Franciszek Tylka, known as Frank, was a proud Pole and a proud American whose goal in life seemed to be to make others happy. He lived in Hartford, and died Jan. 19 at 71.
His family lived in Ciche, a small village in southern Poland, near the town of Zakopane, now a popular Alpine ski resort in the Tatra Mountains.
The people of the region were called Gorale, or mountain people, and they had strong cultural traditions, their own dialect and cuisine, and a love of singing and dancing. Their houses, mostly built of wood, look like Swiss chalets with gingerbread trim.
Tylka's early years were challenging, even harsh. After the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939, Tylka's father, Wojciech Tylka, was conscripted into the army. Tylka was born April 14, 1940, but he never met his father, who was killed in a bombing raid. His body was never found.
Life during the war was difficult for the family, but Tylka's mother had a small farm where she grew potatoes, and an infamous, stubborn cow only she could milk. When the Germans tried to requisition the cow, she took its halter off to save the rope, and the cow escaped and returned home later. She later hid it, and the Germans never got it.
After the war, the Communists took power, and when officials found a German rifle at Tylka's house, his mother, Apolonia, was imprisoned for one year, and set free only after her brother petitioned for her release. The children were left to fend for themselves. The two oldest went to work; Tylka, who was 7 or 8, worked as a domestic servant at the home of the headmaster of a state school, who mistreated him. He returned home after two years emaciated.
When Tylka was about 14, his mother developed cancer, but she was not eligible for treatment because she had a criminal record, and her son nursed her until her death. He dropped out of school in the seventh grade and worked as a shepherd and a herdsman.
He married at 17, and in 1967, he emigrated to the U.S. along with his wife, Aniela Woznica. The U.S. economy was robust and Tylka found work as a machinist at Electro Methods and Stowe Machine in Windsor, where he worked until he was laid off in 2008. He took great pride in knowing he worked on parts for the NASA space shuttle.
Tylka bought a house in West Hartford and began helping relatives and friends emigrate to the U.S.
"He was the stepping-stone for people coming to America," said Robert Babich, his nephew. Tylka signed papers as a financial guarantor for many people, and often helped them find work. Sometimes families lived with him for six months or longer, until they established themselves. His sister, Sophie Pabich, estimated that he helped about 30 people to come to the U.S. and was godfather to about 15 children, both relatives and friends. He was divorced about 10 years ago.
In the early 1980's, Tylka began working at the Polish National Home in Hartford. Located across the street from the Polish church of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, the club was a community center for hundreds of Polish families, many of whom lived in the neighborhood.
On Sundays, large numbers of the congregation would come to the club for a hearty Polish dinner — "from the church to the chapel," said one member of the club. Upstairs, a large ballroom was the site of weddings, parties and baptisms.
For 25 years, Tylka was one of the bartenders — a favorite of many club members, who would ask for him when they were planning a wedding or other celebration. In his distinctive black vest, he would pour drinks, tell jokes and entertain guests. Of course, he knew everyone at the club, and many called him Uncle Frank.
"He was a peach of a guy," said Andy Bogaski, a member of the board. "He had a good sense of humor and could also tell a story. He was a people guy, open and friendly to everyone." When the club put on shows, Tylka could be found at the mike, telling jokes or stories. He liked to meet with friends from his area of southern Poland to sing Gorale songs accompanied by violin and guitar.
Tylka traveled frequently to Poland, and would return to Ciche, where his older brother is still a farmer, loaded with presents and money. He attended weddings, three-day celebrations in traditional dress, with stringed instruments and accordions accompanying the lusty singing of Gorale songs.
Tylka became an American citizen as soon as he was able, and frequently voiced his pride in his new country. Voting was a privilege he loved.
Despite his limited education, he was an avid reader who read several books every week, The tales of Harry Potter, the orphan with magic powers, resonated with him, and he devoured each volume in Polish translation.
He had an innate sense of justice. Once, visiting a village in Guatemala, he and the others on the tour were urged to give crayons and coloring books to a group of children, but Tylka noticed another child out in a boat.
"Frank made a point to make sure that kid got things too," said Gavan Meehan, a close friend who was on the trip. "He had a keen sense to be fair to everybody."
Tylka enjoyed fishing, especially for trout along the Farmington River, or roasting kielbasa at a campsite. He was an enthusiastic cook, known for his large portions of Polish delicacies, like potato pancakes and goulash. He was an admirer of Pope John Paul, and went to Rome for his beatification in 2011.
He developed cancer and died from complications of the treatment.
"He's someone you'd call a friend after just barely meeting him," said Meehan. "He wanted to spread happiness in this world, and he did."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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