In Memoriam, R. Fred Kolowich (aka my dad) 1924-2012. Here's what I shared at his memorial service on Saturday in Hilton Head, South Carolina:
It’s August 4th...and this is the time of the summer when many of the school kids in this room get really serious about their summer reading lists. And even adults are picking up those books they promised themselves they’d read over the summer.
I’ve been doing some serious reading, too, of late. An extraordinary biography, written with passion, insight, and humor. An autobiography, in fact...meant never to be published or even made public. It is the story of Fred Kolowich, written in his own words.
As I reflect back on my dad’s life, I see a montage of many highly personal snapshots -- moments of time with him:
--learning sailing from him on the rail of the Folkboat;
--building science projects with him in the Kenwood basement;
--cold late nights flooding the backyard skating rink;
--keeping our good humor during an 8-hour traffic jam on the Pennsylvania Turnpike;
--standing atop a still-smouldering ruin of a house, trying to figure out how to reconstruct 30 years of disintegrating business records saved only by the fact that tons of water got to them before the fire.
There are thousands of such moments that have flashed through my mind over the last two months...along with the scenes of dad that are seared into my mind from the 16mm movies we’ve watched maybe 200 times over the years.
But my experience of dad was different as I read the pages he wrote, for at last I felt like I was inside his head. And I understood so much more of what formed him, what motivated him, what influenced him, what disappointed him.
And because most of you will never read this private volume, I thought I’d share a few passages: Fred Kolowich, in his own words.
The story of dad in these pages can be summed up in seven words: frugality, faith, integrity, love, laughter, and family.
Frugality: Dad was a true child of the depression...which for the most of you who are under 85 years old was nothing like our recent Great Recession. Dad’s family went precipitously from pillar of the community...shining, proud example of immigrant achievement...to losing everything.
“We lost everything in the Depression and the bankruptcy,” he wrote, “with the exception of the frame house, heavily mortgaged, near New Baltimore, Michigan. All four of us were sent to Monroe, Michigan -- the boys to The Hall of the Divine Child and my sister to St. Mary’s Academy. The Sisters took us in, even though I overheard that all my mother could pay was $25 a month each for room and board. We were home for the holidays and over the summer. How Mother suffered during those years!”
Dad’s father made his way back to the top of Detroit’s financial circles over the next 20 years before he died -- in dad’s words, “an ambitious but shy, acquisitive but very generous and philanthropic individual.” Though he died when my dad was barely 33 years old, my grandfather’s story clearly affected Dad’s story, and are at the root of his fiscal conservatism...and his philanthropic generosity.
Faith: You may know that dad felt he was called to the priesthood...but like everything Dad did, there was an interesting story behind that:
“My vocational intentions were common knowledge among my classmates, since we had to write a ‘Career Book’ as a major part of Civics II. I wrote mine on the priesthood. I went to Sacred Heart Seminary to take the entrance exam there. The test, which was expected to take an hour and a half, was a passage from Caesar’s Gallic Wars, followed by three simple sentences which we were to translate from English to Latin. I knew the passage practically by heart, and I finished the exam in about 20 minutes. I brought the Dean my exam and was promptly reprimanded by him: ‘What are you, as smart alek? Go back to your seat and check your paper. I don’t want to see your face up here for another hour.”
Sunday morning I received a phone call telling me I had flunked the exam...and he was told that I had flunked the exam.”
Dad was told by the dean that his parents were crazy to have sent a boy who was bound for the priesthood to public high school. “He stated that if I went to St. Paul’s High School for a year, took my first year of Latin, regained my faith in religion classes and took a year of Chemistry, I might be considered for admission the following year.”
Dad did all that, but decided that the experience with the Archdiocese of Detroit had turned him off, and he entered the seminary at St. Michael’s College in the Edmundite order, instead.
“By June of 1946 I told my superiors that I felt that at just 22 years of age, I didn’t feel ready to commit myself to perpetual vows. In retrospect, as much as I admired the Society of St. Edmund, its work and its members, I always felt like I was an outsider looking in, I still consider them my second family.”
