Tough but tender Mitchell L. Wisniewski raised family of 6

Written By BY MAUREEN O’DONNELL Staff Reporter Posted: 07/22/2014, 02:19am
Array Mitch Wisniewski

As a boy, Mitch Wisniewski thrived on a hardscrabble Wisconsin farm where owning a tractor was about as realistic as finding a Rolls-Royce under a clod of dirt. Draft horses strained to do the plowing and clear tree stumps, and potatoes were on the menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

In his 20s, he survived shots fired from a World War II Japanese machine-gun nest that inflicted wounds so grievous that Army buddies left him for dead.

At 90, he drove himself to his 6 a.m. dialysis appointments.

Mr. Wisniewski made the best of things. While stationed in the Philippines during World War II, he used his farm-boy sense to befriend stray horses. They let him hitch rides, bareback.

He said the rosary in the jungle, a peace-inducing ritual he continued till the end of his days.

After the war, he hoped to return to farming. But a family of six kids meant a detour to a secure job at the U.S. Post Office.

He was a 6-foot-1-inch package of compassion, enthusiasm and wisdom.

He knew how to calm a crying baby. How to intuit which of his kids’ girlfriends and boyfriends were worth keeping around. How to make potatoes into salad, pancakes, soup and dumplings.

Thrilled that a granddaughter was operating a farm in Rockford, he hopped up on a tractor — at age 89 — to help with chores.

In the end, Mr. Wisniewski showed his family how to die.

“He was saying, ‘I’m so proud of you all. I love you so much,’ ’’ said his daughter, Mary Wisniewski. “When everything in his life was burned away, he spent the last month telling us how much he loved us.”

Mr. Wisniewski died June 28 at age 90 in hospice care.

He was born near Division and Milwaukee. As lively as Wicker Park is now, “Old Polonia” was a neon- and accordion-laced fever dream. Taverns on every block featured polka music and sandwiches that could feed four at a time. Music stores and opera and acting companies reminded immigrants of their heritage of Chopin and the Warsaw National Theatre.

Mr. Wisniewski’s mother was a classical pianist trained by a student of virtuoso Ignacy Jan Paderewski. She once heard Caruso sing. She played accompaniment to silent films at Chicago movie palaces.

When the Depression hit, the Wisniewskis moved to northcentral Wisconsin to raise dairy cows. His father built their log cabin, near Eau Claire, by hand. Young Mitch Wisniewski was the oldest of 11, with seven girls who came in succession after him. He learned there is no such thing as women’s work or men’s work — only work. “He didn’t think [twice] about mopping floors or taking care of babies,” his daughter said.

He had a gift with horses.

“He always talked about how smart horses were. One time, there was a horse leading the [plow] team and it refused to go forward,” Mary Wisniewski said. His father urged the horse on, but it refused to budge. “It turned out one of his little sisters was playing in front of the horses” and no one had seen her.

At night, after chores, his mother played the piano and read classics aloud to her children — “Little Women” and “Tom Sawyer.”

While studying agriculture at the University of Wisconsin, Mr. Wisniewski was drafted into the Army. He was stationed in the Philippines at Leyte Gulf, Mindanao and Mindoro. On patrol in the jungle, his daughter said, “He recalls seeing a machine gun sticking out of a cluster of bamboo” before he was hit in the shoulder, elbow and hand.

He had to wriggle out of the clearing on his elbows, backwards.

Mr. Wisniewski’s arm was still in a sling when he returned to Chicago. In 1945, he went to Riverview amusement park with friends, where he met Bernice “Bonny” Niedbalski. She was so taken with the handsome soldier, she returned an engagement ring to her former fiance the following day.

“I knew immediately after I met him,” his wife said. “He was so calm about everything and so loving. Honest to God, we never really had a quarrel.”

Sixty-six years after they wed, the Wisniewskis still held hands.

They raised their family in Roselle in a home he decorated with reclaimed paneling and leaded glass. He made a bobsled for his children by hand, carving the runners out of wood.

The family kept rabbits, chickens and a garden.

His toughness came in handy at Chicago’s old Main Post Office, which spans the Congress Expressway. Fights broke out when truckers lined up at the loading docks, jockeying for position to get in and out quickly. Using Davy Crockett skills honed on the farm, Mr. Wisniewski took out his pocket knife and casually let it sail into a piece of wood. The fighting died.

When news stories about postal worker rages broke, he would say, “The post office drives you crazy.”

After 35 years there, he worked for 20 years as a maintenance engineer for Lake Park High School in Roselle.

Vacations were usually spent on the family farm in Wisconsin. His kids swam in the creek while he went right to the hayloft and got to work.

He had arresting gray-green eyes and a wavy head of hair the envy of men half his age. His daughter likened him to a cross between Clark Gable and Ray Bolger, the rubber-legged actor who played the Scarecrow in “The Wizard of Oz.”

Mr. Wisniewski enjoyed Westerns, including the TV shows “Bonanza” and “Gunsmoke.” He liked the book and film versions of “True Grit” and “Lonesome Dove.”

He had the courage of his convictions, even when they were unpopular. When he saw an African-American family harassed at a restaurant in northern Wisconsin in the 1950s, Mr. Wisniewski warned, “You guys leave them alone or you’ll have me to deal with,” his daughter said. “The other people left and the black family stayed.”

Services have been held.

This weekend, his family is carrying half of his ashes to northern Wisconsin. The other half will be scattered in Canada in the hilly country he loved.

“He was a loving, giving person who worked very hard,” his daughter said. “He reminded me of George Bailey in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ ”

In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Wisniewski is survived by daughters Karen Gurski, Susan Moseley and Bonnie Rimer; sons Jim and David; sisters Bibian Witek, Winifred Niznik, Jean Lorenz and Loretta Mrozik; brothers Robert and Benjamin; 16 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.


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