John Gidzinski Sr.
Carry your own weight
Lifelong loyalty to friends
Keep commitments, your word is your bond.
Most of these traits sound like the people from Tom Brokaw’s greatest generation. They are a vanishing breed that are not found in the same quantities today. A doctor pulled me aside recently and said of my father that “they literally don’t make them like that any more. The people of today are just not that tough”. These are the people that went through the Great Depression, endured multiple large wars and lived in a time of self sufficiency and sacrifice. FDR said of that time that "This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny." They lived in a time of fewer government handouts. When things were bad, they just lived without. They were glad to have work, any work. They made sacrifices when the family needed food, coal for heat, even just basic safety and a roof over their heads. They made sacrifices when the country needed to defend the freedom of a world in chaos.
Well those traits also describe John Gidzinski Sr., my father. I did not understand such things as a young boy. I did not understand at the time that I was learning by example from a man of such strong character. I did not understand how lucky I was to enter adulthood with so many strong ideas given to me by example. I made missteps as I found independence and was figuring out how to become a man, but as the years past, and as I settled down, I started figuring out what kind of a man I wanted to be. My father’s example became increasingly important to me. I wanted to be more like him in ways that were more than the many wonderful hobbies and working skills that he had taught me and my brother.
My father was not a perfect man, because no man is perfect. He was shaped by a tougher time, a time where doing and sacrificing were necessary, not a period in our history that is softer like it is today. If he had faults they were not what defined him because I looked up to him like no other man in my lifetime as did so many others around us. To my father, character was everything. I now find that to be the most important thing in life.
John Gidzinski was the third child of five who were born to immigrant parents from Poland – George Gidzinski and Anna Figus. His father was a cook and his mother a seamstress, and later a traditional home maker. He entered the world at home on September 13, 1923. He eventually had 4 sisters – Mary, Gene, Alice and Ann. They were all born in and all grew up in Chicago, Illinois. Their first home was on 17th Street in Chicago. Eventually they bought a home on Oakley Blvd, a house that they eventually lost during the depression when their father was injured in an accident that left him unable to work for a year. It was a simple but powerful problem. Injured meant no work, and so, no money. They eventually lost their home to the bank. Today such a crippling accident would have a very different end for the affected family but not in those times. They then lived in an apartment on Division Street in the same neighborhood. During those years, my father went to Crane Technical High School. He was not very fond of the traditional teaching structure but he was actually quite smart with an above average IQ. You would never know this because he did not like to brag about himself but in hundreds of hours of talks about a man's life you learn a lot of interesting things about him. He did like to learn however, reading books all throughout his life and he loved to travel and to sightsee. One of his favorite hobbies was going to museums and always had a list of them to see when he traveled. He drove to the public library every week right up to the last year of his life and always had something to share that he had read in a favorite book. His favorite books were Undaunted Courage and Citizen Soldiers by Steven Ambrose which are about WWII, his favorite subject. One thing we really had in common, was being so spellbound by the great achievements of the US during WWII. This gave us endless hours of discussion about how may planes, how many merchant ships, impossible battles won by shear will, etc. One time I asked him what the beam (width) was of an Iowa Class battleship (WWII) and he said I guess around 110 feet. Then I asked how he knew that and he said - the widest that could get through the Panama Canal of course. He had a good memory for these details and liked to tell stories about his travels and time in two wars. We once saw a working WWII Liberty ship at its berth in Baltimore and the crew yelled down from the deck that the ship was closed to visitors. I yelled up that the guy with me sailed on these ships for 6 years during and after the war. He came down to meet dad and was so struck by his memory and willingness to share his experiences, that we wound up getting a private tour of the entire ship with the crew, while these guys asked my father a million questions about things that they were too young to know about regarding those ships.
I asked him once if the depression was tough and he said - no it wasn’t. “I was a kid that had the greatest parents a kid could every hope to have. There was always something to do. Sure I had my chores to do and we all had to help around the house but we made our own fun. I was always bumming around with my friends.” He told me weeks before he passed away that he had a good life, and that life is what you make of it. He made his core group of friends around 1930. Most of them went to Crane or Lane high School – Chuck, Tony, Jake and Hymie. Those five guys would remain lifelong dedicated friends for the next 80 years, something I find astounding and inspiring. He would also make a core of additional friends in the trades in the 1950’s that were together for the rest of their lives as well – Carl, Mitch, Freddie, Rudy, Gene and Walter among others. The list of all of his friends and the family that admired him and looked up to him was huge. Many cousins have told me over the years how special Uncle Johnny was to them. His character inspired and touched a lot of people.
He also had a great sense of humor and loved to tell stories. As a little kid my bedtime stories were mostly about the war, I just could not get enough of those “war stories” growing up. As I mentioned earlier, he was a humble guy and almost never bragged or talked about his accomplishments. One time however, we had a very long discussion about the world’s problems and he ended with “well now that we have finished solving all the worlds’ problems – because the two of us are so smart – but you I am not too sure about”. That is the funniest thing he ever said to me because in part he saved a high opinion of himself for over 80 years to be used for just that one moment.
