Stanley Balzekas Jr., 95: war hero, founder of Lithuanian cultural museum, ‘enriched Chicago’s culture and history’

Born to Lithuanian immigrant parents in 1924, Mr. Balzekas would go on to dedicate his life to preserving and promoting Lithuanian culture in America.

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Stanley Balzekas Jr., owner of Balzekas Motor Sales, in 2009, when it was a Chryler/Jeep dealer.

Stanley Balzekas Jr., owner of Balzekas Motor Sales, in 2009, when it was a Chryler/Jeep dealer.

Brian Jackson/Chicago Sun-Times file

Stanley Balzekas Jr. was a decorated Army veteran who rescued wounded soldiers and spent the final months of World War II in a Nazi prisoner of war camp.

He went on to run his family’s Brighton Park car dealership, which was one of the longest-running car dealers in the city of Chicago.

But Mr. Balzekas was perhaps best known as the founder of the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture, now located in the West Lawn neighborhood on the Southwest Side.

Friends with some of the most powerful politicians in Chicago and Lithuania, Mr. Balzekas, 95, died Thursday.

“Stanley Balzekas was a true friend of Lithuania who promoted the Lithuanian identity across the world through his life-long work,” Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda said in a statement. “I extend my heartfelt condolences to Mr. Balzekas’ loved ones and friends, to the World Lithuanian Community and to all those who hold the ideals he cherished dear to their heart.”

Born to Lithuanian immigrant parents in 1924, Mr. Balzekas would go on to dedicate his life to preserving and promoting Lithuanian culture in America.

Growing up in Chicago’s Marquette Park and Beverly neighborhoods, Mr. Balzekas worked at the car dealership his family founded in 1919.It became a Chrysler dealership in the 1930s and was operated by the family until a 2009 reorganization by the car manufacturer.

“Memories of the auto dealership go back to when I was 10 years old, helping wherever I could,” Mr. Balzekas said in a 2016 interview with Draugas News, a Lithuanian American news organization. “At 12 years of age I began to drive — moving cars around the lot as needed.”

Mr. Balzekas was drafted into the U.S. Army during World War II after graduating from the Morgan Park Military Academy in 1943. As part of the 112th Regiment of the 28th Infantry Division, he fought in key battles, including the Battle of the Huertgen Forest, for which he was awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart for rescuing 12 wounded soldiers.

German soldiers captured him in January of 1945, and he spent the last four months of the war in a prisoner of war camp in Germany.

“During his months of captivity, he was degraded and malnourished, losing nearly half of his body weight,” according to biographical information on the museum website. “Standing in the freezing cold during roll call, even though his last name started with a “B”, as an American POW who would not divulge more than his name, rank, and serial number, he would be the last prisoner called.”

After the war, Mr. Balzekas returned home to study at DePaul University, before taking charge of the family car dealership, then located on Archer Avenue in Brighton Park.

In 1966, he founded the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture. It was originally next to the car dealership at 4012 S. Archer but 20 years later moved to 6500 S. Pulaski, the old Von Solbrig Hospital site.

Mr. Balzekas was worried about the disappearance of Lithuanian culture and identity as the country found it hard to exert its national identity as a republic within the Soviet Union. He founded the museum to help preserve Lithuanian culture and to advance the cause of Lithuanian independence.

Stanley Balzekas Jr., displays a 16th century crossbow before the opening of Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture in 1966.

Stanley Balzekas Jr., displays a 16th century crossbow before the opening of Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture in 1966.

Sun-Times archives

According to a memorial message on the Balzekas Museum website, Mr. Balzekas and his late wife Irene “rallied like-minded friends and volunteers” to establish the museum, eventually turning it into one of the largest ethnic museums in the United States, preserving numerous Lithuanian books and artifacts in Chicago, which is home to the largest Lithuanian community outside of Lithuania.

Mr. Balzekas was known for his jovial personality, his sense of humor and his love of photography. And for many in Chicago, he was known for hosting parties at the museum and at his apartment on the 87th floor of the Hancock Building, where he met with foreign dignitaries.

 At the Chicago Humanities Festival in 2000, left to right, Stanley Balzekas Jr. , Sen. Dick Durbin, Eileen Mackevich and Valdas Adamkus, then president of the Republic of Lithuania, share a moment together before the speeches began. 

At the Chicago Humanities Festival in 2000, left to right, Stanley Balzekas Jr., Sen. Dick Durbin, Eileen Mackevich and Valdas Adamkus, then president of the Republic of Lithuania, share a moment together before the speeches began.

Brian Jackson/Sun-Times files

“Stanley Balzekas spent his life devoted to our community, and we will be forever grateful for his support and friendship over the years,” Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan said in a statement. “As the Founder and President of the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture, he celebrated the notable achievements of Lithuanian Americans, the Lithuanian nation, and Lithuanian communities worldwide and enriched Chicago’s culture and history.”

Madigan’s 13th Ward headquarters and district offices are in the same building as the museum.

Survivors include two sons, Stanley III and Robert; a daughter, Carole, and sixgrandchildren. Services are private, but the family is planning to hold a public “celebration of his remarkable life.”

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