Underneath the velvet, there was steel, the kind made in Pittsburgh by hard working men with Polish surnames.
Stan Rychlicki was a great American. When you hear that phrase, Great American, you tend to think of famous political leaders, captains of industry, scientists and inventors. Stan was none of those.
To those of us in Caledonia, he was the nice old man who always had a smile on his face and a story to tell. He was a bright spot in your day, a brief chat that left you grinning, a friendly face in the chaos we all create for ourselves. That was the velvet.
But he was a warrior. Hitler and Tojo decided they were going to rule the world. Stan and his generation saw it differently. Turns out Stan and his contemporaries were right.
When America was dragged into WWII, Stan tried a couple of times to sign up for the fight BEFORE he turned 18. The military rejected him because he had some problems with his teeth. He politely informed the United States Army that it was his intention to shoot Nazis, not bite them.
His country was in a fight, and Stan was not one to sit back and let others do his fighting for him. He kept at it until they let him enlist, and then he did his duty with honor and distinction. In my view, the United States owed him a great debt. But when I mentioned that to him, he flipped the script. In his version, his service was the debt he owed to America.
Every Memorial Day he stood at attention at the Matthew Cleary Legion Post in Caledonia, as his town honored those who gave their lives in defense of our way of life. I mean EVERY Memorial Day, in uniform, well into his 90’s. The medals on his chest were bronze or gold or silver. But the backbone that held him at attention while his buddies were remembered was pure tempered American steel. Guys like Stan, you cross them at your own risk.
He was a working man. My generation blathers on incessantly about “careers” and “meaning.” Stan had a family to feed. Like virtually all the men of his generation, he got up every day and went to work.
A Pennsylvania boy, he started out in the coal mines, down in the pit, risking his life every day. When he got the opportunity, he went to work for ARCO, the oil company, for 35 years, not because it offered him personal fulfillment or a line on his resume, but because it was an honest living.
It wasn’t easy. He worked inspecting pipelines, and that meant spending his days walking up and down the line, over hills and through valleys. He walked, and he walked, and he walked. Every day he walked. Sick or well, happy or sad and, sometimes, just plain exhausted…he walked. He walked over the Appalachian Mountains, through rolling rivers, past rattle snakes, from 10 degrees below zero to 100 degrees above, in snow, rain and sleet.
Until, at last, he walked his way into the Guinness Book of World Records as the man who had walked the most miles for his job of anyone in history. The estimated total is just shy of 137,000 miles. That is more than halfway to the moon. It’s the approximate equivalent of walking from New York to Los Angeles, and back again, 23 times. Those legs that carried him all over the countryside were steel, straight from a blast furnace, and hardened by time.
He was a family man. The life that he built for his family in our quiet little town was like something out of a family comedy from the 50’s. He loved his beautiful wife, Rose, and he loved his kids. He was, in the words of his son, Joe, a mentor and a friend. That was the velvet.
But he also taught his children the honor and obligation of hard work. He taught them to respect legitimate authority, and there were consequences when those lessons were ignored or forgotten. His home was warmed by endless and unconditional love, but it was built on a foundation of steel.
He was a legend, the last lion, so to speak. I grew up around World War II vets. There was Joe Fili who drove a landing craft on D-Day, and George Traber who fought at the Bulge, and battled the memory of the horrors he saw when his unit liberated a concentration camp. Until his death, Stan worked to make sure that we remembered the sacrifices. But that wasn’t all.
If you were having a walk for charity, he was there. Ringing the bell at Christmas for the Salvation Army? He was there too.
I like older people. I like the way they talk, the way they lived their lives, the things they have to teach that my generation never had to learn the hard way. In my lifetime, I have never known a man so advanced in years who was a greater or more visible part of his community than Stan.
For so many, old age is a grim struggle to survive. For Stan, each day was a day to be lived, to make contact, to reach out and make someone else’s day just a little brighter. It was the velvet that made him that way, but it was the steel that made it possible. There just wasn’t any way to keep him down.
Every time I saw him, we spoke. Not because I’m polite to my elders (and betters), but because I enjoyed it. I learned something every time. It wasn’t always a grand universal truth. Sometimes it was just an object lesson on making yourself happy by simply BEING HAPPY.
One time in particular, we crossed paths coming out of the grocery store. I stopped and sat on the hood of my car and we talked about half a dozen things. I’m not even sure, today, what the topics were. Before we knew it, we had been in conference for an hour.
I don’t know what it was. Did I look at my watch? Did my attention wander? Was I looking busy? I’m not sure. But this is what he said.
“Geez, we been at it for an hour,” he said as he reached out and shook my hand. “I’m gonna let you go. Thanks for listening to an old man’s stories.”
I told him I loved those stories, and I told him it was my honor to listen. He looked me in the eye and told me I was an important man who had better things to do.
Well, I’m not an important man. In the presence of a man like Stan Rychlicki, with his life, his accomplishments, I really don’t amount to much at all. I wish we had talked all day. I wish that, as I have imagined many times, I had gone to see him once a month just to sit and listen. I wish I could listen to him now.
Stan Rychlicki was a great patriot, a hero, a working man, and a family man. He was a big part of the backbone of the only community I will ever call my home. He was a gentle man, as smooth as velvet.
But, under the velvet, there was steel.
PHOTO CAPTION: Stan Rychlicki. (Photo Courtesy of Dale Volker NYS Senate Page)