, leaving the family with my dear friend. I was called two hours later. The giant man in my life these past eight years was gone.
For many who have read my column during the years, this was Walter Pieszka, the Polish-born man who had been forced to be a painter at the Auschwitz death camp in 1940, drafted into the German Army in time to suffer the terrible winter and war in Stalingrad, and who survived situation after situation, including defecting from the German Army and joining the Free Polish forces in Scotland.
Introduced through our mutual doctor, Phil Hayes, I first wrote a column about this Bonfield resident’s incredible life story in early April 2012, entitled “He Wore Two Uniforms.” It was too long for my normal column, but my then-editor, Phil Angelo, gave me three full pages that weekend.
The friendship became quite permanent and I believed someone should write a book about his life. I tried the author of “Unbroken,” but she no longer wrote because of health issues. Then, through a friend, I conversed with Mark Bowden, of “Black Hawk Down” fame. While he did not have the time to write, he encouraged me to try. It took three years, countless interviews with Wally and the patience of a saint in my wife.
In December 2017, the book, now entitled “The Ultimate Survivor,” was printed. We chose to self-publish so Wally could see the product rather than wait years for some publisher to agree to print it. That Christmas, as I brought the shiny covered first edition to Wally, he ran his finger over the front cover with the picture of him in both Nazi and Allied uniforms. As he ran his fingers down the slick hardcover, a tear slipped down his cheek, and I knew I had made the right choice.
The year that followed had Wally with me in several speaking engagements, including the Kankakee Library, Love’s Book Store, his church in Goodrich and our local community college. Wally came alive when asked about his life. He had new energy. We visited almost weekly even after the book was done. Early in our relationship, he called me and asked a favor. Would I write an article for him? I immediately agreed.
The gist of the article was about the vandalism of his late wife’s monument in the Goodrich cemetery. He was more than angered, a trait I never had seen in him. He wanted the culprits punished by a newspaper article. I went with him to the cemetery and saw the two angels that had been affixed to the top of the beautiful monument were gone, leaving only a ripped board sitting on top of the stone. The ladies of his church had donated one of the two angels, and Wally had purchased the other.
We wrote the article and soon printed it. By now, I had gained some readership from many different places. All of a sudden, I was getting offers from some of my readers to contribute to restore the angels. Wally politely refused. At one speaking engagement, I related that story and made a promise that, upon his death, I again would attempt to replace those angels through donations from my readers. I had received offers from Florida, California and many Midwest states. I now have cleared it with his family and his church and now am asking for donations to replace those two angels.
I am asking for no more than $10 from anyone and want the contributions made to Wally’s church. If the funds fall short, I have local benefactors who will make up the difference, and if there is a surplus I want the church to keep the balance in his memory.
I think I made a difference in Wally’s life. I think the vitality I saw the past few years was from his interaction with the book. The loss of his dear wife, Mary, no longer depressed him as often and he was living life again. At his 96th birthday celebration a month ago, he was in incredible spirits along with his two brothers-in-law, who are also in their 90s.
At the same time, he made a difference in my life. Not only did I gain a true friend, but I wrote my first book. Whether I ever write another still is to be determined, but because of Wally, I did one. Without his story and without his cooperation and efforts to recall, dig out of family history and open up about some very painful parts of his life, the book would not exist.
So, if you feel compassion and would like to help make Wally and Mary’s grave the way it was intended, you can make a contribution to his Goodrich Catholic Church at: The Sacred Heart Church, 207 E. 5th St., Herscher, IL 60941.