In 1941 the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States entered WWII. Like most citizens, he had a sense of duty to join the fight but also great common sense. He used to listen to his father and his friends talk about the terrible conditions of the infantry soldier in the battles of Europe during WWI so when he went to sign up, he decided to join the Navy. He loved the water and would not have to live in a frozen foxhole. Well the Navy recruiter was out to lunch and while he was waiting, the Merchant Marine recruiter explained how they were the same service and he would get to see the world, traveling the great oceans. In the beginning of the war the German U boats were sinking massive amounts of cargo ships and when he went home to tell his mother that he had joined, she showed him a picture of a sinking cargo ship and said “look, this is what you just signed up for”. Well it was very dangerous and many men lost their lives in the service of their country, a higher percentage in the Merchant Marine than any other branch of the service but it was the greatest time of his life. 30 foot seas in a hurricane, the frozen Murmansk run to Russia, tankers being torpedoed in his convoy – it didn’t matter he loved life on the open ocean. He sailed to over 40 countries from Cuba to Africa to China, from 1942 to 1948, eventually going to officer’s training school and becoming a commissioned officer. He told me many times that he probably would have remained a sailor for the rest of his working life, but the 2711 Liberty ships built for the war were quickly decreasing in number and by 1948, the work had dried up. Not a bad adventure for a depression era kid from a land locked city, growing up with little other than food, clothes and shelter. He wasn’t interested in how hard he had it, or what opportunities just fell in his lap. He made the best of it. After returning to Chicago and getting a “real” job, boiling the radiators of diesel engines for the rebuilding of Greyhound buses, he got his draft notice from Uncle Sam for the Korean War, as a guest of the US Army. He went to the draft office with his record to explain how he had already fulfilled his commitment in WWII to which they responded, that the Merchant Marine was not officially a military service of the US of A so he had no credit for his time served during WWII, and oh - congratulations son because you’re in the Army now. This small technical detail was left out of the sales pitch he got in 1942 and so despite his best laid plans, we was in the Army, after all. This did not turn out so bad however because he showed an aptitude for building things and would end up in the construction battalion as a Sergeant in Korea, training that would prepare him for his life’s work as a carpenter.
He met out mother Virginia Tesluk, who was visiting her cousin Gene (one of dad’s lifelong friends) in Chicago down from Winnipeg. They married in the summer of 1953, the hottest day on record in the last 80 years. They had 2 children, George and John Jr. They first lived on Kildare in Chicago with his parents where a few of his sisters also lived after getting married. Eventually he built their home in the woods, 20 miles north of Chicago and moved in just before Christmas of 1956. That house was an example of my father’s work ethic and ability to manage money. He built it for cash using almost entirely his own labor, holding a regular job at the same time and he finished in 9 months. He lived there for the rest of his life.
He used the skills he developed in Korea to begin as a carpenter building tract homes after his return in 1952. He quickly became a supervisor and improved the work flow of the crews by working ahead of them, pre-cutting and laying out all the lumber for them to build each house. He quickly tired of that repetitive work however and went into business for himself doing additions and remodeling. This was his favorite work because every project was different and he always had to solve tough problems. He did everything from an addition on the Majewski home in Hoffman Estates (my first paid job), to a cottage home from an animal barn (ask Cousin Ben about that one), to a bomb shelter during the cold war era. My brother and I both worked for my father at various times along with cousins Rolfe or Ben on occasion. I later became a painter following some of his work and got through college making money as a painter working with Rolfe, Ben, and my brother. He loved working with family even though he needed a lot of patience at times. Once he had me and one of the aforementioned cousins helping him clear out the lumber as he gutted an old multi-flat building in the city. We were walking these long boards down the hall to get them out to the curb when we heard a loud crash, and a bunch of broken glass. My dad runs over to see what happened and we had put the bundle of board’s right through one of the windows at the bottom, pretty much like the Two Stooges. Well, he had more than a few choices words for us and then opened all the windows in the room. On the next load of lumber we put the boards through both parts of an open window at the top, breaking all the glass. He always worked with us after that so that’s how you knew he really loved us, and liked having us around. After one of his surgeries - sons, cousins and nieces were in his hospital room and he refused any pain medicine from the nurse. She asked why after such a major operation and he said “because I don’t have my whole family around that often and I don’t want to miss any of the BS!
My brother and I learned a lot by watching him, and from him teaching us. Woodworking, carpentry, cement work, roofing, guitar, photography, semaphore flag signaling, short wave radio, camping, fishing, etc. When you combine all of the hobbies, working skills and great character examples that he imparted on us over all our years I join with my brother John to say, as our father said about his dad that “you could not have asked for a better father”.
John Gidzinski Sr. passed away peacefully on Friday morning December 4 at age 92, at his home of 60 years. He was in his favorite chair with the fireplace going and both of his sons holding his hands by his side. It was as beautiful a sendoff as any man could hope to have. He is survived by his two sons, George (Marilyn) John Jr. (Robin) as well as his two granddaughters Stephanie and Kirstin. He will really be missed, but please join me in celebrating the wonderful, long life of a great man who knew that life is what you make it, and what a life he made.
December 20, 2015
Audio as well as a PDF copy of this eulogy is available. Contact George Gidzinski at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like a copy of either one.
John Gidzinski's Trip with George & Marilyn
to the Northern California Redwoods
John Gidzinski Sr's 80th Birthday Party
September 13, 2003 in Lincolnshire, Illinois
A walk through the past for John & Virginia's family
This page was last updated 06/19/16