Integrity: After 2 years in the service, Dad began to study business alongside his father. They collaborated on both operating businesses in the shipping and trucking areas...and in real estate.
He summed up his business education with these words:
“Dad was now afraid about lack of knowledge of a particular business. He often told me, “Fred, there’s no such thing as the navigation or hotel business: there’s only one kind of business, and that’s business. Buy a business, put honest, capable and loyal men in charge, keep track of the figures, and you can make a success of it.”
A good part of Dad’s writing is a chronicle of a string of business dealings which I won’t bore you with. But one of the common themes is one of high integrity...and never trying to squeeze the last dollar from anything.
Love: The story of how Dad met Mom is cute in the retelling. “I met Marilynn Therese Convery formally at the Punch and Judy Theater in Grosse Pointe, Michigan in early November, 1950. I had a date with Barbie Wood and sitting right in back of us in the theater was my close friend, Bert Nichol with a pretty dark-haired young lady. We agreed to meet for a drink afterward, and I mentioned to Bert’s date that I thought she looked familiar. Her reply was, “Well, I ought to. I’ve worked across the hall from you for a couple of years.” Then it clicked. Both our offices faced the elevator lobby on the 11th floor of the Griswold Building, and Lynn sat at a desk facing the lobby. The door was always open. I remembered how attractive she was, a sharp dresser, a pleasant smile. But shy as I was, I didn’t think I would have had a chance with such a lovely thing, so I would just nod or say nothing.”
What’s more, she was dating a big-time football player from University of Michigan. But one thing led to another and: “Just before Memorial Day in May, we went on the Shakedown Cruise of one of the Bob-Lo excursion boats. There on the hurricane deck of the S.S. Columbia I proposed to her.”
Lynn Kolowich was the love of dad’s life...and with him, the heart of an extraordinary family.
Dad’s writings also betray his goofy sense of humor. He describes the twists and turns that led to him owning 75% of a horse-racing track in Louisville, Kentucky, saying “This was a shock. I don’t particularly like gambling, am deathly afraid of horses, and would much rather clip coupons than deal with greedy state legislators needing money for re-election campaigns.”
Then he goes on to explain his antipathy to horses: “I had only two prior experiences with equines. One was when a burro sneaked up behind me and bit me on the butt when I was watching my children at the Belle Isle petting zoo. The second was when my two older brothers put me bare-back on a horse when I was eight, gave the horse a whack, and I went flying, holding the horse’s mane until we reached Lake St. Clair, where he stopped, bent down to get a drink of water, and I went flying into the lake over his head.”
Family: The story of the Kolowich clan is well-chronicled, and I won’t repeat it here. 6 children, 23 grandchildren, and 5 great-grand-children SO FAR...and many of them are here in this church, living testament to what Dad and Mom built together.
“My children all seem to have found a degree of happiness with their spouses and children, and for that we are most grateful to the good Lord.”
And the emphasis he placed on a good education is reflected in his most generous gift to each and every grandchild...that has financed a part of their college education.
Frugality, faith, integrity, love, laughter and family. These are but some of the qualities of a man who was also a generous friend and a member of his community. We keep hearing the stories from those who’ve known him. This church, for example, may well have been built without him...but he was right at the very heart of the effort.
“There are probably a few things in my life thus far that I wish had happened a little differently,” he wrote. “But in all, the good Lord has showered us with many, many gifts, not the least of which is my splendid family. Material things we have had aplenty, and I only hope that we have shared enough of them with not only our children and grandchildren, but also with others less fortunate than ourselves.”
“I by no means consider my mission complete, and I hope that God affords me the opportunity to right the wrongs I have done, to earn the love that those around me have given me, and die a much better person than I am at this moment. Pray for me.”
Dad, your mission truly is complete, and you’re back together with Mom. We will miss you both...but your influence and legacy will be with us every day.