Upon Turning 80 by Ray Lenarcic

I never thought about turning 80. Because I hadn’t. But now that I’m about to, I was asked by a friend if there was one word that could describe how I felt about becoming an octogenarian. A word? Anyone who knows me would acknowledge that there’s no way I could answer any question in a word. Well, surprise, surprise naysayers-I can. And that word is thankful.

Ray Lenarcic at the Veterans Memorial in Ward Square

I was born on September 11th, 1942 in the midst of mankind’s worst war. I give nothing but thanks to the millions of men and women whose sacrifices, many the ultimate like my 5th grade teacher Marion Bailey’s son Vernon, allowed me and my peers to grow up in a country where the concept of democracy for all had a chance to be realized, where hope reigned eternal, where, with hard work and perseverance, dreams could come true. Special thanks to my six uncles (the “5 fightin Van Slykes” and  Fred Lenarcic) and our surviving WWII vets including Joe Vespasiano.

I’m most thankful for parents whose love for me and my sister Diane knew no bounds and who taught us what and who to respect. Ray and Vivian inculcated in us, along with our beatific Sunday School teacher, Baptist “hell fire and brimstone” preacher Fred Thorne’s wife, Mary, such values as honesty, generosity and humanity (i.e. caring for others). For the most part, excepting periodic lapses of the first on golf courses, my life has been closely guided by those principles

I’ll always be thankful for growing up in Little Falls during a time when friendships were built on face-to-face relationships, when differences were settled peacefully, when playing in the “Gut” (Furnace Street) was a 9 AM ‘til 8 PM experience, interrupted only by lunch and supper.

At 80, I still can vividly recall the faces and voices of Gabby, Bruddie, Cory, Gary, the Balderston bros, Fitzy and all the others-each the product of an upbringing similar to mine-each who went on to “make it.” And an emotional thanks to the one who couldn’t “make it” because he died on Christmas Eve, 1969, in a prison camp in Vietnam. Marine SSgt. Joseph “Stash” Zawtocki who’ll always remain the epitome of the word courage-whose endurance of 684 days of captivity and failed escape effort were worthy of the Congressional Medal of Honor he never received.

Ray Lenarcic at the Veterans Memorial in Ward Square.

Speaking of the “war” which never should have been fought, I’m eternally grateful for the privilege and honor of having known Vietnam veterans Dennis Thorp, Ron Schoonmaker, John Frazier, Al Koziol, Dave Davis, Nicki Stasilli, Freddie Stronko, Mike and Royal Kraeger, Joe Maline, Jimmy Walczak and Agent Orange martyr Eddie Juteau, Jr. among many others. Young men all who in the springtime of their years epitomized Alfred Lord Tennyson’s immortal words in his classic poem, “Charge of the Light Brigade” – “Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do or die.” Uncle Sam wanted them, but when they wanted him to address their war-related problems (PTSD, Agent Orange caused illnesses affecting them and their children), he turned his back- shooting down disability claims and attributing mental problems to pre-war conditions. Because most of the aforementioned continued on with their lives becoming successes in their own right, they will always be for me the definition of true heroes. I might add that on many of my trips taking “Nam vets to the Syracuse and Albany VA Hospitals I was accompanied by my best friend and great veterans’ advocate, the late HCCC Prof. Emeritus, Gary Walt Ruff.

How can I not be thankful for the teachers in my life who, each in his or her own way, played a part in determining the educator I’d become-teachers from Marion Bailey and John Homrighaus at Church St. Elementary to Don Musella and the Misses O’Neil and Magill in Little Falls High to Drs. Chazanof, Roselle and Hagan at Fredonia State-brilliant scholar/educators who taught me the real history of this country along with how to translate it in a manner understandable to 18 and 19 year-olds. And regarding teaching, I’m so dang grateful for the thousands of students who graced my classrooms during a 30-year career. They paid attention to 80-minute lectures, worked diligently and perhaps most importantly, gave me their devotion to the concept “others matter.” In that regard, as Students for a Better World and Kris Cagwin Volunteers, they raised tens of thousands of dollars for a variety of charities, many improving the quality of life of people, especially children (Christmas Adopt-A-Child Program) in the Mohawk Valley. They also gave their time and bodies in memory of the six McCleod children by conducting annual fire prevention programs (Never Again) throughout the area. And I’ll always be grateful for the numerous relationships I developed with former students-perhaps best exemplified by Mike Carroll who has for the past decade donated bicycles to BOCES Migrant Worker children.

I brought an end to the suffering caused by the “retirement blues” by creating the Herkimer County Hunger Coalition in 1999, an organization which never could have succeeded without the hard work and dedication by the following: Kelly “Dawg” Brown, Laura Hailston, Ron Schoonmaker, Dave Petkovsek, Kira Andrilla, Jackie Lewis, Devin McDonald, Sue Tucker, the Gram Lorraine and Food Pantry coordinators along with our many volunteers. The Coalition (hchungercoalition.org) never would have existed without the $3000 investment by Roy “Cordoon II” Henry, the Ricci brothers, Cam and Dwayne (RIP), Conrad Dowhaniak, Jack Lynch and their fellow Herkimer Elks. Kudos also to Rudy Scialdo, Jr. and the Greater Herkimer Lions Club members for their loyal support and Steve MacMurray and WKTV for the great coverage of Coalition events.

Thanks to the many readers (e.g. Pat Crouse and Vince “Irish Balladeer” Colgan) of my “rantings” over the past 45 years whose kind words and encouragement inspired me to keep the pen moving and to Dave Dudajek, Dave Warner, John D’Agostino and the Little Falls Historical Society for bringing said words to light. Thanks also to the Crouse family-Kay’s brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, etc., etc. The love and consideration they’ve shown me will never be forgotten. And I thank the good Lord and my ex-wife Faye for my wonderful, talented, beautiful daughters, Carrie (Michael) and Jennifer (Tim)- absolute joys who not only gave me five blessed grandchildren (Devin, Lindsay, Andrew, Emily and Lauren) but also their undying love and support.

Finally, I’m thankful for the love of my life-my incredible wife Kay who’s blessed with the inexhaustible supply of patience necessary to put up with me, who’s been by my side at innumerable Coalition events/activities, who’s as nice as nice can be to everyone who’s been a part of her life.

So, as you’ve read, upon turning 80 I am indeed a fortunate man thanks to the legion of people who made me who I am. God bless and keep you all safe and well.